Cheat Sheet: The ROI of Research

Strategic research is critical to the success of your event, but it can also be expensive. Here are 5 common research objectives and 4 cost-effective techniques.

It apparently pays to understand your target market. But here’s a tip: Don’t do research unless you’re prepared to act on the information. Don’t ask any questions you can’t do anything about. If it doesn’t add value to the intelligence you’re gathering, it’s a waste of everyone’s time and money. In-depth research does take time and money. Research is research, and it costs what it costs. In today’s world, research can be hefty cost for a show.” When you build research into your budget, you can make informed decisions about how to continuously improve your event. If you do just one project, make it strategic. Here are five common objectives and four cost-effective techniques.


Objective #1: Understand a market

Market research allows you to position your show so that it’s relevant to customer needs. It typically begins with secondary research into industry trends and how external factors — economic, social, cultural — influence the industry. It’s the influences on events that are outside the sphere of the speakers, attendees and exhibitors. Then you get down to what’s your market position, what are your market influences, and how you can position yourself in the marketplace.

Objective #2: Analyze the competition

A competitive analysis lets you benchmark your event against the competition, then make changes that differentiate it enough to maintain or gain market share. Like market research, it may begin with secondary sources but culminate in primary research with your target audience. If other shows are doing something you’re not doing, and you’re not sure you want to do it or what the benefit would be, ask your past and present attendees what they think. You want to find out the direction of the market, then think of all the things you might like to do to make continuous improvements in your show. Formulate those into questions, then ask attendees — do you want longer tracks, more sessions, etc. A competitive analysis can be a substantial cost, depending on the number of shows, what you compare, and how much primary research you do.

Objective #3: Assess value

If your value proposition is not aligned with market expectations, it won’t resonate and you’ll lose customers. Cox recommends doing a “value assessment” to ensure that your show delivers what customers want. This methodology targets both attendees and non-attendees, and exhibitors and non-exhibitors. We need to understand the fit or alignment of the expectations of exhibitors and attendees. If you don’t have good alignment, you don’t have a healthy show. Assessment research should examine the show’s relevance to the marketplace, the compatibility of what exhibitors want and what attendees expect, differences among audience segments, competitive strengths and weaknesses, traffic density relative to space sold, conference content relevance, and the quality of the show experience.

Objective #4: Evaluate content

From conference sessions to exhibit hall demonstrations to birds-of-a-feather networking, the content of your show can drive attendance. Tried-and-true speaker evaluation forms are no longer adequate to evaluate and improve content. You have to have a content direction to drive people to your event. You have to have speakers who talk at a higher level or deeper layer than what people can find on the Web to make it valuable enough. That drives the need for content to be more professionally delivered. Research that not only measures presentation quality but also defines what rating is acceptable can become the basis for making speaker selection decisions.

Objective #5: Cultivate relationships

The time line for attendee marketing has shrunk from 12 months to 3–6 months. In the interim, you can use market research as a way to continue the conversation with past, present and prospective attendees. Taking the time to ask questions, listen to the answers and respond with new initiatives can demonstrate your commitment to customer service and help you retain customers. Keep the show in the minds of people by asking them how it’s going, and what’s new in the industry. It creates a relationship with them. Then if you hit them with an invitation two to three months ahead, they can make a decision.


Your research objectives will determine the methods you’ll use to collect data. The toolbox of techniques is split into two compartments. Qualitative research identifies issues and elicits ideas about how to solve problems and deliver more value. Quantitative research tests those ideas in a measurable way. Focus groups, interviews and direct observation yield qualitative data. Surveys — whether conducted by mail, phone, online, in person or on-site with comment cards and evaluation forms — gather quantitative data. Most research projects require a combination of techniques. If you’re trying to get new information, qualitative research is best, because there’s no fixed questionnaire. You’re not trying to validate anything. You’re trying to discover what can be done to improve something. To quantify feedback on an idea or experience, you need a predictive sample that will have statistical validity. A randomly drawn sample size of 100 yields a 90 percent confidence level, plus or minus 5 percent. A sample of 1,024 yields 98 percent confidence, plus or minus 3 percent. The more confidence, the more predictive the results.

