RDC’s Bird’s Eye View series explores what the future of events truly is by bringing unexpected perspectives to the forefront.
In her latest Bird’s Eye View, Robyn chats with Jeff Sirkin, founder and CEO of Sirkin Research and Arras. They discuss the importance of gleaning actionable insights from data to fuel sustainable growth — which is particularly important for eventprofs at a time when many organizations have more data than they know what to do with.
Watch the full conversation above, or read below:
Robyn Duda: It’s so good to have you on Bird's Eye View. I’m super excited to talk about actionable insights with you today. I would love for you to do a really quick introduction of yourself and your business.
Jeff Sirkin: I actually want to go back even earlier than that. As a kid, I couldn't stand to see something happen without wanting to know why. I always needed the context, I needed the story. For me, that usually related to sports. Why did XYZ happen? Why did this outcome happen? I’m sure I was an annoying kid, but what that turned into as an adult is always needing the context behind something. Revenue is up 20% — why? How do we understand what's actually going on? What are the things that matter most, and how are we able to prove that in the form of data?
My company [Sirkin Research] is a primary research company. The job of marketing is really hard. And if we're honest with ourselves as marketers, it's a lot of educated guessing of what we think is most important to our market. My big thing in life is, I don't necessarily have all the answers, but I know how to test and find my way into them. So what we've developed is essentially a data driven approach to help companies research directly from their buyers, so they can hear directly from their buyers, their pain points, their priorities, and most importantly, the language of the market that they use, because that then builds a bridge back to the products and services that you offer to be able to deliver that to your audience in a way that's going to resonate with them.
RD: That's a perfect segue into the first question that I have for you. We talk about actionable insights.. We got to a place, especially in the events and experience landscape now that so much is digital, where there's so much data, but the teams aren't prepared to go through it and they don't actually know what to do with it even if they did have time to go through it. But people like us know how important data is to storytelling. And to me, storytelling is half the battle of getting people to get off their butts or log on to something and actually be engaged.
Can you talk a little bit about your insights and perspectives on how data leads to storytelling and why that's so important?
JS: You and I are old enough to remember when companies didn't have enough data. And that was always the thing. It's, “We're driven by our gut. We want to be data driven. We just don't have enough.” And now, it's almost like we've pressed the gas so hard and so fast that we've now raced to this new world where there's too much. There's all sorts of stats out there that say that companies only have the bandwidth to be able to look at 5, 10, 15% of their data.
I had a client a few years ago that kind of brought this up to me and said, “Hey, you should say that you help companies look at 100% of their data.” But no, that's not the point. It's understanding which 15% matters. You need to take a strategic approach to your data, which is first and foremost the thing that people get caught in. The world moved so fast, where everyone was like, Okay, we get our arms around it, and all of a sudden you couldn’t. It's still increasing at a tremendous rate, so it's important first and foremost to recognize what's most important to look at, and that's where everything needs to start.
RD: One of the things that comes to my mind that I see all the time when we talk about storytelling, data could be used for — I don’t want to say for good or for bad, that's not fair — but you can tell the story you want looking at data. I think about different marketers who I've encountered, you can take any kind of data and make me look good.
As somebody who then has to deliver that data, I can tell a story that makes the event that I did look good, and not have to necessarily improve or push the envelope. What are your thoughts on that?
JS: To me, I think the idea is getting on the same page and objectively defining how are we going to measure the success of something? You're right, there's so much data, and — let's just take an event for instance — it's easy to then afterwards, find stats and data that will prove the point you want to make: that everything was great. But then what happens, and we see this all the time in organizations, where you have marketing saying, “Look at everything, we knocked everything out of the park, we overdelivered on our leads, and XYZ” and then you have sales saying, “Look in these regions, we're crushing it” but yet somehow the company's not growing, because they've selectively decided to find these things that help tell the story they want to tell.
The analogy I always used to give is I'm an analyst by trade, and that's my background. So fundamentally, I was always the one who's calling balls and strikes. What I came to recognize was, I felt that I was being purely objective. But what would happen is, I'm now talking to people who, this is their baby, this is their project, this is their campaign, this their event. So they have an emotional tie to it. The most important thing is, rather than afterwards, me trying to say hey, I think your baby is not the cutest and then they're trying to defend it, now it turns into this sort of unwinnable thing where we can both call out the data we want.
That's why it's super important, while everyone's level headed, before the baby is born, to be able to say, here's how we're going to measure, here are the things we need to be able to reach. If we do this, we double down, if we do this, we stay the course, and if we get here, it's a yellow flag or a red flag and we shut it down. At least that way, we're all on the same page with it. That's the only way to remove some of the subjectivity, at least in terms of how we’re going to measure something. There's too many opportunities, there's too much data that you can tell the story you want to tell. So it's important to be objective about how are we going to measure this, and that then becomes the story. Internally especially.
