Originally published May 1, 2017 in The Meetings Magazine.

Making Sense of Big Data

How to Mine a Treasure Trove of Insights to Improve Meeting Outcomes

By Maura Keller

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Capturing and analyzing the vast volume of data that can be collected from meetings and conferences — including onsite attendee behavior, engagement, feedback, surveys, social media and more — has the potential to yield invaluable insights into how to improve the overall experience and make meetings more effective, both in real time and for the future. The analysis part is, of course, the biggest challenge — how to turn an avalanche of numbers and information into a logical flow of actionable intelligence.

According to Issa Jouaneh, senior vice president and general manager at American Express Meetings and Events, there is a wealth of data that comes from meetings, such as attendance, engagement, vendor utilization, content performance and more. Meeting planners can harness the power of this data to gain insights about what works and what doesn’t in their meetings. From there, they can use these insights to drive the best possible outcomes.

“With more information and data at their disposal, meeting planners are able to streamline their process and take personalization to a new level.”
— Issa Jouaneh

As Jouaneh explains, technologies such as mobile apps and beacons have made it easier than ever for meeting planners to collect real-time data by offering a more connected feedback loop between attendees and planners.

“While it requires some level of flexibility, aided by data, meeting planners can even react to things happening on the ground in real time,” Jouaneh says. “For example, if engagement at a certain session is high, planners can distribute related content via the meeting app. Small touches like this do a lot to boost the attendee experience — and it goes for speakers and other exhibitors, too. For instance, via apps, speakers can receive data on the audience’s reaction in real time, and tailor the rest of their presentation.”

Capturing the Data

There are three key steps used in leveraging big data for a successful event strategy including collecting the data, analyzing the data, and making the data work for you.

For example, you can use data analytics to discover which online campaigns are influencing registration or being discussed on social media. You also can track the movements of attendees with Wi-Fi, GPS, iBeacons or low-energy Bluetooth to see which events or booths they’re visiting. Or, you could send out survey questionnaires or second-screen solutions to discover the actions and thoughts of audience members before, during and after an event.

MCI USA, a company that helps businesses and associations to strategically engage and activate their target audiences, has been using the DoubleDutch platform to acquire and analyze real-time data, including what sessions sponsors and attendees are most interested in.

Laurence Julliard, strategic consultant at MCI, says the definition of big data is changing rapidly with the growth of the internet of things and connected “things.”

“Every single connected device or wearable technology is able to provide real-time data on your audience, customers, partners and team,” Julliard says. “The technology available today is not only changing what we know of the audience but also how you engage with them and how they interact with each other.”

Mobile apps also are a key source of data for meeting planners. Apps provide analytic dashboards and an engaging social layer that offer planners a clear picture into how attendees are experiencing their event, while also enabling meeting planners to calculate and demonstrate return on investment.

“Meeting planners should capture data about the attendee experience,” Jouaneh says. “For instance, who the most popular and influential speakers are at their event, who the most influential attendees are, which sessions are the most popular and what topics are engaging attendees the most. This data allows planners to get into attendees’ heads, understand what they like and don’t like, to enhance future meetings.”

Making It Easier

It’s also up to meeting planners to capture appropriate data, but there are techniques and technologies that help make this task easier.

“For example, by encouraging attendees to sync their social profiles with the event app, or using gamification tactics, planners can boost engagement with event apps and gather more data,” Jouaneh says. “With more information and data at their disposal, meeting planners are able to streamline their process and take personalization to a new level.”

For instance, through American Express’ Meetings Insights platform they’re able to use both historical and predictive information to inform future meetings and events.

“Given that many of our clients have annual events, our meeting planners have a deep picture of the program’s performance to help drive program improvements year after year,” Jouaneh says.

And remember, big data needs to be, well, big. That means large sample sizes and information for any scenario. Without sufficient sample size, quality and accuracy are impacted and the decision-making process slows.

