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We've got to start meeting like this: seven tools for measuring your members' meeting satisfaction.

LTV, MAC, CSR.... THE ASSOCIATION COMMUNITY IS RIFE WITH initialisms and acronyms. But when it comes to meetings, ROI--return on investment--is perhaps the most important initialism of all. In most associations, meeting and conference revenue (especially annual meeting revenue) is second in importance only to dues income. This makes tracking your annual meeting's ROI a vitally important part of your association's strategy for meeting (or exceeding) member needs while meeting budget.

Here's how to set the stage for gauging your return on investment, followed by seven measuring tools that associations of all sizes can use. The tools, which vary from simple to sophisticated, can help you determine what payoff both your members and your association get from your annual meeting.

Set goals and lay plans

At the very beginning of the meeting-planning cycle, it's imperative to set realistic goals. In most cases, associations set both the qualitative and quantitative kind. Examples of qualitative goals:

* provide quality educational programming for members;

* make on-site registration quick and easy;

* offer newly requested programming or tracks; or

* recognize the achievements of longtime or new members.

Examples of quantitative goals:

* increase attendance or revenue by a certain percentage;

* attract a new segment of the meeting marketplace;

* increase the number of exhibitors; or

* boost on-site bookstore sales.

Once you have your goals, formulate a plan to meet them. Everyone knows the importance of developing the best possible marketing plan well in advance of the event. But it's equally important to plan how you're going to track your results. Failing to track--again, both qualitatively and quantitatively, using the appropriate tools--is not only foolhardy but also short-sighted. The information you gather about both successes and failures will help you formulate a better plan going forward.

An important part of this is making sure your association completes the tracking it starts. A surprising number of organizations spend time and money key coding lists and promotional pieces only to have their customer service departments quit capturing this valuable information early in the registration process.

Choose the right tools for your task

Many types of tools exist for measuring your meeting's success. As with goals, they fall into two categories.

Qualitative tools give you a rough sense of how well you're doing but are not statistically valid for projecting the opinions of your entire membership, and quantitative tools evaluate your progress on the basis of hard facts and figures derived from a large sample that yields statistically valid measurements.

Included in the two categories are seven actions that you can take to evaluate the returns on your meeting and use the information to do better--or even better--next time.

Qualitative ROI tools. To calculate your meeting's quality in the eyes of your participants, make use of the following techniques:

1. Assemble focus groups. These are a good choice if you want an in-depth sense of what some attendees are thinking about with regard to a few specific topics. Setting these up during your actual convention can be convenient and economical. Both member and nonmember participants are on hand for the picking. You can gather first impressions, which you can refer to later as a jumping-off point for quantitative surveys. And the use of another room and some refreshments are incidental costs, not major investments.

The ideal focus group consists of 8-12 people. If you have more than that, it's difficult to control the participants and many don't get the chance to speak. Aim for a mix of geographic representation and tenure in your field. Good questions to ask:

* How did you make your decision to attend?

* How important was the location in your decision to attend?

* What other annual meetings do you attend and why?

* What would make you choose our meeting over another?

Two caveats: Remember that focus groups do require planning, since you have to invite attendees to participate and follow up with them prior to the meeting, including on the day of the focus group. Also, resist the urge to use a staff member to facilitate the discussion. An unbiased moderator is imperative.

2. Facilitate attendee intercepts. These interactions are an alternative to focus groups when you don't have time to plan ahead. First develop a loose script of questions similar to the ones you'd ask a focus group. Then pose the questions to individual meeting participants as they mill around between sessions. The ideal interviewer is a professional facilitator, but you could also use your association's research staff or others with some training in unbiased questioning. Unless you do intercepts with a large percentage of your attendees, the results will be unscientific but still useful for uncovering general impressions.

To encourage people to talk to your interviewers, offer discount coupons for your on-site bookstore as an incentive. And remember to ask for interviewees' permission to use their comments in promotional pieces. This is a great way to develop fresh testimonials for marketing materials.

3. Use benchmarking techniques. Some might say that benchmarking is not as much a meetings-assessment tool as it is an ongoing necessity. One way to do it is to regularly compare your meeting's offerings, program, and attendance to your competitors'. This can be as simple as reviewing your competitors' Web sites and developing a grid to record what you learn.

Another way that you can benchmark is by tracking the results of the same meetings-related survey year after year to see if you're making progress.

Monitor benchmarks all through your meeting's marketing process, from goal setting to results assessment. The results should lend themselves to a SWOT analysis--assessing your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats--which is imperative for determining your meeting's position in the marketplace.

4. Employ the four A's (a.k.a., the gut check). This is an unscientific test that was outlined to us several years ago--in fact, so long ago that its source escapes us. Used along with other tools, it is helpful as a predictive test that can work for many association programs, especially in the early stages of goal setting.

