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Increasing Audience Return-on-Investment (ROI)

Neil Dempster will wow your audience!Every year tens of thousands of conferences, seminars, and meetings are held to transfer knowledge, skill, and wisdom to the people who attend—in essence, to help increase each attendee's intellectual capacity to perform. In the private sector, the goal of the conference is usually to increase the sponsoring organization's competitive advantage in the marketplace; for government and non-profits, the goal may be to increase efficiency and effectiveness or provide better service to their constituents; in the case of associations and user groups, the conferences are primarily to help their members grow and develop which, in turn, helps strengthen the association.


With very few exceptions, the conference organizers want attendees to learn new skills, tools, and techniques (the intellectual component)—and be motivated to apply the new learnings back in the workplace (the emotional component). Unfortunately many organizations never receive a reasonable return on investment (ROI) for the time and money they put into sending people to these events—but it doesn't have to be that way!


Two critical questions need to be answered:


  • Why are attendees not coming back from these meetings and providing a good ROI within their respective organizations?
  • What can conference organizers and leadership within the sponsoring organizations do to increase the return on their investment in conferences, seminars, and meetings?


The answer to the first question is relatively easy—the second is a little more complex.


According to Broad and Newstrom (2001), the component that has the greatest influence on transfer of learning is not the keynote speaker or seminar leader; it is not even the attendee; it is, in fact, the work environment the attendee leaves and comes back to that determines the ROI. In essence, it is how much preparation is done by the organization before people attend a learning event and how supportive the workplace is to applying new knowledge after the learning event that determines whether the attendee is in a position to provide a positive ROI.


How organizations can increase ROI.


Poorly planned conference content that is not linked to corporate strategies and initiatives will have a negative impact on ROI, however, even the best content is unlikely to be implemented by the conference attendee if the appropriate steps are not taken both before and after the event to create the positive expectation of application. Although creating a learning work environment is very complex, and beyond the scope of this web page, there are two important steps that will have a profound impact on the attendee's ability to apply the knowledge gained at the conference:


  • The attendee's manager or direct supervisor should schedule time to speak with the attendee prior to attending the conference to discuss objectives. The following questions should be asked:

1. What specific items would you like/need to learn?


2. What could you do to organize/prepare for this learning opportunity?


3. What could you do during the event to maximize your learning?


4. How do you think you will apply what you will learn?


  • When the attendee returns (as soon as possible after the event), ask the questions below to ensure that the attendee fully understands the importance of an implementation 'action plan' and the positive outcomes of increased competencies. After discussing the attendee's responses, schedule a follow-up to discuss successes and any challenges the attendee may have had in applying the new learnings. Ask:

1. What specific actions will you take to implement what you have learned?


2. How will you know you have been successful in applying what you learned?


3. Who could you share this new information with?


To further establish 'learning accountability' within your organization, use the LEARNlinks® worksheet.


How conference organizers can increase ROI.


There are many ways a conference organizer can increase ROI, including:


  • Your selection of keynote speakers and breakout session leaders should take into consideration the relevance of the message to the attendee's workplace. Make sure that every presenter is aware of changes and challenges that are affecting the attendees to ensure that topics and messages are on target. If presenters do not ask (shame on them!), then you need to tell them what is most important to the attendees.
  • The placement of the speaker is critical—a high-energy presenter at the very beginning of the conference will kick it off with a bang; high-content presenters should follow to provide attendees with substantive information relating to workplace issues; after lunch and at the very end of the conference there needs to be another hit of energy. When you plan in this manner, the attendees are able to absorb much more of the key learnings presented.
  • The conference handout is also critical! There is a disturbing trend by conference organizers (who want to be seen as high-tech or environmentally-friendly in their conference planning) to only include the handouts on a CD or down-load link provided to attendees at the beginning or end of the conference. This flies in the face of everything we know about adult learning! Take a look from the front of the room and you will see that attendees are still taking notes in spite of the fact that they have no handout to write on! Unfortunately, when they return to the workplace to print off the handout from the CD, all of their notes are out of context and do not align with the flow of the handout (and now need to be transposed on to the handout —who has time for that?). Adult learners take notes, so it is incumbent on us to provide a handout that enhances the learning! The cost of the paper utilized (and size of the carbon footprint) is a small price to pay for the benefits gained.
  • The conference evaluation is often poorly done because it focuses on the session environment instead of on the learning aspects of the session (don't worry, if the room is too cold the attendees will tell you!). The evaluation should focus instead on the practical application and behavior change aspects of the session because the real goal of the session is not more knowledge; instead the goal of the session is the application of new knowledge. Also, any numerical rating on the evaluation should be done using even numbers to eliminate "fence-sitting" (i.e., instead of the standard 5-point Likert scale, use a 4-point scale so the attendees are forced to make a choice instead of sitting in the middle). For more information on creating effective evaluations, please see our step-by-step guide in our Training Core Sevices area.




Broad, M.L., & Newstrom, J.W. (2002). Transfer of training. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

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