Karen Shackman, president, Shackman Associates in New York, is seeing big data being used in two ways at corporate meetings:
First, turnkey apps that manage registration, help attendees network prior to arriving, optimize breakout sessions, orchestrate offsite networking opportunities and create a platform for continued engagement after the meeting ends.

“Planners and attendees can connect with interest groups, conduct private chats, connect via LinkedIn, and view profiles of attendees they don’t know before the meeting,” Shackman says. “Apps are becoming geo-enabled, which helps attendees enhance their experience based on their location at a given moment. Have downtime between work sessions? Apps can now let you know that an attendee you were hoping to find for networking is down the street at Starbucks.”

Second, interactive private technology means less tweeting and more networking. While there is continuing debate on how to use social media during business components at large association meetings, Shackman is seeing a trend that creates a hyper-intelligent, private system that increases face-to-face interaction.

“The key is to provide moderators with more control than ever over questions, answers and even who gets asked the questions,” Shackman says. “With this kind of technology, meeting attendees can now ask unlimited questions, and moderators can quickly filter out ones that don’t make sense or disrupt the flow. Furthermore, because speakers can clearly see the questions being asked, they do not get lost among the noise of status updates.”

Inherent Challenges

When capturing big data, it is important for meeting and event planners to work with tech providers to plan their deployment, considering the arc of the attendee’s journey through the various platforms and apps as an enhancement of the meetings experience.

As Mary Ann Pierce, founder and CEO at MAP Digital explains, it’s important to identify what data is triggered by registration, conference apps, evaluations, etc., and how can that data and the insights it renders be pushed to internal stakeholders — and perhaps monetized to sponsors and exhibitors.

“You really need to have a tech summit with tech providers to plan a 10,000-foot evaluation that insures interoperability and multiyear commitment by the planner and organization to reach a larger business objective,” Pierce says.

MAP Digital’s MetaMeetings platform collects granular, contextual data of live and web attendees’ content participation.

“However, our planner clients have to advocate within their organization to find a ‘home’ for this data, whether it is with sales, marketing or research, and then get the budget in which to have it analyzed and merged into their internal databases,” Pierce says. “This should be a holistic business objective for upper management to empower on the planning level — not the planning level up.”

Of course, gathering and utilizing data is inherently risky because of security issues. As Jouaneh explains, meeting planners need to be aware of these risks and put the proper controls in place to protect data and ensure it’s being used appropriately and safely.

“Meeting planners need to educate themselves on the different privacy laws per country to ensure compliance,” Jouaneh says. “As the industry grows and meeting planners take on more responsibilities, and risks with them, careful use of data will be more important than ever.”

Common mistakes that planners make can include having too much data; and collecting data that no one cares about or can use because it is not aligned with business objectives.

“The more you get to know your customer, the more you will understand their needs and their business,” Julliard says, “unless you keep on asking the same kinds of questions and not listening to them.”

That said, meeting planners shouldn’t forget about the personal touch.

“Even while data’s role and value continue to grow, it’s essential that meeting and event planners remain focused on personalization and targeting to ensure positive experiences,” Jouaneh says.

One of the additional challenges in big data collection is having planners who are not trained to deal with the selection of technology to facilitate attendees’ data generation, the measurement of it and the integration of the data into internal databases — while maintaining cybersecurity.

“Allocation of funds and the strategy behind the creating of an engaging attendee experience should come from an integrated effort by senior management in which the planner is also a stakeholder,” Pierce says.

On the Horizon

Experts agree that big data is here to stay. It enables planners to create meetings and events that they know their audience will want to attend. Not to mention, attract sponsors and exhibitors.

With all of this access to data and technology, an event planner now can provide attendees with a more personalized experience.

“In fact, I won’t be surprised if someday the large events are replaced by several smaller events that are focused on data segmentation,” Julliard says. “With big data, event planners have access to the preferences of attendees, speakers, and sponsors, which allows us to create the perfect event just for them. Soon we will know our target audience better than themselves through artificial intelligence and predicting model analysis.”

