Measuring Virtual Events, Part 1: Step-by-Step Instructions

This is Part 1 of Measuring Virtual Events. Part 2 is A Guide to Objectives, Metrics, and Tools. Visit this page for a list of our articles on COVID-19 communications measurement.

In economic downturns and in times of uncertainty, it appears that one thing that humans both need and want is to learn. Here at Paine Publishing we witnessed it firsthand, when twice as many people signed up for our recent (and first virtual) Measurement Camp than we’d ever had before. That success has prompted us to offer a Summer Session. (Please join us!)

Most in-person conferences have been cancelled, and there has been a huge growth spurt in virtual conferences. Which prompted us to do this refreshed addition to our ever-popular Guide to Measuring Events.

Back in 2016, when we first turned our attention to event measurement, gathering large numbers of people together virtually was a complicated and costly process. The technology was glitchy, and attendees got so twitchy and distracted when confronted with long presentations of slides that they would just sit there and read.

Today, good conferencing software is cheap and ubiquitous. If Samanta Bee can record her TV show on an iPhone 11, you can put on a good virtual conference for not much money. Sure, you can spend a lot more than the cost of a Zoom subscription to buy an elaborate platform that allows everything from breakout rooms to sponsorship tables. But you don’t have to have a successful conference.

Regardless of what platform you use, the problem remains: unless you have all your metrics lined up before hand, you won’t know if your virtual conference sucked or succeeded. Here’s a good piece on how to avoid the former.

The good news is that today’s virtual platforms offer far more opportunities for measurement than in-person events ever did. This very helpful guide to virtual events suggests no fewer than 15 different metrics you can track. And this piece adds another 8!

The bad news is that all those metrics won’t help you much unless you have a measurement plan in place. So here are six basic steps you need to take to measure your virtual event:

Step 1. Be clear about the outcomes you desire

As with any effort, you can’t start to measure success until you know what success means for your organization. For any given event, your objectives might be to:

  • Educate customers, potential donors, or other stakeholders
  • Engage with customers and/or new potential customers
  • Sell more product
  • Launch a new product
  • Generate qualified sales leads (or names that support your cause)
  • Position the organization differently in our industry
  • Attract new employees/supporters
  • Generate good will and improve relationships
  • Reduce churn and improve relationships with existing customers

Your first job is to decide on your objectives, and then make sure that everyone involved who expects you to report on results agrees to them.

Step 2. Determine the parameters

Before you go too far down the event measurement road you need to also make sure you have agreement on:

  1. Who the target audience(s) or stakeholder(s) are,
  2. What makes them act, and
  3. Where they get their information to make decisions.

And, of course, you need to agree on a budget for measurement. We recommend spending at least 10% of your event budget to figure out if the other 90% is working.

**Need help budgeting for your measurement project? Browse these articles.**

Step 3. Define the metrics

Once you’ve agreed upon your objectives, establish the specific criteria of success that you will measure. For example, if your objective is awareness, the criterion might be the percentage increase of unaided awareness of brand or product.

Consider those numbers that best reflect the health of your business, or that best represent the characteristics that most affect your business, including:

  • Increase in awareness
  • Increase in preference
  • Increase in purchase intent
  • Increase in customer loyalty
  • Percent improvement in customer experience

Once you have agreement on the objectives and the metrics, translate them into SMART objectives (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely). To a certain extent, your choice of criteria is dependent on the type of event you are evaluating. For example:

  • If the customer experience you are measuring takes place at a virtual trade show or exhibit booth, you might choose as a key criteria the percentage of new visitors or the cost per minute spent with a client in the virtual booth.
  • If the experience takes place at an event such as a virtual concert, you need to count how many people were exposed to your brand’s messages/benefits, if they understand your messages, or if they will now consider or prefer your brand.

Don’t forget to measure the success of your pre-event promotional efforts. Open rates in email, for example, will tell you a lot about how well the subject matter resonates with your audience. Web traffic and Google tagging will also enable you to track the sales funnel from initial promotion through to registration.

