Message Received

Companies spend vast sums of money on creative and effective communications with their customers. Endless effort is spent locating the venue, speaker and planning a lively programme at an appropriate length. Yet, despite the time and money involved, evaluating the effectiveness of most conferences is still a rudimentary art.

Live communications agency Caribiner says live events should be justified in the same way as advertising, PR, direct mail and other elements of the marketing mix. Most companies carry out post-event surveys to check that messages were understood, the format works, and to assess the techniques used and the popularity of speakers. The results are collated to create even more powerful communications.

However, Caribiner chairman Lois Jacobs says: “An exit survey is useful, but researching the achievement of business objectives is more valuable – and more complicated – to do.”

Jacobs adds: “Caribiner recently arranged an event for 5,000 employees of a financial institution. It distributed 1,000 questionnaires to the delegates several weeks prior to the conference, then sent the same participants questionnaires a few days afterwards. We will be mailing them again in a few weeks’ time, to check whether the information retained has proved valuable in helping the company to achieve objectives. We are also doing about 100 face-to-face interviews.

“Caribiner has jointly funded this initiative with the client, and we see it as one of the most substantial pieces of research undertaken in our industry.”

As Jacobs points out, by conducting this type of research before an event, information gleaned can be used to fine tune the programme, and because questionnaires are usually sent to delegates on behalf of the participating company, senior management is seen to be consulting employees by asking their objectives.

Research can also be undertaken during the event, which elicits a more spontaneous response. Using slides in conjunction with press-buttons for delegates to respond, organisers can measure how well the key messages have been received, and the response can be traced to an individual in a particular seat, if required. Unsurprisingly, this is not always popular with participants.

Another advantage of polling at the conference venue is a captive audience. “Grab them while they are there,” says Paul Hussey, director of conference organiser The Olive Partnership. “That way we get about an 80 per cent response. The only downside is that you usually have to arrange it in the final coffee break because everyone wants to leave immediately at the end.”

Employees attending a company conference feel some obligation to fill in a form after an event, but external delegates need more encouragement, for example in the form of a gift such as a T-shirt.

Yet this assumes that research is undertaken in a focused way. Certainly the well-established parts of the marketing mix – advertising, design, promotion and PR – are regularly assessed and evaluated. But business communications, such as conferences, industrial theatre, video and multimedia display have traditionally been judged at a more emotional level: “You liked what we did last year. Give us twice the budget, and we’ll do it bigger and noisier this year.” Hardly scientific.

Genuine research

“The industry is hopeless when it comes to genuine research,” says Crown Business Communications managing director Nick Lamb. “The other elements of the marketing mix have taken the lead by their ability to prove their success and use that as a basis for development.

“We use the same technology and methodology as the advertising industry to gain a foothold. We started to do research projects at our own expense, and now our clients do their own. Research should be used as an evaluation tool, not only before and after, but also to compare performance year on year,” says Lamb. “The future of business communication lies not in the ability to embrace new technology, but in the ability to evaluate its performance.”

Qualitative and quantitative

Crown head of research and strategy Leo Rayman says: “Research and analysis should seek answers above and beyond simple recall of the message. Did delegates buy into it, for example? It should be qualitative and quantitative.”

This does, however, raise a problem: it may mean delivering bad news to clients if the programme failed to communicate their business vision to the audience.

Rayman looks at it more positively: “We can help them identify a problem and solve it. But we have to be honest, or our integrity – and therefore that of our client – is compromised.”

Research can be used strategically to ensure that the carefully honed message meets the right people.

Rolls-Royce and Bentley owners are a good example, in that the cars are an expression of their individuality – not just an elegant way of getting from A to B. The cars are commissioned and built to order, like a work of art or piece of furniture, and targeting effectively the select, potential buyer is more important than to know that he or she can simply afford it.

Target market

“Typically, these people collect things – art, houses, cars,” says John Furneaux, design director of communications agency Furneaux Stewart. “Although Rolls-Royce and Bentley attend motor shows, it is generally a flag-flying exercise. But the company is running a roadshow later this year, visiting dealers in 12 European cities. Prospective customers will be invited to experience the myth and mystique of the marque,” says Furneaux. And the vital requirement is not to sell cars, but to find the right people to sell them to.

In case there is any fear that Rolls-Royce salesmen might be viewed as upmarket “Dell Boys”, Furneaux points out that owning such a vehicle is tantamount to being a member of a club: potential buyers are being invited into an exclusive setting, to participate in an activity that has been going on for the better part of a century.

Not surprisingly, most selling and marketing does not operate at such exalted levels, but when substantial sums of money have been spent on communicating messages to a target market, the only way to justify it is to measure success: how effectively it has been done, and how well the messages have been retained.

But that does not give a measure of how, or whether, an event has had an impact on wider issues, such as the company’s bottom line. The primary aim of a conference may have been to make sure every delegate takes on board the business plan for 2000, but the bigger idea could have been to engender personal ownership of the plan. This is more difficult to assess.

“No one has yet cracked this holistically,” says Simon Wright, strategy development director for training and development consultancy Maritz Communications. “In an ad campaign, it is not possible to isolate one poster and evaluate what it did for the bottom line, and the same is true of below-the-line activity. But we are getting close to being able to show how a corporate intervention has impact on the wider business goals.

Assessment design

“We are blurring the boundaries between outside communication and internal development because the two cannot be isolated,” says Wright. “And we build assessment into the overall design of any programme we develop, so that each exercise is evaluated as it happens. We do not bolt on a measurement device.”

This has the added advantage of the audience not reacting to the fact that they are being measured, and therefore tailoring their response accordingly.

Wright believes organisations should link what they are doing inside the business with how they are doing outside. In short, contented employees give better service, and that retains customers. “There is a direct link from the human resources strategy to marketing,” he says.

The principle has been employed by Bupa, which has put 11,000 staff through One Life, a change management programme, in groups of 100.

It was designed to tighten man- agement processes and include the customer more effectively, and it involved a series of one-day programmes.

Bupa group human resources director Bob Watson says: “The message of the new mission statement is simple: each person is an individual, healthcare is individual, your individuality matters. And that will translate into the way people treat customers.”

Senior managers also undertook a training programme to learn to manage in a more inclusive way. With Maritz, Bupa assessed the success of the conferences by asking questions on the event. This also allowed the company to adjust sessions during the running of the programme, and long-term evaluation continues.

“Bupa has been able to track employee satisfaction and customer satisfaction, and the correlation between the two,” says Wright. “At the same time, it has seen a shift in profitability, allowing it to measure what impact the events have had on the bottom line.”

This serves to underline that intelligent research and effective event evaluation cannot be underestimated.

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