Return on investment (ROI) is, at best, a misleading metric for evaluating event-marketing performance.

Let's start with a straightforward definition for ROI: how much money was made, compared with how much was spent.

But determining what an event costs can get really complicated, really fast. Do you include the hard costs of a venue or exhibit space? The fabrication of event elements? Event staff time and T&E? What about the investment of time (or agency fees) to develop the design, the content, and other programmatic elements? And how do you factor in the hours spent in countless stakeholder meetings and reviews?

And how much revenue an event drives is no easier to decipher. Unless your company is selling products at a B2B event (which does happen in some industries), it's difficult, if not impossible, to attribute a converted sale to the event. Many touchpoints contribute to a sale. The event is important, but it's just one touchpoint. Also, it's likely that a person attending a company's event or visiting its booth may already be more inclined to buy its products, which makes it even more complicated to determine the event's role in driving a purchase.

The Metrics That Matter

To help wade through such murky waters, GES (where I work) has developed event metrics that are measurable (unlike ROI), recognizing that most B2B events are way more than just selling opportunities.

Events can contribute to pipeline, yes, but they should also build brand affinity and strengthen customer loyalty—all important contributors to a business's success.

With that in mind, let's look at four metrics that matter to event marketing:

  1. Anticipated pipeline. The key word here is "anticipated." Rather than evaluating an event by converted sales (which is usually impossible), you should evaluate the impact on a prospect's likelihood to purchase, and the potential revenue the event is driving. The result is a much more honest look at the role of events as pipeline contributors.
  2. Brand impact. Marketing industry research has demonstrated that positive brand perceptions influence purchasing decisions. This metric looks at changes in perception tied to unique dimensions of a brand. For example, if thought leadership is an important dimension of the brand, one would hope that the event had a positive impact on perceptions of the brand as a thought leader. If, instead, a brand aims to be approachable, one should evaluate perception changes around that dimension. Usually, there are multiple dimensions to review.
  3. Customer retention. Many events and exhibits attract current customers. These folks may not represent immediate sales or cross-selling opportunities, but event marketers understand that treating existing customers well is still important. Events can and should have an impact on a customer's loyalty to the company; that type of relationship is a real value driver (because losing customers can be so costly). This metric evaluates the impact of the event on customer retention rates.
  4. Perceived quality of the experience. Though this metric is not directly correlated to business outcomes, providing a high-value experience for attendees is a worthwhile goal. This metric looks at crucial attributes of an event (e.g., staff interactions, educational content) and determines whether attendees perceive them as being of high value. The resulting insights from analysis of this metric help event marketers continuously improve their events.

That combination of metrics provides an accurate and comprehensive framework for event measurement. The model is outcome-oriented, tied to business value, and designed to drive continuous improvement. We have a proprietary scoring algorithm related to each metric, but we think the industry itself should adopt this model so that all events can be consistently measured against the metrics that matter most.

Measurement Techniques

Knowing what to measure is critical, but the approach to measurement—the collection of data—is nearly as important. Effective performance measurement requires credible data.

Unfortunately, there is no "perfect" in data collection. In our experience, the best way to understand an event's impact on likelihood to purchase, brand perceptions, customer retention, and perceived quality of experience is to ask people directly. And to get quantitative data, you must ask a lot of people the same questions. That can be done in two ways:

  1. Digital surveys work particularly well for brand-owned events or activations in which the entire attendee base can be contacted shortly after the experience. You can use email surveys (you can provide an incentive that drives higher completion rates), but consider experimenting with SMS/text-based surveying.
  2. Interviews can provide outstanding results, both at large exhibits and at smaller events. In this scenario, an interviewer, equipped with a tablet or similar device, directly interviews attendees or visitors about their experience. Keep in mind that this tactic can be a bit more expensive than an all-digital approach.

Useful lead qualification and analysis are musts for determining anticipated pipeline. We consider a lead to be an attendee who has buying authority or influence and who is looking to purchase within a reasonable time frame (determined by a company's average purchase cycle). We look at the number of leads and connect it to products being demonstrated so that we can estimate potential revenue, with the caveat that post-event marketing and sales efforts must be implemented to convert those opportunities to sales.

The final input that we recommend is staff surveying. The qualitative observations of event staff are significant in the post-event analysis. They help to contextualize and explain the results of attendee surveys and lead analysis. Staff surveys are a must.

As consistent event measurement is implemented across a program, one should compare results from one event to the next and against benchmarks. This becomes useful because the scores themselves don't have a lot of meaning without these comparisons.

* * *

Sales, marketing, and financial leaders are heavily scrutinizing their companies' event marketing efforts. The four metrics and approaches outlined here can help marketers prove the actual value of the channel. Moreover, using them can help drive continuous improvement across events of all shapes and sizes.

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Four Key Metrics for Evaluating Event Marketing Performance

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image of Dax Callner

Dax Callner is chief strategy officer at GES Events, a global full-service provider for corporate events.

LinkedIn: Dax Callner

Twitter: @Daxdax