To measure is to know. These are the words of Lord Kelvin, a 19th-century mathematical physicist. Another of his quotable phrases: “If you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it.” Indeed, meeting executives are wise to take his thinking to heart. Evaluating a meeting is critical to proving its successes (and failures), determining its return on investment, and improving future meetings.

Evaluations should be planned long before the meeting. The evaluation process actually starts when you conduct a needs assessment to determine when and where the meeting should be held, as well as the activities, content, and messages to be covered. Then data are collected through questionnaires that are distributed at the meeting, or through online questionnaires that are e-mailed to your attendees after the meeting.

At the basic level, you want to determine what attendees thought of the meeting, including facilities, food, presenters, content, networking, etc. Some evaluations take questions to the next level, measuring the learning that took place, while the most sophisticated ones measure increased membership, cost savings, and other organizational benefits.

Do-It-Yourself Options

Both paper and electronic evaluations can be handled cost-effectively with a little time and effort.

You can save money by creating, scanning, and processing your own paper evaluation forms. This is easier than you might think. For example, Principia Product's Remark Office OMR (www.principiaproducts.com) allows you to design evaluations in any word-processing software and then print them out to make as many copies as needed.

Completed evaluations are fed through a scanner, and the software reads the filled-in answer bubbles. The written comments are captured as images and can be viewed on the computer or transcribed manually. The data can be analyzed using the software or can be exported to Excel, Access, or another database program. Remark Office OMR costs $895 for a single-user license (plus $155 for a year of technical support). A similar product is AutoData's ExpertScan (www.autodata.com).

Note that the speed and cost of a scanner is an issue to consider if you go this route. Scanners with an automatic document feed can handle anywhere from five to 150 pages per minute and range in cost from $700 to $4,000. That's a big cost difference.

Compared with paper-based evaluations, online surveys can generate higher response rates, produce quicker results, and shorten processing time because attendees type in their responses. A number of application survey providers allow users to design and distribute online surveys at a reasonable cost, with results available in real time. (See the chart on the next page for three popular providers and their features.)

Aim for the Highest Possible Return Rate

We have all struggled with getting attendees to complete and return their evaluation forms. To obtain valid results, it is always best to aim for the highest return rate possible. There are ways to increase return rates for evaluations, and they fall into five categories:

Evaluation Planning

Ask managers to distribute evaluations, show support for the process, and encourage their staff to complete the form. Or, consider having an outside evaluation company conduct the evaluation; attendees may be more willing to share opinions and suggestions anonymously.

Form Design

Make sure that the questions are clear, brief, and easy to answer. Always pilot test the questions with a handful of attendees and colleagues. What you may think is a clear question may not be clear at all to someone else.

Delivery Timing

Timing is critical to increasing response rates. E-mailing a questionnaire immediately after the meeting may produce higher response rates because the meeting is still fresh in the attendee's mind. Provide a deadline for responding; send e-mail reminders a couple of days before the deadline to those who have not completed it.

Communications

Clearly communicate the why, when, what, and who. Share the reasons for the evaluation, when attendees will be asked to complete the evaluations, what will be done with the results, and who will see and act on the results. Have a top representative of your organization emphasize the importance of feedback through a follow-up memo or e-mail.

Incentives

Attendees can be encouraged to return evaluations with an offer or chance of a gift. Alternatively, enclose a giveaway — such as a pen or a gift certificate — with the evaluation to encourage people to return it.

Reporting the Results: A Chance for Change

If you take the time to gather and analyze attendee feedback, you must share the results with stakeholders. Communicating results is as important as achieving them. The process not only improves future meetings — and shows the contributions of the meeting — but it also can build your credibility, justify the meeting, and even gain additional budget funds for the event.

To increase the likelihood that they will be read, customize the meeting results to the interests and expectations of your stakeholders.

For example, send your senior leaders a summary that focuses on the meeting's total effect on your organization, rather than on whether the attendees liked the hotel. On the other hand, your convention services manager will appreciate an e-mail that addresses how attendees felt about the facility, service levels, and meals.

Communicate the results as soon as possible in a face-to-face meeting, news-letter, memo, organization intranet, e-mail blast, or article in an organization publication. Online survey results can be reported almost as quickly as they are received, making timely reporting easy.

When results indicate that some parts of the meeting did not go well or could use some improvement, use these negative or average results as an opportunity to recommend changes for future meetings.

If you are looking for more respect or recognition from your organizations's senior leaders, this is your chance to demonstrate strategic thinking and provide ways that the meeting can have a greater and more positive impact next time.




Monica Myhill, CMP, is president of Meeting Returns, which provides ROI impact and evaluation studies for meetings and events. Contact her at monica@meetingreturns.com or (303) 220-1920.

Online Survey Companies

Web Site www.zoomerang.com www.surveymonkey.com www.freeonlinesurveys.com
Product Version Zpro Professional Premium
Allows Respondent to Save and Resume Later Yes Yes Yes
Allows for Graphics, Logos, and Specific Colors Yes — Branding allowed on thank-you page Yes — Branding allowed on every page of the survey Yes — Branding allowed on every page of the survey
E-Mail Reminders to Nonresponders Yes Yes Yes
Cost $599 for 12 months, or one month for $75. (A free basic subscription is available, but it is not full-featured.) $19.95 a month, or $200 a year. Includes up to 1,000 responses per month ($.05 per additional response). (Free basic subscription is not full-featured.) $49.99 a month for up to 10,000 responses per year. (A free basic subscription is available, but it is not full-featured.)