How to Evaluate Speaker Opportunities and Measure Thought Leadership Programs


This post is adapted and updated from a paper published by the Institute for PR, coauthored by Marianne Eisenmann and Katie Delahaye Paine, © 2007 Institute for Public Relations.

As with any communications efforts it all starts with goals and objectives. With thought leadership programs things can get a little dicey. Especially if the answer to the question of “Why do we care about thought leadership?” is: “Our CEO wants to be considered a thought leader in the industry.”

I’d be willing to bet that a good percentage of all thought leadership programs are launched for ego rather than business reasons (or at least that’s what it seems from their KPIs). When I see metrics like “total number of mentions compared to the competition” or “number of keynote speaking invitations,” I have to wonder where the business value is. If a “keynote” means a high school graduation speech, or if your mentions go up because the CEO won a golf tournament, then how does that benefit your business?

Defining the business value isn’t just good practice, it’s critical to evaluating opportunities and deciding where and how to place your thought leaders. As with all marketing opportunities, data trumps gut instinct. The good news is that there are lots of opportunities to apply good research and evaluation practices before, during, and after a speaking opportunity.

Before the event

As with any well-planned measurement program, the first step is to call a meeting of the key players to make sure that everyone is on the same page regarding goals, parameters, and objectives. Here are the critical steps:

Step 1. Define the business goals for the program

Have a discussion with whoever your thought leaders are and get them to articulate what they perceive is the connection between their efforts and the bottom line. Typically the goal is either:

  • A sales opportunity to get in front of potential customers or business partners, or
  • A chance for your CEO or other senior executive to showcase industry expertise and leadership, comment on industry issues, and drive corporate reputation.

Once you have established your goals they need to be articulated in the form of SMART objectives: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-based. For instance: “In order to increase our market share in this market, we need to address ABC audience at DEF venue with XYZ messages by the end of Fiscal Year 2017.”

Step 2. Do your homework and create the strategy

Identify the target audiences and key demographics that you’re trying to reach. Decide what messages you want them to hear.

Now firm up the details of your strategy:

  • What audiences do you need to address?
  • What messages will resonate?
  • How do those messages match with what your leadership wants to say?

Ideally, you’d conduct customer research to identify the target audiences and messages. But check with sales, marketing, market research, and customer insights to see what data they have that can flesh out the plan.

Step 3. Create a wish list of events, then define your favorability criteria and opportunity score

Create a spreadsheet that includes your wish list of conferences, venues, or meetings. Rate each event as to whether or not it meets the following favorability criteria. These criteria will vary according to your organization and its goals, and you may have additional criteria not included here. Possible criteria might include:

1. Audience size and composition
Before accepting a speaking engagement, find out from the organizers who will be in the audience. Understand what percent of the audience is relevant to your objectives, whether that means industry and opinion leaders or potential sales opportunities. If the organizers have managed this event previously, ask to see a list of previous attendees to help verify that your expectations match theirs. Confirm with the organizers whether or not you will be provided with a list of attendees. If so, will that list include full contact details or some other opportunity to follow up?

2. Opportunity for collecting leads
While most conference organizers accept the fact that your thought leader is there for marketing and sales purposes, not all gatherings provide opportunities to collect sales leads. Many don’t have formal “booths” or even tables, so you are left with trying to collect business cards at the end of the speech. Which is better than nothing, but hardly ideal. It’s always a bit awkward because you have to get out of the room before the next session starts. A couple of techniques to try:

  • Offer a free subscription to your newsletter if people give you their business cards.
  • Or, just say, “If you’d like a copy of my speech, give me your business card.”

3. Potential key media coverage
If the audience composition seems appropriate, determine from the organizer how the event will be promoted. You want to know how many invitations, flyers, or brochures will be distributed, and to whom. If your organization has high visibility in the marketing materials which will be sent to potential attendees, then this is an opportunity to get targeted exposure or recognition for your spokesperson and organization. This exposure represents value to your organization.

4. Potential for key message dissemination
When developing the speech or presentation, ensure that your organization’s key messages and positioning can be highlighted. Thought leadership speaking opportunities are not sales pitches, but there are ways to subtly include a case study or other example to showcase the work of your organization. Be sure messages are tailored to meet your stated goals and objectives.

5. Opportunity to raise awareness of the organization, its mission, and achievements
Some events, because of their nature or reputation or relationship to your organization, will be especially valuable as opportunities.

6. Leadership time investment
An event that requires minimal leadership time is a good thing. Remember that leadership time is one of the most precious resources an organization has, so use it wisely. The time a member of your leadership team spends out of the office at a conference is time that they are not available for much else.

Define your opportunity score

An opportunity score is a technique that helps you define the value of any particular speaking engagement to your organization. This technique is an effective way to organize and make decisions about speaking opportunities.

Invariably, speaking opportunities will arise that someone will want to do, and you’ll have to decide if it’s a good idea and then account for that decision. In these cases an opportunity score will save you time and stress, because with it you can easily express your decision-making criteria. It’s much easier to frame an answer with data than with an internal power struggle based on whim and gut instinct.

Consult with your communications team and weight your favorability criteria according to importance to the organization. Then put together a little table like the one that follows:

Criteria Weighting
Audience size and composition2.5
Opportunity for collecting qualified leads4
Potential key media coverage0.5
Potential for key message dissemination2
Opportunity to raise awareness of the organization, its mission, and achievements. 1
Leadership timeminimal
Total Score10

A perfect 10 opportunity, as shown in this example, would hit all the criteria, but very few actually will.