Essentially, you use the four A's to make a prediction based on what you think your association's meeting attendees would say if you asked them. Here are questions to ask when conducting the gut check about your annual meeting attendance.

a. What percentage of your market (those who could come to your event) would consider your meeting in X location affordable?

b. What percentage of the group identified in question A would consider the location accessible?

c. What percentage of the group identified in question B would find the location acceptable?

d. What percentage of question C's group would be aware of the meeting's location?

One well-known association tested Vancouver, Canada, versus Charlotte, North Carolina, (which had always performed well for this heavily East Coast-based association). The numbers the association derived from the gut check were 7,500 for Charlotte and 4,375 for Vancouver--in each ease, remarkably close to the actual attendance figures. Here's what the test looked like:
Total Market: 50,000

 Charlotte Vancouver

Affordability 30% 25%
Accessibility 50% 35%
Acceptability 100% 100%
Awareness 100% 100%
Total market
share: 7,500 (15%) 4,375 (9%)

How accurate is this tool? Try it yourself with one of your tier one cities versus a tier three city, and see how close you come to your actual attendance figures. Just remember that the point of this exercise is to alert smart meetings marketers well in advance that they'll need to adjust the budget and make extra efforts to attract the desired audience. Clearly, this is certainly not the end-all to predicting your meeting's attendance.

Quantitative assessment tools. To gather data on member responses to programs, on-site product purchases, and other criteria that can provide insight for future meeting elements and their related marketing strategies, try these techniques.

1. Administer surveys. These are best when you need hard data about an extensive or complex range of issues, such as most-desirable program topics or preferred session formats. The delivery options are direct mail, Web, and phone. Each has its pluses and minuses.

* Paper surveys, like online surveys, are good for in-depth questioning that requires thoughtful answers. Paper is best when many of your constituents lack computers or you lack good e-mail addresses for most of them. Compared to online surveys, paper surveys are more expensive to send because of the printing and postage expense and take longer both to come back from respondents and to tally.

* Online surveys are usually cheaper than paper and can be tallied in real time with little or no human intervention after the initial set-up. Responses to Web surveys sent from a recognized source (from your association to its members, for example) usually come back quickly, within days rather than weeks. But again, if your respondents are not computer savvy, your results will be unfairly weighted toward the ones (possibly younger members) who respond more readily online.

* Phone surveys are good for getting opinions from nonattendees or people who've come in the past but not this year. This method tends to yield more qualitative results--somewhat like attendee intercepts do--unless you talk to a very large sample. Though phone surveys can be conducted quickly, they are usually handled by an outside firm and can be the most expensive type--perhaps twice as high as paper surveys.

A final note on surveys: No matter which method you use, for reliable results you must get a statistically valid response based on your universe and sampling size. The software vendor Creative Research Systems, based in Petaluma, California, offers a free sample-size calculator to help you determine what number of responses you need for a valid result. For details, go to, and click on "Research Aids."

2. Conduct database analysis. This should be a continuous process of collecting and analyzing information about your members, customers, meeting participants, and products and services. If you keep your database updated and clean, you can use your database to answer questions such as these:

* Who attended my meeting by job title? By geographic location?

* What sessions did they attend?

* Does a conference attendee purchase more products from us than a nonattendee? If so, from where: the show floor or the catalog?

Analyzing your data to make comparisons allows you to know who your most productive targets are. For example, if one of your goals is to sell more products from your meeting's on-site bookstore, it's telling to conduct a review cross referencing meeting participants and purchase history at your convention. Simply put, this tool works well when you're trying to find out specifics about who your attendees are. Why? So you can attract more of the same next year.

3. Calculate revenue versus expenses. This comparison is basic for tracking a convention's success--your association probably does it routinely. But what should you do if and when your meeting's expenses exceed the revenue generated?

Use all the tools discussed here to find out why you got this outcome. Ask nonattendee members: Why aren't you coming? Is the problem the time of year, the quality of the sessions provided, the cost, the locations selected? Then ask attending members: What makes you attend?

Once you find out the answers, you can begin to either fix what is broken or find other people with the same mind-set as those who do attend. Remember to pay special attention to past attendees--a segment that is too often taken for granted. Just as retaining members is important to growing your membership base, retaining past participants is important for growing your attendee base.

Be persistent

No matter how well you market your annual convention, your association must continually strive to deliver value to your attendees. In an increasingly competitive world where for-profits are buying up shows daily, you must constantly innovate. So review your offerings frequently. Talk to attendees about what they think. Test new lists, offers, and packages regularly. Make sure that your message is clear, you are touching your prospects enough times, and you are going to the right targets.

Finally, be certain that you're analyzing how well your results compare to your goals and plan. Only then can you be sure your return on investment is as good as both your attendees and your association expect it to be.

Want more information on this topic? Check out the "Outtakes and Exclusives" and "Link to Learn" areas at

Raylene Kershaw is vice president and Richard Whelan is president of Marketing General, Inc., a marketing agency that provides custom marketing solutions for associations, in Alexandria, Virginia. E-mails: and
COPYRIGHT 2005 American Society of Association Executives
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Author:Whelan, Richard
Publication:Association Management
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2005
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