Lawrence Coburn is CEO and co-founder of DoubleDutch.

A few weeks ago, VentureBeat ran an article discussing how to get the best Return-on-Investment (ROI) when attending a tradeshow. It was a great piece, but the reverse question — how an organizer can measure ROI from an event — is an even trickier proposition.

It actually seems a bit odd that this question hasn’t been answered already. As technology budgets shift from the CIO to the CMO, Silicon Valley (and elsewhere) is rapidly becoming awash in data-driven marketing tools designed to help CMOs optimize that spend.

Yet event marketing continues to coast blissfully along, untroubled by nagging data insights. While an organizer will call an event a success, once you scratch the surface you find most of this “success” has been measured via anecdotal information and qualitative data as opposed to empirical evidence.

The optimists among us would say that this ability to survive – and even thrive – while running nearly blind (in a data sense) is a testament to just how valuable events are to marketers.  By doing the bare minimum of scanning some badges and retrieving a .csv file of leads three days after an event, CMOs are still seeing enough ROI to continue to spend – and spend big – on events.

But the pessimists among us are starting to get antsy.  Take, for example, the CMO Council, who in a recent study pronounced that trades shows and other events are falling woefully behind other marketing techniques in terms of measurable ROI. In an interview with by Liz Miller, vice president of marketing programs and thought leadership for the CMO Council, said, “Marketers are looking for new, improved measurement and how to extract value from [events].”

Just how big is the event marketing budget?  PriceWaterhouseCooper estimates that $108 billion is spent per year in just the production of events in the US, which makes events a bigger industry overall than even the US automotive industry.  That same report puts event marketing at #2 in the overall marketing spend, just behind advertising.

Personally, I think spending such a huge amount of money without a clear understanding of ROI is reckless. In its current state, if I were in charge of the Event Marketing Industry I would likely be retargeting my spending to areas where I at least know what I’m getting.

The good news, however, is that there are seismic shifts happening around evaluating event ROI: specifically, companies are helping event organizers access data that was previously in the dark.

Probably the biggest difference between live events today and in 1992 is that most, if not all, attendees are carrying a smartphone with them. While paper business cards, booth babes, and hardware scanners remain pretty much unchanged, many people are leaving digital trails of their interests and interactions at events by using their smart devices

This data – captured by smartphones and pushed to the cloud – will eventually power a modern, data-driven approach to event marketing.

Much like how website analytics packages can be used to optimize websites for conversions, so too can live event data be used to optimize events.  Event organizers no longer have to rely on surveys to understand which elements of their event worked, and which ones did not.  They just need to look at the data from their event app (and perhaps take a quick look at tweetstream).

One of the areas crying out for optimization is in maximizing leads for exhibitors, who fund much of the industry. By using data logged by smartphones, event organizers can begin to map – and even proactively initiate – connections between attendees and exhibitors, thus helping exhibitors find the leads they desperately crave. The holy grail will be if event organizers can deliver more leads to exhibitors than the ones who physically walk up to a booth to get their badges scanned.

I suspect they can.

Event marketing has survived for many years as a giant, idyllic, data free island in the rapidly quantifying sea of marketing.

But that will not remain the case for much longer.

Lawrence CoburnLawrence Coburn is CEO and co-founder of DoubleDutch, a mobile technology provider for corporations, associations, and trade shows worldwide. 

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