Leadership

The Value of Leading With Meetings Data

By / Oct 21, 2018 (SARINYAPINNGAM/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Your events can tell you a lot about attendees’ habits now, thanks to robust analytics. But they also have the potential to give you valuable input on your organization’s larger goals.

Associations are often pushed to be more “data-driven,” which is a good thing. But given all the data that leaders have the potential to access now, it’s worth asking: What kinds of data do you trust to take the wheel? How much of it is truly useful?

Knowing who is—and isn’t—attending can help you address strategic goals.

I’d been inclined over the years to think that meetings data is mainly useful for associations when it comes to thinking about, well, meetings. It’s important for the meetings department to understand things like how far attendees are willing to travel to your event, what sorts of content and education formats resonate with them, and what makes for a repeat attendee. Important stuff, but not strategy stuff.

But after working on a feature for Associations Now on the value of meetings-related data, I’m more inclined to think that association leaders should take a closer look at that information to help them with their big-picture decision-making too.

Meetings technology is getting better at understanding attendee behavior at the venue. One association, the Society for Critical Care Medicine, set up a “command center” at its most recent meeting to monitor video feeds of session attendance, both to be able to respond to overflow needs but also to get a sense of which sessions are popular. But deeper than that, associations have been able to acquire and act on data that reveals which kinds of members are streaming through education sessions and across tradeshow floors.

As Julie Sciullo, CEO at Association Analytics, points out, it’s now possible to “slice and dice” attendee information from the moment of registration to the last flight out to determine what experiences appeal to which member segments. “What do attendees from small organizations care about? What do medium-sized ones care about? What do CEOs care about? You can actually see what topics are trending up and trending down when you look at that,” she says.

That knowledge can give your association a lot of power when it comes to thinking about outreach to members for initiatives beyond meetings. “Once you have the ability to collect this information, your personal identifiable information and your education information is aligned,” says Joe Colangelo of Bear Analytics. “And then you can start doing some really cool things. You can see that people who took these two sessions in tandem are more likely to then go to this session versus another session. And then you can, of course, tailor your marketing to that.”

The kinds of information you can track are practically endless: best and worst days and times for events, number of education tracks each attendee participates in, top sessions for first-timers and senior members, what members prefer as opposed to nonmembers. And, of course, you can gather similar information about your nonattendees. The challenge, of course, is to know what kind of information you want to gather before the event begins.

“Make sure you’re gathering the right data [that] gets you the answers you need to tell the story you want to tell to volunteers or the board of directors about the event,” SmithBucklin’s Amanda Darvill says.

Imagine broadening that conversation, though, beyond looking at where potential attendance growth is. If your strategic plan is focused on expanding advocacy efforts, have your data-gathering for the annual conference run through that filter too. Or if you’re trying to get more emerging professionals or global professionals to become members, knowing where you stand among those groups as attendees at your event can help you understand how steep a hill you may have to climb.

I suspect that many association leaders don’t think about meetings data as much as they could because meetings are often the most successful segment of an association’s portfolio, and leaders tend to focus more on trouble spots than the areas where things are running smoothly. But that success means you have a potential trove of data that can help you better run your organization. It’s worth a leader’s attention.

How has your association leveraged meetings data to serve the organization’s larger goals? Share your experiences in the comments.

Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. More »

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