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Re-evaluating event evaluations

Meredith Low provided this guest post.  She is a management consultant, focusing on helping organizations and companies understand how, when, and where to grow in the context of fast-changing environments. Her work with associations includes leading strategic and tactical planning, performing assessments to position conferences and meetings for growth and durability, and assessing the needs of members and other stakeholders.

Re-evaluating event evaluations
Given the enormous amount of work that goes into organizing a major event, the evaluation form may seem like a relatively minor task.

Let me argue that, instead, they are actually kind of a big deal.

Think about what evaluations represent. If people take the trouble of filling in an evaluation form for an event, they are granting you some of their precious time and attention, indicating enough engagement – with the current event, possibly with future events – to bother telling you their opinions.

What’s in it for them?

Me, I’ll take any survey and fill in any evaluation form that gets put in front of me. Why? Because I want to know how the questions are asked. I suspect many if not most event organizers are the same – there’s professional interest, and they also identify with the organizers and want to be supportive.

But most people aren’t event organizers. They don’t get the same information out of the evaluation as an organizer would. So there’s less in it for them than you might think. The evaluation should be viewed as another communication touchpoint with whoever is filling it in – typically delegate or participants, but also exhibitors, sponsors, or others.

So then why are so many evaluations organized in a way that’s all about the organizers, and not about the person providing the information?

How many times have you filled in evaluation forms that were all about the logistics – the venue, or specifics of particular sessions? If you’re like me, that happens fairly frequently. I have to squint to remember details that aren’t important to me.

On the other hand, how many evaluation forms have you completed where it increased your engagement with the event? If you’re like me, not that often.

Re-evaluating evaluation

Overall, evaluation of the event should be about whether it met your objectives for holding it. (If you don’t have those clearly identified, you should.) For each objective, you should have a method of measuring whether it was met. Evaluation forms can be one way of doing that.

But you should also know the objectives of the different stakeholders involved in your conference. When you ask them for an evaluation, it should be based on their objectives, their perspectives, not yours. (If you don’t understand what those interests are, that’s a bigger problem.) The better you understand their objectives, the more intelligently you’ll be able to find out whether you met them.

So, some thoughts to challenge the evaluation process:

  • Centre any evaluation form on what that person can reasonably be expected to comment on. Spend the most time on questions that you can’t get the answers to any other way.
  • Design your questions carefully and intelligently, because you don’t want to change them often – that way you can get year-over-year consistency in answers. 
  • Do offer people the chance to provide free-form comments. If nothing comes back, that’s fine. But if there’s some unsurfaced issue out there, it may well bubble up in those comments. 
  • Take steps to increase response rates – Adrian Segar has some great suggestions. Some conferences make it mandatory to complete an evaluation form if they are providing continuing education credits. 
  • …but if you are only getting low response rates, you should seriously consider throwing out everything except the freeform quotes. Really. Don’t show that data to anyone. Those responses are not representative of the people you are trying to understand, and it’s very difficult for any of us to un-see a graph. 
  • Consider timing in terms of what you’re asking about. If you want impressions of each session or day of a long conference, the more immediate the better. If you want to know what stood out for them, you can ask later (even weeks later), but make sure you frame the questions that way, too. If you want to know about outcomes – if they applied learnings from the conference, or whether they made a sale, or if they made a connection that turned out to be meaningful, etc., that might be later still – up to months later. Note, though, that attribution of success to an event is very tricky, so again you want to word the questions – and interpret the results – carefully. 

Taking a more client-centric approach to evaluations can yield much richer and more actionable data to help you improve your event to the direct benefit of those you want to engage. It’s a great opportunity to connect – seize it!

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