Author: Jessica Miller, Associate VP, Strategic Initiatives
As we evolve our event strategies with all the lessons we’ve learned, one thing’s for sure, engagement matters.
The past few years have been game changers, disrupters, mind benders.
We’ve memorized more CDC guidelines than we knew existed. We’ve mixed our business tops with sweatpants bottoms. We’ve gotten creative with technology in a way that would make the Jetsons gawk. And, importantly, we’ve discovered how necessity can be a catalyst for innovation.
We learned new lessons. We took risks. And we made it work. But in the end, there’s nothing quite like the power of a shared in-person experience.
At the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) conference for Special Events in Advancement in Denver earlier this month, I was reminded just how electric a room can be and how meaningful it feels to reunite in person with thought-leaders, colleagues, and partners in higher education who share a collective passion for creating unforgettable, emotional experiences.
In many ways, it felt like a return to the “before times”. You know, before things were “unprecedented” and “uncertain.” Before we knew the versions of ourselves that would hoard toilet paper and say “you’re on mute” too many times to count.
And even though we slid right back into the delight of in-person connection, I also acknowledge that we’re different people now. We’re changed. And so, what can we take with us from that wild ride as we reunite in person?
A surefire way to realize how much you miss something, is to take it away. Virtual events were necessary. They kept us together when we didn’t have other options, and they are here to stay. And while they do expand our reach, allowing us to connect with limitless audiences in multiple geographic areas all at once, engagement is often compromised in this setting. In a physical space, we know what we’re contending with – tastes, smells, sights, sounds – but when we’re beaming into homes and offices, the distractions and competing priorities are countless and can be too varied to solve for.
Lack of engagement can have great impacts. The 2022 release of Giving USA reports the number of U.S. households participating in philanthropy has dipped below 50%, the lowest participation rate in two decades. Some attribute this drop to the feeling of isolation and disconnection, particularly over the past few years. Bolstering our constituent’s feeling of connection and community through intentional engagement could help restore and preserve our country’s rich tradition of philanthropy.
As we design experiences in this new landscape, we should focus less on how much airspace we can use to speak to our audiences, and more on creative ways to use some of that airspace to allow them to speak back.
Remember that time you mentioned to a friend that new pair of jeans you wanted, only to be inundated with denim-related ads that evening? That’s a small example of why, more than ever before, we expect curated content. We are more engaged with content that acknowledges us as distinct individuals.
When defining engagement, it’s important to ask ourselves “who is this for?” and answer with extreme honesty. There isn’t a right or wrong answer. But centering on this question can mean the nuanced difference between asking ourselves what we want our audience to think, feel, and do, and what our audience, themselves, wants to think, feel, and do.
It provides clarity about who stands to gain, and how that impacts our level of engagement and its returns.
We know shared experience, sense of belonging, and relational equity matter. But how can we get better at measuring and communicating that value?
Making the case, quantitatively, that an experience is linked directly to an attendee’s later actions can feel like a nearly impossible feat. We’re whole, round people, whose many motivations, conversations, and experiences factor into our actions. But not being able to say definitively that event attendance is linked to an action, giving for example, also means that we cannot say definitively that it is not linked.
Within the industry we have become quite good at measuring event success in terms of behaviors. Did someone attend or click? Did they come late or leave early? But we have been less effective at taking it one step further—tying together why those specific behaviors matter with regard to the outcomes we want to see. For example, we measure attendance as a behavior because we know that people who attend more events are more engaged. And data tell us that engaged people are more responsive to the needs of the organization, more invested in its success, and more likely to participate in philanthropy.
As we devise metrics for events, we often do so on an event-by-event basis, establishing creative ways to measure toward that event’s specific goals. But taking a look at data trends across multiple events can reveal how measurable behaviors contribute meaningfully to the role of events in the outcomes our organizations value most.
As we see organizations and partners blissfully return to holding more in-person experiences, designing innovative and creative ways to bolster and measure engagement is top of mind. Coming out of an interaction desert, returns on that engagement could be greater than ever!
For easy reference, here is a summary of takeaways:
Understanding ROE (Return on Engagement)
Jessica Miller is Associate Vice President, Strategic Initiatives at Level5 Events by the Expo Group. Jess spent nearly a decade in higher education advancement where she has helped institutions like the University of Florida and Rutgers University operationalize communications and fundraising strategies for multi-billion-dollar comprehensive campaigns. At Level5 Events, Jess leverages her expert execution, creative eye, and higher education insight to build collaborative partnerships and create strategic roadmaps for initiatives of all scopes and scales. Jess deeply values cultivating relationships and championing the voices and strengths of others.
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