Forward Thinking

Enough With the Vanity Metrics

What is your conference data really telling you?

In the late-’60s sci-fi TV series “Lost in Space,” a robot would shout “Danger!” to warn the Robinson family when they faced a potentially perilous situation. Your conference data — when collected, reviewed, and analyzed correctly — can serve the same purpose, alerting you when your event is about to face a problem. The key is looking beyond “vanity metrics,” to the numbers that will lead you to the right conclusions.

If you feel good about your conference metrics right now, it may be time to take a more critical look. Are you following leading or lagging indicators? Too many organizations pat themselves on the back for increased attendance, positive smile-sheet scores, or increases in sponsorship revenue.

We have to be careful not to let emotions based on lagging vanity metrics guide our decisions, and instead look deeper into what our conference data is really telling us. The first step is identifying your data.


1. Cause everyone to feel good about the conference. They give everyone a false sense of security. They include total attendance, revenue, number of sponsors or exhibitors, pace reports, and satisfaction surveys. They are the easiest to measure.

2. Are also the easiest to manipulate. We often confuse them with correlation and causation. When our numbers increase, everyone thinks it’s because we are doing the right things. When they decrease, we blame everyone for not doing their jobs. Vanity metrics don’t provide conference-planning teams with the insight to know what to do next.

3. Are lagging indicators. Often by the time we see a decrease in attendance, it is a symptom of a much deeper issue we were unaware has been going on.

Actionable metrics

1. Help us identify a problem and can provide insight for midcourse correction. They are leading indicators that focus more on who — rather than how many — attended.

2. Include data on attendee, exhibitor- and sponsor-investment retention and loyalty. What is the engagement level? What percentage participated in the opening general session, education sessions, and networking events at any given time? How many attendees have become conference evangelists, telling others and bringing them along?

3. Measure what matters and help you make decisions about the strategy of your conference. We have to remember that metrics are human, too. Truly actionable metrics help us trace the individuals who have responded. If we don’t fully understand the why behind the numbers, we can reach out and conduct qualitative research.

When you embrace actionable metrics and leading indicators, you can talk with your team and leadership about the real challenges with your conference. This elevates your position as a forward-looking, strategic conference professional in your organization.

Dave Lutz, CMP

Dave Lutz, CMP, is managing director of Velvet Chainsaw Consulting.