Working Smarter

How to Use RFID Technology to Track Your Attendees’ Engagement

RFID technology can help planners capture the highs and lows of attendee engagement.

Numbers may not lie, but they can be used to tell stories. And Steve Varraso, vice president for operations at Pri-Med, a medical education company that provides CME to approximately 250,000 primary-care physicians, wanted to go beyond standard metrics — such as total number of attendees and trade-show visitors — to tell the most accurate story possible about how attendees engage with content at Pri-Med West, one of the company’s largest conferences.

The meeting, which is held at the Anaheim Convention Center in Anaheim, Calif., each spring, drew nearly 6,600 attendees in 2013. It included three educational tracks, with sessions held over three days, and an exhibit hall. Doctors and clinicians attend the trade show, not so much to make purchases but to get answers to their questions, Varraso said. To provide that, Pri-Med organizes demonstration areas and presentation theaters around specific topics on the show floor — so it’s important to the company, as well as to exhibitors, Varraso said, to determine what kinds of content engage attendees.

To help do that, in 2012, Varraso began offering attendees badges embedded with RFID (radio-frequency identification) tags. RFID readers in the exhibit hall and educational sessions detected when the tags were present and collected minute-by-minute information about where attendees were on the floor and, in broad demographic strokes, who they were. (The data is reported in aggregate, Varraso said, and not at the level of individual attendees.)

The data revealed precisely how many of the attendees visited the show floor (82 percent), how long they stayed (an average of two hours), and whether they came back (more than three-quarters visited more than once, and a third came all three days). Just as important, Varraso said, the RFID data allowed Pri-Med to give exhibitors a clear picture of where attendees congregated in the demonstration areas and presentation theaters, and whether exhibitors were attracting their target audience.

Because the 2012 data showed a significant drop-off in show attendance after 2:30 p.m., Pri-Med adjusted exhibition hours this year. The data also allowed the company to advise exhibitors about how they could best staff their booths for 2013 — based on floor-traffic patterns over the course of the conference. “It’s one thing to react to anecdotal feedback about trade-show attendance,” Varraso said. “It’s another thing to be able to react to quantifiable data.”


RFID data also is a useful tool for fine-tuning the conference’s educational sessions, where Pri-Med was already using scanners to record attendance and award CME credit. Unlike badge scans, RFID data can tell whether attendees stay in sessions or scan their badges and leave. Previously, conference organizers really had no way of knowing in detail what attendees did once they got their badges scanned.

“Scan counts only allow us to gauge when they checked in,” Varraso said, “but we have no knowledge of whether they left for large periods of time or which sessions may have captured an attendee’s attention for the full duration of the session.” The benefit of using RFID, compared to scan counts, he added, “is that we have precise knowledge of the attendee behavioral patterns by the minute.”

The data is helping Pri-Med to select and schedule topics. At Pri-Med West 2013, Varraso said, some popular tracks drew as many as 25 percent more attendees than the badge-scan data showed. RFID data “becomes very useful in identifying which specific sessions drew the most attendees, as well as which sessions actually captured the attendees’ attention for the longest period of time.”

The converse is also true. “If a session had minimal participation and barely kept the attendees there for the full session,” Varraso said, “then we know that not only was the topic deemed unattractive, but the actual delivery of the content also failed to keep the attendees’ attention.”

An important part of the initiative was to make sure that, at registration, attendees were informed and clearly understood how the RFID tags would be used, and were given the opportunity to choose whether they would wear a badge with a tag or not.

The biggest challenges were unfamiliarity with the technology and uncertainty about how the data would be used. “Our promise to the attendees,” Varraso said, “was that we would use the data only in aggregate form and not at the individual level.”

Even with those assurances, about 10 percent of attendees did decline the tags — a figure that wasn’t high enough to affect the integrity of the data that was collected, Varraso said. “Our big push was to make sure that we were transparent.”

As useful as the RFID data is, Pri-Med is using it only at large, annual events like Pri-Med West, he said, adding: “It doesn’t come cheap.”

Barbara Palmer

Barbara Palmer is senior editor and director of digital content.