Measuring the business value of trade shows and events

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They’re the perfect recipe for engagement. Live, person to person, face to face, handshake to handshake. One touch point where that term can be taken literally. For brand marketers in most sectors, events such as trade shows, conferences and exhibitions form a significant portion of their marketing activities. But behind the impossibly-white smiles of the booth babes, trouble has been bubbling away. The existing ways of measuring value for marketers of this channel are not up to scratch.

A recent study conducted by the CMO Council, in partnership with the Exhibit and Event Marketers Association (E2MA) returned a troubling finding: that senior marketers are at a loss to measure trade show ROI. Event marketing is losing credibility because it is failing to provide enough detail into the data that proves its value. The report’s conclusion? That significant transformation must occur in the way brand marketers and event organisers conduct trade shows and events.

When you consider the scrutiny with which, one by one, every single marketing channel has been subjected, it’s no surprise that events should come under the spotlight as well. Especially, as the report, titled ‘Customer Attainment from Event Engagement’, reveals, Marketers hold events as key. The study notes that, “marketers confirm that the live, face-to-face engagements that occur during events and exhibitions are core to their business growth and development strategies.” Indeed, 45% of senior brand marketers name events their top demand-generating tool.

What’s the problem?

As those responsible for brands and those responsible for budgets are asked to do more with less and as change becomes a constant certainty, justifying rising costs of participation becomes harder and continuing investments into events, let alone increasing them, falls into question. Research presented at the Seventh International Marketing Trends Congress by Emma Wood and Guy Masterman evaluated current tools and methods of evaluating the effectiveness of experience-based marketing techniques and found that current methods are not seen as comprehensive or reliable due to the intangibility of the event experience.

At the top of the metric wish list of the 265 senior corporate marketers surveyed by the CMO Council was those that would help develop new referrals and introductions (71%). Next in line were metrics for quality and quantity of leads (66%), deal closure (52%), value of sales (51%) and up-sell or cross-sell transactions (38%).

Tackling the issue

According to the CMO Council and E2MA report’s findings, marketers are looking for value-added services to maximise the potential of – and justify the investment in – event participation. More specifically, anything that can deliver insights, measurements, analytics and deeper engagement with high-value customers and prospects.

But the responsibility does not rest solely on event organisers. Both marketers and operators have a role to play. “Analytics and insights will be the path to transformation and optimisation,” writes the report’s author. “And marketers must leverage intelligence and content to better mould rich experiences that maximise event investment while creating an engagement that extends beyond the event.”

On the vendor side, improving the analytical to improve the ability of partners to target and engage prospects and measure event ROI is called for. The study concludes that the end goal for both marketers and organisers is to drive events into line with other channels in the mix, “into the new era of data-driven marketing while retaining the experiential and face to face engagements that have made events the cornerstone of continued customer engagement and attainment strategies”.

Wood and Masterman found that, although a significant proportion of senior marketers perceived event activities as delivering beneficial returns, more than two-thirds of event marketing agencies lacked specific tracking or measurement systems for evaluating programs. A mismatch between belief and proof does not necessarily represent delusion, of course, and other researchers have pointed out that in practice evaluation of ROI for events is not at all so ‘fluffy’.

Is there really a lack of meaningful metrics against which performance can be measured? Laura Patterson, president and founder of VisionEdge Marketing, has consulted and written extensively on the topic of measuring and improving the value of marketing. She suggest a range of metrics that can be applied to pretty much any marketing expenditure, and which should be possible to adapt for events, with adjustments depending on the category, the specific activity and its goals. They fall under three areas in which marketing and sales typically shoulder responsibility:

Customer acquisition:

  • customer growth rate,
  • share of preference,
  • share of voice, and
  • share of distribution.

 

Customer relationship management:

  • frequency and recency of purchase,
  • share of wallet,
  • purchase value growth rate,
  • customer tenure, and
  • customer loyalty and advocacy.

 

Value enhancement:

  • price premium,
  • customer franchise value,
  • rate of new product acceptance, and
  • net advocate score.

 

Regarding events in particular, the most commonly used metrics are generally the most immediate, whereas the less tangible but arguably more valuable measures such as brand awareness, preference and loyalty are evaluated rarely. Falling into the former category are metrics such as:

  • event headcount,
  • register sales data per event days,
  • future likelihood to purchase,
  • internet hits post event,
  • samples,
  • coupons distributed, and
  • length of time engaged.

 

The appropriateness of the above metrics will again vary depending on category and event type. Of course, in a post-GFC business climate in which the accountants have risen to the top, everything boils down to sales volume. It’s difficult to attribute specific effects to specific events – a challenge facing any one channel in an integrated mix – but sales volume remains the most commonly tracked metric.

Fig 1

The figure above is Wood and Masterman’s concluding table, describing the three levels of marketing event evaluation. As they point out, the worth of events is not in question, but in an accountable business environment what is needed is an understanding of how and why they work.

Technology to the rescue?

It’s an age-old question, and one that is not likely to find an answer so much as see continued refinement and adaptation. But just as trade show ROI is coming under the same scrutinies as other channels, events marketing is benefiting from advances in technology and related developments in consumer behaviour. The saturation of smartphone use presents significant opportunities to marketers and event organisers, with the promise of making conferences, trade shows and their ilk both more measurable for marketers and more engaging for attendees.

Silicon Valley start-up DoubleDutch is one such company seeking to revolutionise the event experience, boasting clients such as Cisco, Roche, vSAP, PwC and Yum! brands. (Read: businesses that take events seriously, to put it mildly.) DoubleDutch develops white-label conference applications that can feature event agendas, surveys and networking functions, as well as providing sponsorship abilities and integration with social media and an event’s registration system, all presented in a neat dashboard with a simple content management system.

Founder and CEO Lawrence Coburn says the company is, “bringing event marketing out of the data dark ages by analysing attendee behaviour to help organisers better understand what is and is not working at their events”.

DoubleDutch’s mobile app has also expanded into lead scanning in order to bring the same data approach to the exhibitor experience, further illuminating ROI for event attendance and participation by providing a tool to scan badges so brands can connect digitally with attendees who have visited their booth.

Coburn says that the macro trends of mobile and social can lift event marketing out of the “dark ages”. He says that there is no reason live events can’t follow suit from social and professional online networks by generating an interest graph that maps each attendee to each event-related object, be it their interaction with other attendees, stands, exhibitors, sponsors or content.

One key imperative that Marketing continually returned to in our research was the need for marketers with event organisers to be clear about what data is required and what can be collected. “CMOs need to be outspoken about data requirements for events they sponsor,” Coburn wrote on Adobe’s CMO. com blog recently. Marketers should be clear about what analytical capabilities they require from event organisers, and organisers should be clear and upfront about what kind of information they can provide. While technology will certainly make it easier to keep track of and collect information on prospects and customers, the holy grail will be the ability to link all the way through to end business results. That’s a work in progress, but, regardless, it is undoubtedly better in practice to acknowledge the imperfections of available methods, to use them to gain as a complete a picture as possible than to not evaluate at all.

Savvy event organisers are realising this already, and are working towards ensuring the credibility of the channel stays up to speed with the investment and respect it commands.