Technique #1: Focus groups

Doing focus groups before conducting surveys can ensure that you have identified the right issues and are asking the right questions. Doing them afterward can give you fresh insight into what your data means and add dimension to your analysis. A cost-effective way to run focus groups is on site at your event with a professional moderator. Michelson suggests these steps: • Schedule meeting rooms to convene two or three one-hour groups. • Set up a table to recruit, qualify and segment participants. • Offer food and beverages and a free gift or cash. • Invite 12 participants per session, expecting 7–10 to come. • Pose 5–10 questions for open-ended discussion. • Capture ideas on flip charts. • Record the results for later action.

Technique #2: In-depth interviews

In-depth interviews with high-level opinion leaders can reveal the bleeding edge of trends. When you single out the “rock stars and luminaries” of your industry and ask their opinions, you can begin to get ahead of the competition, instead of following their lead. The trick is to synthesize the information and identify the ideas that will have the greatest value for the largest number of people.

Technique #3: Direct observation

Observational research, usually using video cameras or closed circuit televisions, reveals how attendees get where they’re going, where they look along the way, and what exhibits cause them to stop and linger. Watching exhibitors reveals how they interact with the attendees. You can observe the behavior without interacting with the subject. Ethnographic research allows you to see an event through the eyes of your customer. By accompanying them to your show — or your competitor’s — you can watch how they experience the show and question why they behave as they do. You hang out with them for a day or two, ask questions and observe their behaviour in the environment. If something attracts their attention, you can ask why. If, for example, an attendee encounters difficulties registering or navigating the exhibit hall, you can ask what might help improve the experience. If an exhibitor isn’t getting enough traffic, you can ask passers by why they didn’t stop. These observations can suggest how to improve the buying environment.

Technique #4: Surveys

Survey research confirms what you’ve heard from a small group of people, or not. It can be qualitative, with open-ended questions, or quantitative, with check-the-box questions. Shoot for a 30 percent response rate, and offer a chance to win a prize as an incentive. More art than science, survey design may best be left to professionals. If you have an agenda in mind, the way you frame the questions can skew your results. Beyond bias, avoid vague questions or scales that don’t measure what you’re asking about. For example, don’t ask, “How does our show compare with their show on a scale of 1–5?” How the survey is administered may influence the types of questions you ask. A pre-show paper survey may ask respondents to compare items with several variables, such as conference pricing packages. An on-site exit survey, done face to face with the interviewer, may ask about the quality of the experience while it’s fresh in their minds. And a post-show phone survey may include follow-up questions to elicit more suggestions.

Sidebar: How to do research

To begin, “The organizer must understand, what are the issues?” he says. • Assess your needs. Do an intensive needs analysis to determine what issues you want to address. What are you concerned about — growth, competition, new markets, exhibitor complaints, low traffic, show value? • Define your objectives. State what you want to find out and how you will use the information. For example, “We will quantify our value rating and find out how to improve that rating.” • Plan the research methodology. What will you measure, and how will you measure it? It may take Internet research, focus groups, mail surveys and phone interviews to gather the data you need. • Design the questionnaire. Avoid leading, biased and vague questions. Use appropriate scales to rank and compare. • Sample your population. Be sure your sample is representative of your entire audience, with enough people from each segment to be valid. • Administer the survey. Paper-based or online surveys are self-administered. Telephone surveys may require an interviewer who can probe with follow-up questions. • Analyze the results. If you ask open-ended questions, read every response, categorize them and summarize how many people said similar things. • Take appropriate action. You’re likely to hear from people who are upset more so than people who are happy. Make changes that will add value for the most people.

Sidebar: 2 cheap and easy techniques

The Internet can put you in touch with past, present and future customers in seconds. At next to no cost, you can e-mail surveys, host online discussion groups or blast a single question to a select segment. You can take a poll and understand the dynamics of something that’s just happened. 1. Online surveys. If you e-mail an invitation to participate in an online survey, you know who your respondents are, and you can get results within 72 hours. 75 percent of responses will come in within that time. Use online surveys to take the pulse of pre-registrants, past attendees, exhibitors and non-exhibitors alike. 2. Bulletin board discussions. This is like a Web-based focus group. A moderator can seed the discussion, ask follow-up questions and build on ideas. Run three or four concurrent groups of 10, by invitation only. 3. Delphi panel. Select 50–60 influential people who agree to answer quick questions by e-mail once every one or two months to keep a barometer of what’s happening in the industry.

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