How Marketers Use Data to Create More Successful Events

A Convening Leaders 2023 session on data offered case-study examples of event marketers who are figuring out how to analyze registration data and make quick shifts to increase attendance.

Author: Michelle Russell       

Michelle Russell and Joe Colangelo sit on stage for Convening Leaders23 session

PCMA Editor in Chief Michelle Russell and Joe Colangelo, founder of event data company Bear Analytics, discuss how marketers can use event data at Convening Leaders 2023.

In the Convene Live: “From Stats to Stories — Making Event Data Work for You” session at Convening Leaders 2023, Joe Colangelo, founder of event data company Bear Analytics, shared the challenges event organizers are facing when it comes to figuring out how to make data work for them.

In the first half of the session, Colangelo presented his insights and took questions from the audience. In the second half, he played video recordings of his Zoom interviews with two different clients, each of which served as a case-study example of how event marketers are using data to inform decisions in the lead-up to the event to make it more successful.

We’ve captured highlights of his presentation in his words:

On personalization:

One of the areas events are personalization deficient in is content discovery. Oftentimes you go to a website, you look through 200 sessions and you’re the search engine — the person. The first level is, “Let me look at the tracks.” The second level might be, “Let me go to the speaker page.” And that’s kind of the state of the art right now across the board.

But you can envision [thinking], “Wait a minute, I’ve gone to this event before, I’ve attended these kinds of sessions, those sessions have this metadata or these tags along with it, when I go into an online experience, I’m going to get [served] something similar.” Maybe it’s not a garden hose and a spigot like you might get on Amazon [which offers you a selection of products related to the item you’re looking at] but in 200 sessions, I’m going to get the top five to 10 that may fit something like what I’ve [attended before].

The difference between Amazon and events is that next year the garden hose isn’t going to be called something different, so the ebb and flow of content changing and evolving over time — I don’t that should be minimized. It makes it a harder mousetrap to build.

Attendees registering later than ever is a huge challenge:

Every meaningful metric we’re looking at indicates there does not appear to be a silver bullet — pricing different, early-bird inflection points, those are mitigating but there is not a solution set.

Customers with more sensitive opportunity cost calculations:

You’re getting a lot of last-minute decision making [questions, like] Is it worthwhile? Well, how well [are you] articulating the ROI discussion? The No. 1 request we have right now [from organizations hosting events] is, “Help me, our exhibitors want us to articulate what the ROI is.”

I would say ROI is interesting because it’s by definition a return on investment after the experience has happened. It’s really the expected value of your event that you’re trying to calculate. So do you have command enough of your information to be able to say, and I’ll make this up in a trade-show context, the average 20 X 20 [booth] gets an average of 100 leads over the course of three days. But if you add sponsorship and these levels, you’re going to be up to 125. But if you’re in the back of the show floor, it might be only up to 80. And so the folks that get to things like that are going to win especially as we get into a recessionary environment and those dollars are potentially being reduced across the board or folks are just making more judicious decisions.

Event technology is in the 2nd inning:

We saw a ton of movement in the virtual space in May/June 2020 — we were tracking about 485 event-tech platforms. Obviously, we’ve seen some contraction in that area. But I think the level of value-added service with those platforms, it’s still extremely early. Realistically, it’s only about 24-30 months and in a technology-development cycle, if you think about what your favorite social-networking platform was in its first two years compared to where it is today, it’s going to be closer to the beginning than the end.

Sponsorships to be measured like marketing elements:

The expectation from those brands or product owners [is to understand] who is looking at our products in combination, what is the dwell time, are they downloading the white paper, are they navigating toward our product homepage, are we seeing a conversion on the backend. Right now, that attention funnel is extremely choppy. I think in the nearest term that is going to start to iron itself out and there is going to be technology to help guide that.

The reality is that folks that are doing data analytics the most successfully are using it as a supporting element for all those other things.

Colangelo played pre-recorded video interviews with two Bear Analytics clients that illustrated this approach.

‘Our Organization Thrives In Uncertainty’

The first interview/case study was with Danielle Danko, senior director of marketing for RE+ Events, owned by Solar Energy Industries Association and the Smart Electric Power Alliance. RE+ Events organizes more than a dozen clean energy events in the U.S. and internationally each year, with a growing event portfolio. The organization, Colangelos shared, is “hyper-focused on growth with a shrinking head count. So it’s a great example of how do you do more with less.”

Danielle Danko

Danielle Danko

Danko: We need our data to be really clean in real time and we need to be actionable about it. In the beginning of the year, we set out a marketing plan that rolls up to our strategic goals. Whenever we launch registration, we take a look at the data that’s coming in on a fairly consistent basis, weekly or daily depending on where we are in the registration cycle. And then if we see that there’s not a category that’s performing the way it should [we shift]. Like a couple of years ago, we were in Salt Lake City and we saw that our local Salt Lake attendance was not where we thought it was going to be, so we shifted our campaign a little bit and reached out to some of our local partners and we asked them to help us push the message out that we were coming. And we actually saw a boost in attendance, so we were able to move really quickly and actually see results within a week or so.

