Events have always been a way of engaging with a community and taking its pulse. However, the event industry has been lagging behind for a while now in terms of data collection and its translation into knowledge to create more engaging experiences. Last year forced a transformation in how event organizers collect data, giving them access to insights about audiences they didn’t dare dream of in pre-pandemic times.
While technology has helped us to efficiently collect impressive amounts of data, the question of how to use it remains largely unanswered. The huge leap in data collection has not always meant a similar development and innovation in how events use the data and turn it into knowledge. More often than not, the extent of data usage has resulted in a huge database of names and email addresses. While this is valuable and can help create a loyal community around events, make promotion easier, and increase ticket sales, these are just a few of the many things data can help with. If you still have your doubts about whether those numbers you’ve been staring at, unable to decipher, can help you, James Ewan talks about four ways in which big data will change the event industry in this article.
Understanding how data can be collected, and the multitude of uses it can have, is not easy. I’ll divide this process into three steps and discuss each in detail, starting with data collection, data interpretation, which ultimately leads to its transformation into knowledge, and finally, the use of the knowledge acquired from interpreting the data to create an event that meets the public’s demands, interests, and needs.
If you are running an online or in-person event, you can collect pretty much any kind of data you want about your audience. That does not mean you should. Most people go wrong in thinking that the more data they collect, the more they will know. This often results in overwhelming amounts of information that end up not being used because managing and interpreting it is an effort many organizations can’t commit to.
At the same time, putting data into context is important, and this usually means sometimes collecting more than you might think you need. Most times, you’re only able to extract useful information from a set of data when you pair it with another set. How should event organizers go about it then? The kinds of data you need to collect and analyze depend on the specific needs of your organization. Before deciding on which sets of data are relevant for you, remember to clearly define your goals and objectives.
You can then proceed to collect data online or onsite. Both sets will be valuable for different reasons. The pre-event online data will help you make decisions about your upcoming event as you plan it. If you need to reduce the cost of promotional activities, for example, it might be useful to understand where your audience is, and focus on those marketing channels, geolocations, as well as what content they respond best to. This will help you make wise decisions on how to distribute your marketing budget and spend wisely.
Similarly, if you’re not sure what to add to a line-up, you can get former attendees involved, in exchange for a small gift. Audiences are not normally engaged enough in the creation of the content of an event. You can change that by sending a survey to understand the audience’s interests and how you can meet them. Google Trends offers great insights into the most common searches, and you can compare current with historical data to map out the development of trends, and ultimately, make your own predictions. In addition to this, looking at your competitors’ reports or surveying potential attendees can tell you a lot about the industry you operate in, what your public expects, and how to stay relevant.
Collecting data onsite has evolved beyond the old feedback form, and there are numerous innovative, technology-powered ways to collect useful data these days. You can now gather and analyze data in real-time to manage an event as you go. For example, C2 Montreal gave their attendees RFID badges that collected their location data. Organizers could see where attendees gathered and which event places received less traffic. This not only meant they could make changes on-site—for example, send more staff to the populated areas to assist attendees—but they also gathered valuable information to help them plan future events. Crowdshaping is now made easier by technology.
Event apps are another great way to engage with all of your attendees. Let’s face it, if you’re running large-scale events, you will hardly have a chance to interact with the participants. And even if you do, it’ll only be with a fraction of them. Event apps can help you collect data about attendees that you would only otherwise be able to get in face-to-face interaction. For example, if attendees can ask speakers questions through the app, you can use that data to learn about their interests and use it in planning the content next time.
In the future, event organizers that don’t look at this data will most likely offer their attendees an inferior experience compared to their competitors.
Analyze & Interpret
You have a lot of data that you gathered from previous events. What do you now do with it? Hopefully, by this point you have already defined your objectives and know exactly what you want your future event to look like, you’ve set the KPIs and you just need to find a way to hit them.
Analyzing and interpreting data will help you find ways to use your resources efficiently and meet your goals. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s not enough to look at just one set if you want to extract knowledge from data. Indeed, only a number of sets of data combined and compared can offer you the big picture and help you understand who your attendees are, how they behave, and how they engage with your event.
To make this mammoth task easier, you can break down the data into quantitative and qualitative information. Quantitative data will tell you things like how many tickets were sold, how many people attended the event, a demographic split of attendees by gender, location, profession, etc., the number of visitors on your website, the number of newsletter subscribers, social media engagement evolution before, during, and after the event, and much more.
Google Analytics or social media insights will help you understand where the traffic on your website comes from and which marketing channels you should be using more, how to divide your budget accordingly and avoid spending on channels that don’t bring in a lot of traffic. This data will also tell you who visits your website and allow you to create accurate lookalike audiences to advertise to. Similarly, looking at social media insights will give you a better idea of the type of content your followers engage with most, so you concentrate on creating content that drives up engagement.
The qualitative data is the most fun to analyze. It offers an insight into people’s behaviors and psychology, and while the learnings can sometimes be simple assumptions, if you do it long enough you will get better at getting it right. Whether through feedback forms and surveys, suggestion boxes, or sponsor reports, you can learn what the most popular features of your event were, the most popular speakers, or the most popular content.
The distinction between qualitative and quantitative data doesn’t mean you can separate the two when interpreting them. For example, your audience demographics might explain why some of the content was less popular. Make sure to look at the whole picture when trying to make sense of the data, to take the right lessons from it.
Transform into Knowledge & Use
Now that you know what worked and what didn’t, you can start planning your next event. The power of data is its ability to enable more accurate predictions. At this stage you will see the benefits of having collected and analyzed information about your previous events, your competitors, and the industry in general. The combination of different sets of data will set you on the right path towards powering up your next event.
Once you know which were the most popular talks and workshops, you can decide which speakers you can book or which topics you should add to your next event. The same goes for sponsors. While it might be very beneficial to accept all sponsors, if you notice some were not well received by the audience, you should probably look for more relevant ones that are in line with your event and audience.
When looking at data you don’t just learn about your past event, you’ve already started learning about what your next event should look like. Moreover, you learn who your audiences are and that gives you a great start in planning the marketing and communication strategy. You will be able to plan resources better and spend the budget on the channels and audiences that are more likely to be interested in your event but also offer personalized experiences that will turn attendees into loyalists.
Before you start to collect data just for the sake of it, think about your organization and its needs. Define what your challenges are and what needs improvement. Without being too critical, look for the flaws in your event, because those are the areas you can improve upon. Find the data that can tell you that, and look for the reasons and the opportunities. Sometimes it will be an iterative process, there will be a few trials and errors, but the more you analyze, the better you will become at learning from it. Data can communicate different things to different people, but at the end of the day, it’s up to you to understand what the data is telling you. The sooner you do this, the sooner you’ll develop the agility needed to experiment, adapt, and personalize your events.
If I have convinced you of the importance of gathering data and it now seems less of a hurdle, then my mission has been accomplished. I do have one more suggestion: be creative with how you collect data. I am NOT encouraging anyone to disregard data privacy rules and regulations. There are plenty of legitimate ways to collect more data than you’ll likely ever need. But if I have made you curious, and you want to start experimenting with a few new ways, here’s a great list of 11 ideas you can pick and choose from.