There are also a number of metrics that virtual events facilitate, and that were harder to acquire in pre-COVID times:

  • Many virtual platforms have chat rooms, Q&A functions, and breakout rooms, all of which can be analyzed for engagement levels in various topics.
  • Another advantage of virtual events is that attendees can log in from anywhere on the planet, so tracking demographic information might yield insight into potential new markets. If you have a mobile app for your virtual event you can also use geo-location data to measure the interest from different parts of the country or the world.
  • Some virtual event platforms offer polling and surveys, which we strongly recommend to get direct feedback from your attendees. Whatever you do, do not use canned surveys that might come with your platform. Most event organizers just ask about the logistics. Very few provide answers that will measure against your objectives. As a result, almost none of them will provide data to help you  improve your future results.

Step 4. Decide upon a benchmark

The key point to remember about any event measurement program is that measurement is a comparative tool. You need to compare one set of results to something else. The most meaningful comparisons today may be between earlier in-person events and your virtual event.

Virtual events are generally assumed to be less expensive than in-person ones, so to confirm that, you will want to compare the cost per lead or cost per contact. If it is a multi-vendor event, you may be able to get data from the event sponsor that will enable you to compare your engagement rates to other sponsors. If your fellow sponsors aren’t direct competitors you can learn a lot by sharing information and determining what best practices really moved the needle.

Step 5. Select an event measurement instrument

Each metric suggested above may require a different measurement tool, so do not pick a tool until after you’ve completed steps 1-4 above. We do not recommend relying on data gathered at the event itself. It is rarely useful or actionable. What you want to know is what the attendees remember a few weeks afterwards.

There are essentially three basic types of tools that you need to measure events:

1. Surveys

In our opinion, the most reliable way to measure relationships with your customers is to survey them before the event and then repeat the survey afterwards to see if they changed their minds. If that isn’t an option (and I realize getting names ahead of an event may be impossible), the second-best way is to collect names at the event and interview attendees afterwards.

Ask them what they can remember about the experience:

  • Do they remember being in your virtual booth?
  • Did they even know you were a sponsor?
  • Did they remember your brand, and the brand benefits or brand positioning you were trying to convey?
  • Did they leave more likely to purchase or to recommend?
  • Did their perceptions or opinion of your brand change or improve?

2. Web and social analytics

Use unique URLs, tagging and set up conversions in Google Analytics to track the extent attendees engaged with your brand during or after the event. Track the use of event hashtags to determine the extent that visitors used social media to engage.

**Watch this video to learn how to set up goal conversions in Google Analytics.**

3. Media content analysis

When we talk about media analysis, we mean analyzing both traditional as well as social media. You want to know if you received your fair share (or ideally more than your fair share) of the conversation around an event. Your share of hashtag use is another good metric to use.

Additionally, you’ll want to analyze the media to see if you got your key messages across, the extent to which your spokespeople or leaders were quoted relative to their peers or competitors, and whether any of your content was picked up or shared.

*** This is a good time to review the table in Part 2 of this article, which shows typical objectives, activity and outcome metrics, benchmarks, and research methods or tools for various types of events. ***

Step 6. Analyze results, draw conclusions, and make better decisions next time

The purpose of all this research and evaluation isn’t to just demonstrate that, “It really was a really great event!” The purpose is to learn something so that you can make better decisions for your next event. So analyze the data first to see what didn’t work, e.g., Were there messages that were missed?

Case in point: Several years ago, our analysis of a press event discovered that the reporters who were not at the event picked up more of the client’s key messages than the ones who attended in-person. It turned out that the speakers were long and rambling, and the client’s messages that did come through got lost amidst the shrimp and other distractions. The reporters who just went straight to the press kit got much clearer messages and so were much clearer themselves on what the product benefits were.

Next, find out what elements of the event worked best, (see “5 Ways to Calculate the ROI of Your Event”) and contrast them with those that didn’t work at all.

Events are expensive and thus vulnerable to budget cuts, but if you have solid data on what outcomes they achieved, you’ll dodge the cost-cutting bullet. Now go on to Part 2 of this article: A Guide to Objectives, Metrics, and Tools.


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