According to Carrie Freeman Parsons, VP-marketing at Freeman, a company that produces events, "If you ask most companies if they measure ROI, they would say no. … Overall, I don't think a lot of companies track it, and I don't think they know how," she said. "Where all of these event organizers are starting to get nervous is if the eco-nomy turns, they are going to have to explain that [expensive event] line item. That's when the heat gets turned up.' "
Ruth Stevens, president of eMarketing Strategy, said a significant problem is the disconnect between marketers and event managers. "Exhibit managers and event managers are mainly trained in logistics, in getting the event executed," she said. "The marketers are trained to be marketers. But when you ask a marketer to consider strategic questions like ROI relating to events, their eyes glaze over and they say, `Oh, talk to my event manager ... she/he takes care of events for me.' "
In addition, the task of proving ROI is tougher when dealing with b-to-b customers, according to Dax Callner, VP-communications strategist at Jack Morton Worldwide, an experiential marketing agency. "B-to-b audiences are tougher to demonstrate ROI [for] because, when a b-to-b customer makes a purchase, it involves many touch points and is often a longer cycle than it would be for a consumer target. … Also, with b-to-b audiences there are multiple decision-makers. … So it gets complicated and [as a result,] the more complicated the ROI calculations become.
"Even when you ask people what ROI means you get multiple definitions," Callner said. "I look at ROI as a financial metric, as in: `Did we increase revenue [over what was] spent?' Other people look at return on objective: `Did we reach the right audience?' In my world, that's not enough."
And it's not just the definition of ROI that is not standardized. There are no across-the-board measurement standards being embraced, and many companies, though confident they would like to measure ROI, aren't sure where to begin.
Without any industry standard to define ROI (whether it is measuring actual monetary return or, as Callner says, return on objective) how can marketers prove that the large expense is worth it? In fact, there are many new technologies popping up to quantify the value of an event.
Software management technology, which can often be accessed via the Web, can provide a real-time picture of an event. This means constantly updated access to registration, presenters, scheduling speakers and session attendance. Measuring every aspect of an event and collecting those data for the long term can quantify the event—allowing for comparison to past and future events so organizers can judge value over the years.
"We improve measurement and automate meetings and events in real time," said Paula Crerar, VP-marketing at nTag, an integrated event management technology. "Today's audience is so used to manipulating the information they get and [their] experience, [that] they expect an immediacy. They expect to change the event based on the shared experience. We think of ourselves as bringing the online world to the face-to-face event."
In the case of Global LINKS, another event management program, the technology even allows event attendees to manage hotel reservations and scheduling private meetings. "All of our products are accessible via the Web. They are mobile," said Shannon L. Ryan, director-product marketing worldwide at George P. Johnson Co., which created the software. "That's a key element because we understand that people are on the go. Having the real-time data enables them to make more strategic decisions."
Using systems such as these can allow organizers much more freedom for change. As the technologies track every aspect of an event, they allow event auditing while the event is taking place.
"Networking is more targeted and more interactive," Crerar said. "Then the attendee can provide instant feedback in the form of electronic survey or through live voting or audience response."
Global Links allowed Cisco Systems to have an immediate understanding of traffic patterns and session attendance, as well as improving the registration process, at its August Global Sales Meeting. The integration of the management software also gave Cisco the ability for organizers to communicate with each other more effectively, said Angie Smith, manager-operations and event management at Cisco.
"We have metrics built on just about everything," Smith said. "The return on investment for me was that [before], I had one full-time head-counter. Whereas moving to the integration of Global LINKS allowed me to eliminate the person. I no longer needed that person [because] a piece of technology could do that for us.
"I would like to use it from now on," she added. "The tool is just global; it takes into account and streamlines every piece of the event management business."
Even with these new technologies, proving ROI can be difficult. An industry standard defining ROI is needed as well as a willingness to discuss candidly how companies can go about measuring it. Ultimately, an industrywide conversation will be invaluable to everyone involved.