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February 13, 2009

Sam Elphinstone:Evaluation’s about more than just figures

A Phoenix Research director explains how adding a qualitative element to the measurement of your event or live experience, alongside the usual quantitative methods, can add a human touch that can generate a deeper understanding of its effectiveness.

Now, more than ever before, the importance of finding a robust evaluation methodology for measuring the effectiveness of meetings, events and experiential activity is coming to the fore. 

In my experience, the key to developing this methodology has focused around a quantitative approach designed to meet a client’s desire for concrete figures that can be passed upwards to justify spending on activity. In a world run on marketing spend, this makes sense, and quantitative research, properly done, is perfectly positioned to deliver what clients want. 

Return on investment (ROI), benchmarking, strong diagnostics and focused demographics are just some of the key areas where quantitative research can measure your events and experiential activity, optimise your processes and ultimately improve your activity. 

As a standalone approach, a purely quantitative methodology will deliver actionable results that can really make a difference to the success of a meeting, event or experiential campaign, and given that evaluation in this sector is somewhat still in its infancy, it will go much further in terms of measurement than the current norm.

Getting personal
However, I can’t help but feel that something more tangible, more human even, is missing from this mode of evaluation.

I must confess to a vested interest at this point. I am a qualitative research practitioner and have been for some years, but don’t hold that against me. 

There are some very practical reasons why qualitative research should be considered as part of the evaluation process beyond providing me with a living! Indeed, I am saying not that qualitative should replace quantitative as the bedrock of evaluation, but rather that it should be used to complement and augment quantitative findings.

As mentioned, quant can provide a great deal of essential information, but its somewhat pre-determined structure does not allow you to dig below the surface of an answer or opinion.

It asks “What?” or “Why?”, before moving on to ask about something else.

Qualitative research continues to ask “Why?” beyond that initial question, and what it loses in the breadth of response it more than makes up for in depth. 

Saying that qualitative research puts flesh on the skeleton built by quant underplays the role of quant significantly. It’s more like adding the top layer of skin, hair and some great clothes – putting a human face to the responses received.

Digging deeper
If that all sounds a little superficial, then allow me to explain further. Qualitative research as part of event and experiential activity evaluation looks at more than just opinion. It looks at the opinion in the context of the experience, and seeks to understand the motivations and thought processes behind it. 

It’s important to know whether or not people enjoyed the experience, but it’s surely just as important to find out why that was and if this was something within your control, how this opinion plays itself out across a group of consumers, what their intended action is because of this opinion and so on. In short, qualitative research experiences the experience alongside the audience, it doesn’t just measure it.

Furthermore, qualitative research adds nuance to the diagnostics uncovered by the quantitative element. Quantitative research is great at revealing those overarching themes, trends and figures that form the headline results, but paying attention to your audience as individuals can often reap dividends too. 

Seeing your activity through the eyes of your audience on the ground can often bring home the positives and negatives of that activity far more clearly than numbers alone, which in turn means a true acceleration in understanding, learning and, eventually, implementation of an optimised event or live experience.

It’s a raw form of research based simply on communication between people. From consumer to researcher to client – or from human to human to human.

Beyond statistics
The benefits of qualitative research don’t have to stop at the fieldwork stage. In the past, research I have carried out has climaxed with bringing members of the target audience into the boardroom to discuss their thoughts and feelings with the very people trying to communicate with them. 

Not only does this add a certain experiential element to a debrief, but provides a real opportunity for getting to know your target audience, face-to-face.

This idea of bringing clients together with those they seek to understand reinforces, to a degree, what qualitative research is trying to achieve overall, and strongly brings home the fact events and experiential activity are designed to engender lasting relationships with real people, the people behind those key statistics on the page.

Sam Elphinstone is a director at Phoenix Research

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