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Collect the Right Attendee Data to Improve Post-Pandemic Events

As associations market their conferences and other in-person events in a landscape altered by the pandemic, data becomes increasingly important. An expert suggests what to research to improve events and how they’re marketed.

The pandemic forever changed events. While the prevalence of vaccines and lower community spread has many organizations jumping back in to their in-person conferences, concerns related COVID-19 are still affecting attendee behavior. To better navigate events during these changing times, it’s important to have data about member and attendee wants and needs, said Rich Vallaster, director of marketing and events industry relations at Personify, during ASAE’s Marketing, Membership & Communications Conference earlier this week.

“The new normal is changing,” said Vallaster. “That’s why market research is so critical. What is a temporary mindset? And what is much more permanent?”

During the “Understanding Your Audiences: Effective Market Research for Post-Pandemic Events” session, Vallaster discussed the importance of researching where your audience is, in order to better prepare for events.

“I think a lot of associations used to feel like market research was sort of a nice to have,” Vallaster said. “To me, it’s switched to a must have.”

Right now, associations are all over the map when it comes to in-person events. Vallaster said some associations have told him they don’t anticipate going back to in-person until 2024, while others have been back since they were allowed by their jurisdiction. Some organizations have had only about 50 percent of pre-pandemic attendance, while others have had record-breaking years. Because of this huge spread, it’s important to do research to figure out where your organization might stand with its events.

“I know this seems obvious, but most people don’t start off with the goal,” Vallaster said. “The goal is going to guide your research.”

Common research goals include understanding who your current attendees are, understanding what pain points stop attendance, learning any factors that motivate attendees or demotivate them, and looking at competitor events—a category altered by the pandemic. “Honestly, sometimes the competitive landscape now is not another event,” Vallaster said. “It’s staying home.”

Types of Research

There are several types of research that can provide a better sense of the market or event strengths. Vallaster offered a few examples of the type he thought would be helpful to associations, such as in-depth interviews with attendees, focus groups, online surveys, and audience journey audits. He also suggested these more staff-intense methods that get real-time event feedback:

Intercept surveys. Rather than waiting to send a survey a week after the event is over and memories have faded, intercept surveys talk to participants as they let out of a keynote, panel, or luncheon and ask one or two questions in the moment.

Attend alongs. This is where a staff member follows an attendee throughout an event (with the attendee’s permission). “You’d be surprised how people navigate your events,” he said. “Where do they get disengaged? Where do they go to start? How many sessions do they attend? Trying to follow and understand how they consume your event is really fascinating.”

Drill Down to Get Better Data

When doing research, it’s better to do more than a broad poll by digging deeper into what key audience segments want.

“When you’re analyzing your research, the more you can get down into affinity and understand each one of these audiences’ motivations, you’re better off,” Vallaster said. He likes to look at groups like first-time attendees, second-year attendees, and third-year attendees.

Second-year attendees are great because “they’re on the bubble. They’ve already attended once. How do we connect with them enough to come back for the third year?” He said third-year attendees are a good choice because once they’ve come three times, they’re likely to come back, so finding out what they love can help you figure out what’s working well.

Lapsed attendees who came back to the event also provide useful data. “That’s what you’re going to want to take to your marketing team and say, ‘These are the reasons why these people re-engage. We need to sell that,’” Vallaster said.

He noted there are two additional groups to pay attention to today: people who are attending in person for the first time after coming to your virtual event and younger members.

“I know a lot of associations have struggled with ‘How do we get younger members to our event?’” Vallaster said. “But that’s who’s coming back right now. At least we’re seeing that anecdotally. They’re more comfortable with travel. And let’s not forget about the Great Resignation and the Great Retirement. A lot of folks that came to your event in the past are no longer in your industry.”

(megaflopp/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Rasheeda Childress

By Rasheeda Childress

Rasheeda Childress is a senior editor at Associations Now. She covers money and business. Email her with story ideas or news tips. MORE

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