5 New Rules for Surveying Attendees

By Maria Carter, July 30, 2014

When used strategically, survey feedback can give a detailed picture of your attendees and what motivates their decisions. It can help you segment your audience, design unique experiences for different subgroups and revise next year’s programming to fit their needs. We spoke with three experts who shared best practices for defining goals and metrics, collecting data and making strategic changes based on data analysis. Here are a few of their key pieces of advice on how to gather and use attendee data to improve your events:

1. Avoid information overload.
Obnoxious amounts of data create problems, says Chris Hoffman, an independent marketing consultant who currently is executing a series of events for an international nonprofit. To combat information overload, set specific goals and data parameters.

For example, the baseline metric Hoffman’s client uses is whether or not attendees make a purchase. “There’s a lot of data that can be tracked to support following up with participants at a later date, but as far as asking, ‘Was this event successful?’ that data point is a sale at the end of the event,” Hoffman explains. 

2. Be selective with questions.
Audience feedback is only as good as the questions you ask. “There is a science behind designing a strong, useful evaluation,” says Leasa Mayer, president of CRG Events. She advises against planners asking logistical questions such as, “How was the food?” Yes-or-no questions are not very useful.

The best questions are qualitative, ranking questions that give the responder choices.

On the other hand, open-ended questions could leave you with 3,000 answers, says Mayer. The best questions are qualitative, ranking questions that give the responder choices. For example, “Please rank the following three speakers in order from most interesting to least interesting,” or “Out of the following five elements of the event, please rank them in order of productivity.” Keep surveys short, between five and 12 questions, max.  

3. Collect data during registration.
“People seem more inclined to answer questions when they’re registering,” says Mayer. Of course that won’t give you any feedback about your event, but it can tell you a lot about what attendees want and expect, she adds.

The results may be surprising. “If what they want is to connect with people, and if what your client wants is for them go on-site and learn, then you have a potential conflict,” says Mayer. You may have to readjust a daylong schedule of panels and breakout sessions to include what Mayer calls “a softer moment”—a happy hour, for example.

Another way to gather data early on is by blocking registration. It sounds counterintuitive, but Nick O’Neill, CEO of Startup Stats, uses this tactic when planning events for data-driven startup marketers. Traditional event-ticketing systems try to convince attendees to make a purchase right away. “It doesn’t work,” says O’Neill. “The approach I use is to block that off.” He prevents would-be registrants from accessing information online until they provide their email addresses and perhaps answer a few questions. Fifty percent of people who land on O’Neill’s event pages provide their contact information.

He also uses a program that automatically fetches contact information for those who sign up, plus additional details, such as employer, age and location. He then pre-populates that information into a customer relationship system that allows him to follow up. “It turns into a direct sales system,” he says. 

4. Incentivize attendees.
Attendees can’t be bothered to fill out lengthy surveys with write-in answers. To make it easy and simple, mobile apps are the way to go. “We’ve tied the return of completed evaluations to drink tickets, which sounds a little mercenary, but at the end of an event, there’s often a reception, and drink tickets are still used,” says Mayer. Drink tickets can be offered as QR codes on smartphones keeping attendees from receiving them until they complete a survey.

But Hoffman cautions against interrupting the user experience when guests are having fun. “You don’t want to interrupt that to ask a question like, ‘How did you hear about us?’” Hoffman advises. “It’s far more important to make sure that people have a positive brand experience than to get the data you need.” 

5. Incorporate feedback to make strategic changes.
Collecting data during registration can help ensure attendees have a fun, memorable experience. “We can use registration to help plan for people with similar social interests,” says Mayer. “The people who want to walk every morning at 7:00 will have guided walks through the city, or there can be activities for people who want to go to the local sports bar because the World Cup is on.”

“Someone on the team has to be brave enough to say, ‘The way we’ve always done this isn’t working.’”

For Hoffman’s client, which hosts a walk-through interactive experience, one of the last interaction points with attendees used to be a survey. “What we were doing initially was asking them a couple of questions immediately—what they thought about the experience and what they intended to do with the information they had received,” says Hoffman. “Good questions, but it created a barrier between them and the product that we wanted them to interact with.” Since eliminating those final survey questions, Hoffman’s client has seen its conversion rate go up by a few percentage points.

Mayer says making changes according to feedback can be a touchy subject at times. You may hear from the audience that they thought the keynote speech lasted too long. “That’s difficult because you have your senior execs with a message to deliver, then your attendee feedback is that it’s too long,” she says. “Someone on the team has to be brave enough to say, ‘The way we’ve always done this isn’t working.’”

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