How to Test Your Assumptions About What Your Audience Really Wants — and Why You Should

We all have blind spots when it comes to event design. Here’s how to turn data into insights that will create the kinds of experiences that provide attendee value.

Author: Barbara Palmer       

man and woman on stage together

Megan Finnell, CMP, director, meetings & conferences, MGMA, and Tim Simpson, brand & engagement chief strategist for Maritz Global Events’ Design Studio, speak to EduCon attendees Monday during their session. (Jacob Slaton Photography)

Event designers who lean heavily on post-event surveys to design future events can end up like drivers trying to navigate the road while looking in the rearview mirror, said Tim Simpson, brand & engagement chief strategist for Maritz Global Events’ Design Studio. Not only is it hard to move forward that way, but you could miss key information about what your attendees want that’s hiding in your blind spots, he said.

Simpson, alongside Megan Finnell, CMP, director, meetings & conferences, MGMA, offered an alternative way of designing better attendee experiences — one that relies on data — during “Accessing Your Blind Spots through Data insights: Tools to Uncover What Your Audience Really Wants,” at EduCon on Monday morning.

Finnell told a story of how MGMA had received post-event satisfaction surveys that were generally high, but scored lower on networking. “We said, ‘Great, we should add a big party,’” Finnell said. But after spending $120,000 on a party, the event’s networking scores went down again, she said. “And we said, ‘Okay, our people are not fun people. They want directed conversations.’” But when MGMA added directed roundtables and discussion groups, their networking scores went down once again.

Finnell, who had been talking with Simpson about how to uncover her organization’s blind spots, decided it was time to dig deeper. She led the audience in the same exercise that she used with her team to help uncover what they might be missing about their audience and their preferences. The first step was to list all the assumptions that they had about what their audience liked and didn’t like, Finnell said. They then took the list and divided it into those assumptions that were supported by data, and those that weren’t. For the assumptions that weren’t supported by data, they decided — “shocker,” Finnell said — to ask the audience directly, designing a survey that would test their assumptions.

The results, Finnell added, were “pretty humbling.” Her team had been wrong about their belief that most of their medical group management audience were introverts — respondents identified first as ambiverts, then as extroverts, and finally as introverts. The data showed that half of the audience liked parties and half of them liked directed networking, she said.

Finnell and her team also had assumed that what the audience cared about most was getting continuing education credits at the meeting, but that turned out to be the case for a small minority. The No. 1 thing people cared about, Finnell said, was being inspired. “They want to walk out feeling inspired to tackle their challenges,” and they want to be educated and feel prepared — “to get a pulse for the industry,” she said. Only a small fraction of their audience cared if the event had a splashy, Broadway-style stage or featured big-name speakers and celebrities, Finnell said. In an age where content is everywhere, Simpson said, meeting attendees are more interested in access to insiders in their own specialties — people who could serve as leaders, mentors, and influencers and help them get better at their jobs.

Finnell’s team used the data to help guide their budgeting and design decisions, applying their insights to everything from networking experiences to content to the hours that the exhibition hall was open. And that — applying the data — is a key step, Simpson said. “Data is only part of it. You’ve got to be able to take the data and turn it into insights. It’s got to have meaning and be a narrative that people can understand, and that they can rally around internally.”

Barbara Palmer is deputy editor of Convene.