Step 4. Establish a benchmark

Measurement is by nature a comparison tool. So decide up front what you are going to compare your results to. Other CEOs? Different events? Other marketing tactics? Make sure that leadership has bought into whatever benchmark you are using.

Step 5. Gather as much data up front as you can

If you have data from earlier events, life is relatively easy. If you’re evaluating opportunities that you haven’t participated in, get as much data as you can from the organizers of the event.

If you don’t have any media (social and traditional) monitoring set up, set it up immediately. Assuming you are promoting your leadership’s presence at the event, then you’ll probably be pitching interviews before, during, and after the event. Make sure you are capturing your own coverage as well as that of the competition. You’ll want to be able to demonstrate your share of voice versus the competition. You won’t be able to do that unless you’ve been tracking all the conversations and hashtags used during the lead-up to the event.

Don’t just collect clips. Analyze them to see if the media and the social conversations are picking up your key messages. It’s one thing to be mentioned, but what really matters is that your organization is positioned in a way that suits the strategy.

Opportunities while at the speaking engagement

During the speaking event there are at least three opportunities to collect measurement data:

1. Track your share of the event hashtag(s)

A good indicator of the extent to which you are part of the conversation is to track how often your organization or brands are mentioned in conjunction with the event hashtag. Do not include your own tweets or posts! A common mistake is to simply count everything, but you should filter out anything that your organization posted. Only count retweets, shares, comments, or other earned media.

2. Leave a questionnaire

If the session organizers allow it and are not already doing so, leave a questionnaire on every chair for attendees to fill out. Alternatively send them an email asking them for feedback. Make sure your questions reflect the goals of the event (so do not ask if they liked the speaker) and ask if they understand or believe your key message(s).

If the purpose of the event is to build relationships, use 5-6 statements from the Grunig instrument to evaluate the extent to which the event contributed to greater trust, commitment, satisfaction, etc. These results will only be useful if you have earlier survey data to compare to, so you will have to plan to do this survey at different events, or the same event year after year.

Keep your questionnaire short and ask no more than six simple, multiple choice questions. (See these case studies for real life examples). Test whether the attendee heard or believed your key messages and whether they left more or less likely to do business with you. Do this at at the end of each event and you’ll get a sense of which events are the right ones to participate in.

If you use a paper questionnaire, print it on colored paper for easy identification and visibility to the attendees and for collection. Be sure to consider logistics for collecting the questionnaire. You can simply ask the attendees to leave questionnaires on their chairs, or you can place a box or tray near the exit for collection. Better yet, if a colleague is also in the room, asking attendees to give him or her the completed questionnaire is a good way to introduce your colleague, and could lead to fruitful interaction as well.

3. Take names and count heads

If the goal of the event is to grow your marketable universe and/or collect leads, you’ll need to track the number of leads that come in. Offer attendees an incentive to give you their business cards, as in, “If you want a free copy of my white paper, give me your business card.” If you can get a list of attendees from the organizers – even better.

Also do a rough count of the heads in the room. That way you’ll at least have a sense of how many people you reached. And you’ll be able to calculate the comparative cost per minute spent with client (Here’s how to do it). Another way to evaluate relative engagement is to calculate what percentage of the room offered a business card.

Measuring effectiveness after the speaking engagement

Once the event is over, there are numerous options to evaluate the success of the effort:

1. Messages actually delivered

The opportunity to influence the attendees is missed if the speech doesn’t deliver the messages. In line with knowing what the objectives are, you must pre-determine what messages you want the audience to hear, and who will deliver them. Each type of audience needs a tailored message which ideally can be built around your organization’s core messages.

The critical task of getting those messages across lies with the speaker. To measure this you can track the messages delivered against the goals, during the speech, afterwards in the discussion or Q&A, as well as in the media and any social conversations that take place. (This requires human analysis of those conversations.) You can also use this data to assess if the speaker might be helped by media training or presentation training to better deliver the messages. Continue to track delivery of key messages to show the improvement following training.

2. Cost per key message communicated

Once the event is over, add up the number of your messages that were picked up in the media or social conversations. Then, to put a cost effectiveness value on it, you can take the total budget for the event and divide by the total number of opportunities to see/hear a key message.

3. Cost per minute spent with prospect

If an objective of your speaking program is to generate sales leads, then you may want to calculate the value of your effort in terms of reduction in sales costs. If you have a product or service that has a long sales cycle and needs time to explain, this is a particularly good way to evaluate marketing efforts.

Several years ago, the pharmaceutical company Glaxo figured out that it cost them $300 to get a sales person into a doctor’s office for about five minutes. That’s $60 per minute spent in front of a prospect. Now suppose you get 60 minutes in front of a qualified audience of 100 people. That’s $0.83 per minute spent with each potential prospect. Relatively, this appears to be very efficient.

Once you have expressed it in that form, you can compare value to other marketing efforts. So, for example, suppose a 20-second underwriting spot on NPR costs $5,000. Assuming it communicates your key message and reaches 500,000 listeners, that’s $.01 per opportunity to hear a key message and $0.03 per minute spent with a prospect. Remember, of course, that this only works if your target audience is NPR listeners, which their audience research indicates is upscale, educated, and influential. ∞

About Author

Katie Paine

I've been called The Queen Of Measurement, but I prefer Seshat, the Goddess.