Leading Meeting Professionals

Professional Convention Management Association

January 2014

Crunch Time: How Big Data Makes Meetings Smarter

By Michelle R. Davis, Contributing Editor

Big data is the big buzzword. But what can it do for you? Help you figure out where your attendees are coming from and what they're interested in — and better negotiate and track your expenditures.

The information you can glean from tracking a single attendee at one of your meetings or conventions covers a lot of ground: details about her company and career, the vendors she visited, the products she most buzzed over, what she thought were your best breakout sessions, her online conversations with peers, meetings she had on site, and any questions she asked of presenters. Now multiply that data by the thousands or tens of thousands for a large event. And that's only counting the information you might collect at the meeting itself, to say nothing of pre- and post-event feedback.

Throughout every one of your conferences, vast amounts of information are flowing on everything from attendance patterns to purchasing preferences to venue costs. But the ability to capture this type of “big data” and convert it into a usable form is a challenge that meeting professionals are just starting to tackle. Apps, software platforms, and other new technologies are making it easier than ever to collect information and turn it into actionable data. But some experts say the meetings industry has been slow to adopt these solutions.

“The biggest issue our industry has as it pertains to data analysis or data insight of any kind is asking the right questions or knowing what the questions are,” said Dave Lutz, CMP, managing director of Velvet Chainsaw Consulting and a columnist for Convene. “Data is already being collected, we're just not always analyzing it properly.”


Over the last few years, the buzz over big data has increased, with conferences devoted to dissecting its uses and articles exploring how to deal with the information streaming into databases everywhere. Although the definition of big data can be fluid, the term generally refers to the collection of expansive amounts of information that can be hard to handle without automation and new technology tools.

By ignoring big data, meeting organizers are missing out on considerable information that can help them do everything from monetize feedback to boost attendance, according to Brian Silverman, president and CEO of Pleasanton, Calif.-based NiceMeet-ing, a one-year-old company that helps conference attendees more fully engage with educational content by letting them view presentations, take notes, and send online questions to speakers via their mobile devices. From a data standpoint, Silverman said, NiceMeet-ing software can record all those notes, questions, comments, and online chats between attendees.

So what are associations and other organizations doing with that type of information? Using it to market products, attract attendees to future conferences, and detect trends, said Matthew Stein, global content manager for Cisco Customer Conferences, who is involved in producing the annual Cisco Live conference four times a year in cities around the world. At Cisco Live in Orlando last June, 20,000 attendees in 750 sessions asked more than 2,600 questions using a privately developed mobile platform similar to NiceMeeting. (The company has since abandoned that platform and will be using NiceMeeting at Cisco Live in Milan this month.) Cisco also used radio frequency identification (RFID) chips inside each attendee's badge to track the sessions they went to and the vendors they visited.

The data collected provides the opportunity to improve Cisco Live every year. By looking at note-taking during breakout sessions, Stein said, he hopes to determine when people were particularly engaged — or not. During a keynote presentation, for example, Cisco could evaluate when attendees stop taking notes and point out to speakers where they lost audience attention. Similarly, online evaluations provide feedback on speakers and sessions, allowing Stein to predict what attendees will want in future lineups. “This is all about allowing people to engage, and once they engage I can measure that,” Stein said. “In the future, I can measure a speaker based on how engaged the audience was.”

Cisco also uses data collected at registration and via communication and marketing contacts throughout the year to help attendees select the programs best suited to their interests. With more than 700 sessions to choose from, this can be critical to boosting attendee satisfaction with Cisco Live. The company uses an online model, similar to Netflix and Amazon, Stein said, that recommends sessions based on an attendee's declared topics of interest and other information to create a conference “curriculum” of sorts. All that analysis takes time, he said, but “companies will start to realize that the value of the analysis is to make sure you're serving up what people want.”

That said, Cisco tends to shy away from marketing individually to attendees based on what they do online related to a conference. So, even if someone happens to mention in a Cisco Live online forum that a particular product looks good, Cisco may not directly target that person with a pitch for that product. “We're very careful with their personal information,” Stein said. “They may not want a salesperson calling them up. If we don't approach it that way [and instead send targeted pitches], people will obfuscate themselves, which would make the data less reliable.”


But Mike Stiles, a senior corporate events manager for Adobe Systems, said that individual leads generated from the data that comes out of his company's live events — including the annual Adobe Summit digital marketing conference, which draws about 5,000 attendees — are so valuable that “we have massive teams to mine through that data and see where the opportunities are.” For example, Adobe — which uses a suite of data-collection tools from Active Network — might note that an attendee owns three Adobe products but went to a session on an alternate product. Sales and marketing would follow up to provide additional information. Also, Adobe monitors customers’ interests in particular products and topics all year long, and then can guide them to related sessions at a conference. “It increases the chances of making a sale to that individual,” said Anthony Miller, vice president of strategy for Active Network's Business Solutions Group. “It also adds value to the attendee. They're getting a personalized communication based on what they are interested in.”

But the analysis of all this data isn't always direct, Stiles said. An executive may go to a session on social media at Adobe Summit, and that might not generate much interest from Adobe's sales team. But a closer look could reveal that person is the director of digital marketing at a company growing 50 percent per year, using only Adobe tools except for its social-marketing campaign. That's an opportunity it's important not to miss. “The connecting of the dots matters,” Stiles said.

One of the biggest challenges throughout this year-long collection of data from customers and attendees is standardization of the information that gets entered into Adobe's massive databases, Stiles said. Without that, anything that gets collected is not as accurate or usable. “The bigger the organization, the more ways there are to enter information,” Stiles said. “Getting consistency of data is key.”

So far, this parsing of data to garner sales leads is mostly done through labor-intensive people hours, but Stiles says he sees a different future. “The holy grail,” he said, “is going to be automated marketing [directly to individuals] and marketing campaigns.”

Christopher Dwyer, a research director at Ardent Partners, an advisory

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