"What do you think so far?" the conference organizer asked me.

Targeted invite-only audience to ensure maximum networking potential (check), a venue with close proximity to public transportation and public parking (check) plus TED-like presentations on relevant topics (performance reviews, layoffs, timing a fund raise) grounded in real world examples, not platitudes (check)--based on the first two-hours of the event, my gut reaction was thus far, this was a thoughtfully planned event. Worthwhile use of time from my point of view as an attendee, but what of the event organizers? Was the event aligning with their investment of partner time, let alone sunk venue and refreshment costs (and beyond attendance, how were they measuring success anyway)?

A gut reaction (or even a follow-up survey to attendees or the popularity of a specialty conference-themed cocktail) isn't the ROI event organizers should count on when measuring the success of their event.

"Events have always been one of the most effective marketing tools. That has never changed. What has changed is our ability to create valuable opportunities around each event, and track the value they generate. Many event planners still use a cross-your-fingers approach: You try to get the right people in the room, and hope you get some quality face-time with a key client or potential customer. This approach is the old school way of thinking." - Ben Hindman.

Ben knows a thing or two about lost opportunities embedded in the old-school approach to event planning. Ben is the CEO and co-founder of Splash, an event-marketing platform that helps businesses and brands more effectively market through their events. Before founding Splash, Ben was an event planner. Splash was born out of one of Ben's greatest frustrations as an event planner: he wanted a powerful event marketing tool that could make his events look as amazing online as they did in person--and he wanted powerful analytics so he would know for sure whether his events were generating real results for his clients.

According to Ben, the opportunities to engage with your target audience start before the registration table and extend well-beyond the actual event. An important detail that many event organizers overlook as they get bogged down in the event-planning weeds. "Events are the best form of direct marketing in existence. Because it's not just one opportunity to connect with a potential customer. It's 10-15 opportunities." Ben notes. Think about the event invitation. "Very few people are sharing your ads--even when there is a friends & family discount - but good event invitations are inherently shareable."

With a Fall calendar filled with conferences and year-end client event planning well underway, Ben has five suggestions on the ways business owners and entrepreneurs can capture better ROI from their events:

1. Know that your events aren't just about who is in the room.

If you're hosting an event to drive leads, Ben's advice is to focus on not just the event itself, but the 10-15 opportunities around the event. From the save the date to the reminder e-mail(s) and post-event follow-up--these are all elements of marketing your event and connecting with your invitees. Businesses who are strategic about these touch points do much better than those who just focus on the event itself.

So what if someone RSVPs and never shows up to your event; the point of a good email marketing campaign is to get them to engage with your business. Keep in mind, things come up last-minute and that important person you were hoping to chat with are often too busy to attend your events (or anybody else's). But, if they're receiving then clicking on your event emails - such as a save-the-date or blog post recap about the event--you know you've got their attention. Plan these touch points, then act on them.

2. Incentivize your employees to generate amazing RSVPs.

According to Ben, the most important line item in your event budget is not the venue or bar selection, rather it should be an employee bonus to get the right people in the room.

Here is what Ben suggests: A few weeks before your next event, launch an incentive program to encourage your team to get the best RSVPs. Publicly recognize employees who pull in an RSVP from a key client or target customer and reward him/her with cash when that RSVP turns into a sale.

3. Create a scenario where people actually want to attend.

If your event isn't Tweetable, Instagrammable, brag-worthy, shareable, or cool enough that people are just dying to invite a +1, then you might be doing something wrong. People don't care about your new app launch or new product offering. If you focus your energies on creating an "unmissable" experience, you're already on your way to capturing a better return on your investment. Creating a unmissable event may be as simple as adding puppies which Splash and Bark & Co did for a breakfast party to celebrate the final day of Ad Week.

4. Track the residual opportunities your events generate.

Sometimes the ROI from an event is the unexpected or perhaps, a secondary goal. A company throws a recruiting event, and inadvertently closes its biggest deal of the year. A tech company hosts a networking event to drive sales leads, and ends up hiring two of their best employees. That's the beauty of events, says Ben: "You can tackle multiple KPIs at the same time. Make sure to track every opportunity from your events--not just the ones you specifically set out to achieve."

5. Use events to hone your sales funnel.

The smartest small businesses are using event data to hone their sales funnel and become more efficient with their event marketing spend. Here's an example of what Ben means by this: a San Francisco-based tech company hosts a sales tour. They throw a big event in Chicago in July for $10K and invite 100 of their top prospects. In October, the company comes back to Chicago and hosts a $5K wine tasting event. Armed with attendee data from the July event, the company only invites the top 30 most engaged attendees (or invitees). This way, the room is only filled with only the highest-probability leads, which means their $5K investment will likely pay for itself.

Now this is data-driven event strategy that any small business can implement today to be more efficient with their marketing spend, and realize a greater ROI from every event they are planning before year-end.

Published on: Oct 20, 2015
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.