Our organization thrives in uncertainty. I think it’s why we’ve been so successful because we lay out a plan and we’re going to follow this plan, but we’re going to have check-ins along the way. From a team perspective, I articulate that there are going to be some changes. We’re going to do X,Y, and Z, but if X, Y, and Z aren’t performing, we’re going to shift — do a little bit less of this and a little bit more of that. At the end of the day, we have to reach our goals. It doesn’t matter how we get there. It’s a lot of communication up front.

As a marketing team, we kind of have our fingers in everybody else’s business, which is how I feel like a marketing team should function. We have meetings with the sales, application, operations, business development teams. We ask them simple questions like: How are things going? What are you seeing? What are you hearing? We use the Bear Analytics IQ dashboards and we bring those up in meetings. [If something comes up in a meeting where someone says] I heard this from an exhibitor or I heard that solar installers aren’t going to come this year because of X, Y, and Z, we’ll bring up the dashboard and we’ll say that we see that those numbers are really strong, but we do see that project developers are down a little bit [and that will lead the sales people to reach out to their contacts in a more targeted way].

‘Where Can I Find The Silver Lining?’

The second interview was with Chris Bonifati, CEM, senior director of trade show development for Global Pet Expo, a 12,000-person, 300,000 net square feet trade show that meets in March every year in Orlando.

Christopher Bonifati

Christopher Bonifati

Bonifati: My role is to keep our event moving forward. One of the ways I do that is through data, using our show’s analytics to make recommendations both to our CEO and our board of directors on ways that can improve the show, which is B2B and free to attend. So any qualified retailer doesn’t have to pay to come, which kind of changes the way we look at ROI and cost of acquisition. We gain all of our revenue through booth sales and sponsorships.

Coming into 2022, we were about 50 percent down from where we were in 2020. The big issue was that in the pet industry China is a major player, and they were not going to be attending this show [because of COVID policies].

So, you have to ask yourselves, what was my silver lining? Where can I find the good within that bad?

So what we did was we put on our marketing hats and the question we asked ourselves and asked our data is: What type of attendee benefits most from China not being at the show? And the answer that we got: [it was] typically these bigger box stores who need to deal with national distributors, regional chains, small, independent pet retailers, and what we lost were some of these private-label brands, sourcing agents, certain companies that represent Chinese sourcing.

When you make that realization you go, “Okay, normally this is our marketing plan and we send out these types of messages through these channels to these people.” [We need to] throw it out. It’s gone. It doesn’t matter anymore; too much has changed. We focused really hard on a white-glove approach for those mass market people in explaining, “Hey, this is what the show is going to look like this year.” Because a lot of these people look at numbers, and they say, well your list is looking a little shy, what does that mean really. Once we started to get those big box stores back in, it was a windfall. It the FOMO effect — Oh, Walmart’s going to be there, we have to be there. Then those last-minute exhibitors become easier to sell. So now, we’re filling up holes in the floor plan.

And what we did is we used our data to identify the people who were most floor-plan sensitive, people who cared about the numbers and cared about the size of the show. We did this through our surveys identifying personas and then a feedback loop through Bear Analytics to show us basically what we’re missing. The question we were asking Bear was who were we missing who cared the most about a full floor plan and we were serving them up a live list of who was coming in essentially in real time. Where we wound up through January and February was a steady trickle — but once we hit March, in those two to three weeks out from the show, it was astronomical how quickly people were registering.

We were saying the whole time, “We’re not going to break records, we’re not going to break records, we have to temper our expectations.” We did break a record: Our last week of registration, we brought in over 1,100 attendees. As everybody knows, people who register closer to the event have a higher verification rate — they’re coming. That was the most people we’ve ever brought in in a seven-day window in the history of recorded data at Global Pet Expo.

It was that big sigh of relief that you need when you’re going into a show. We were only 10 percent down from what we considered to be a record-breaking year. When we look back now and reflect on that we realize that the only thing we were truly missing from our show compared to a 2020 show was the presence of China and their sphere of influence.

Colangelo added after playing the video:

He did this amazing thing where he looked at the local list in Orlando that were underperforming and he tied together multiple sources of data, including looking at their responses to surveys. Many said they weren’t coming because they were just ramping back up their stores — there were a lot of mom and pop shops and so if I’m not in my store today because I’m going to a show, no one is in my store today.

And so he pivoted really close to the show, when he saw that Canadian registration was ramping up and he took marketing dollars away from the Orlando market and [invested in] getting folks to come from Canada. That’s the closest thing to a swashbuckler event marketer that I can think of.

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.


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