Jouaneh stresses that as more and more data become accessible and trackable, planners will be better equipped to personalize meetings and boost attendee engagement. “Data integration will also be a huge focus for the industry moving forward,” Jouaneh says. “A number of developing solutions are focused on creating integrations with meeting data and expense data. This will offer planners tremendous value in understanding the relationship and dynamics of shared resources.”

Julliard says a game changer is how you bring digital technology to your event: for example, sensor integration will allow an attendee to connect, interact and even pay through RFID technology; it also will open a new world of innovative displays and ways to interact with the audience.

“The very critical component is taking a business-first approach to any big data initiatives or analyses and focusing on the information that will help you meet your business objectives,” Julliard says. “Events are one tactic into your marketing strategy and should always bring you back to the fundamental question: How will that serve my business objectives?”

Collection & Analysis

When it comes to meetings and events, it’s not enough anymore to measure total event attendance. Event organizers want to know if the right target audience is having the right interactions with the right content, salespeople, exhibitors, key activations or experiences with other attendees. 

Joe Lovett, senior director of strategic planning at Cramer, a brand experience agency, categorizes captured data into three buckets: passive, active, and distilled. 

As Lovett explains, active data includes things such as survey, polls, voting, attendee selected preferences that can be captured during registration or onsite via kiosks or apps. Passive data collection includes phone tracking that can provide an attendee flow and heat map, badge or other wearable tracking, peer and exhibitor interactions, event app insights, website analytics and any gamification tracking you may have. Distilled data includes social-post volume and sentiment, influence level of those who are sharing, attendee segmentation by some variable, whether it is role or demographic data. 

“By capturing these data points and layering on various attributes, you can have a great understanding on how well the event performed against identified objectives, especially for the very important attendees,” Lovett says. 

What types of big data are collected may vary depending upon the type of meeting or event being held. Most meeting planners will benefit from collecting information to profile attendees and to understand what types of topics and events appeal to which market segments. This kind of data can be used to help set a meeting agenda that is designed to attract more attendees. Events where attendees are given a choice of more than one session, for example, can reveal details on participant preferences.

Here are some ways to analyze how events are resonating with audiences.

  • Measuring social media activity enables planners to track the conversation wherever it’s happening and learn where to focus event social outreach.

  • Looking at page views provides insights on audience awareness of each individual event and all combined future events.

  • Using a trending algorithm allows planners to look at dozens of factors to discover not just the most popular event, but also the most interesting one. This automatically enables planners to keep tabs on the social pulse of their community.

Lovett is also excited about next-gen wearables that enable attendees to share contact information with each other, register, check in to sessions, track gamification goals, and more. For the event organizers, the data from these wearables, especially when paired with an app, can offer tremendous measurement and insight.

Other ways big data can improve the experience for attendees:

  • Personalization. Today’s attendees want to participate and engage in events on their terms. Big data can help event organizers better understand attendee needs and help them create the personalized experiences attendees crave. 

  • Networking. Event producers need to focus on ways to encourage networking opportunities, and not just leave it to chance. In the registration process, ask attendees to share a hobby or personal interest, then match attendees who have something in common. Simple registration questions can be paired with wearable technology, smart badges and networking apps that can provide even more data to further networking opportunities.

That said, companies also need to be careful not to be too intrusive. Participants should feel they are opting into an event, not being tracked by marketers looking to take advantage of their attendance.

“The biggest challenge lies with the sheer amount of data that is being produced at events and how to make sense of it all,” Lovett says. “As W. Edwards Deming famously quipped, ‘Just because you can measure everything, doesn’t mean you should.’ 

“With some pre-event planning, strategy and goal setting in place it can be easier to determine what data points will be most valuable. Not to say that the extraneous data isn’t valuable, but it doesn’t always need to be reported on.” — MK