RD: Obviously, it's about understanding your audience. Initially, when I'm trying to design something, I have to know who we're designing for. And knowing isn't just “It's a skews older demographic.” Let's really dive into that. We all know that data leads to understand your audience, but break that down for people who may or may not understand.
JS: The Trinity to us that is super important are the pain points, the priorities and the language of the market. I want to break those down. So pain points. The biggest thing anybody is going to buy or make any kind of decision based on is that it solves a pain point for them. And so often in the world, we want to be out there and say, look at our product, look at our service, it's so great, here's all the unique features about it. But unless somebody is really in that 3% of the top of that pyramid, where they're super interested, they're already in an active buying cycle, it's not going to resonate with them. You need to start with what problem does it solve for them? So often we think of it in reverse, we think of it as what do we want to say? And you need to start the other way around. You need to start with your audience. What do they need to hear?
RD: “If we build it they will come” — I've been like a broken record saying that in the marketplace, and that's how we used to design. It was like, “Well, we're the experts, you come to us, what we say is what matters.” And that's just not true.
JS: And what happened, at least in the event world — it used to be the barrier to entry was you had to go through these big monolithic conferences to be able to get the networking, to be able to get the content. And now it exists in all these different forms, so essentially, the barrier to entry got lower. Now the content exists everywhere. So now, again, some of those major events and organizations really need to go from being aggregators — where it's like, we are the sort of the purveyors of the information — to curators, to here is what matters, because we know you. At the end of the day, you need to show how you — whether you are an event, whether you are a company, whether you are an individual — can help solve that pain point or help a priority so you can help that person or that organization be a better version of themselves and something they want to be able to achieve.
RD: I think you were going through the three pillars?
JS: Pain points is the thing everyone thinks about. If I asked any marketer who their main competition is, they name the other companies that have a similar suite of products or services. But the truth is that your biggest competitor is the status quo. It is that person doing nothing. Ultimately, we’re kind of like well, we've made it this long without it. Why do I need to change? Why do I need to pony up this amount of money? But fundamentally, that's so important and we need to remember that typically, the biggest competition we're after is status quo, doing nothing, can I do it with a spreadsheet, can I hire an intern to do it. Those are fundamentally the things. If you're trying to sell any kind of product or service, what is it actually replacing that they're doing? Fundamentally, understanding what pains they're facing, because you need to start there.
Hey, are you somebody who's trying to figure out how to do X? This is why we have this. That's how you start the messaging with the pain point that they're trying to solve for. That's how you get their attention. More importantly, how you resonate with an audience is, they need to feel you're speaking to them. That's what needs to happen first. So pain points, priorities, who are they trying to become and who are they trying to be? What do they want their organization to become? And it's super important to wrap all that in the language of the market. The example we use here is if you talk to anybody in healthcare and health insurance companies, they'll talk about providers left and right. But to the other 99%, we call them doctors. So if you come out there and talk about providers, again, I have no idea what you're talking about. You need to be aware that you're speaking the language of the market and remember that your buyers have a much more novice, beginner's mind view of what it is you do, so you need to speak their language, not yours.
RD: I couldn't agree more. I always reference the brilliant Adrienne Boissy, the former CXO of Cleveland Clinic. She blew my mind. If you clearly understand their needs entering into the relationship, you're assessing the success of your deliverable on whether they're meeting their needs. So what are the problems that I'm solving for? Did I meet those? As opposed to a subjective “ Yeah, it was cool, I liked it.” There's no actual like metrics behind that. It’s more an opinion than it is specifically, did we meet your needs, and we can then determine whether we move forward. So really understanding that stuff upfront is the most important thing right now.
JS: The way we work is, again, back to “we don't have the answers, but we have a way of testing into them.” So what we want is to gather all the hypotheses that exist within an organization today. An example, we just launched some content with a client and their marketing analytics software platform. They were out there in the market talking about their out of the box dashboards. In our survey, one of the questions that we talk about is essentially — it's really testing product features without calling it that — but asking specifically, if you're thinking about a marketing analytics solution, on a scale of one to five, how important are these features. Their out of the box dashboards was 14 out of 14. Nobody cares.
Again, it's educated guessing. We think this is what's going to resonate, but then when you find out that it actually isn't, there's some there's a real power there to be able to say, hey, we thought we were out there promoting this thing that is changing people's lives, and they're saying yeah, this is table stakes, this is what I expected. And so often, that's what we're doing as marketers, but we don't realize we're doing it. If we actually stopped and recognized how many assumptions we have baked in to the things we're saying about the people we're talking to — and that's the difference.
I don't want to rail against personas, because personas are a valuable starting point, but they're generic. They're almost a computer simulation of what a person that fits that profile would look. But so often, that is the comfort that marketers would then rely on. But from our perspective, we say it needs to be real data. It can't just be “Hey, we think it's this person, and they're this years old, and they have X number of children and likely to have this job and here's their income and here’s where they spend the money.”
RD: Like you said, personas are a great place to start, but we're talking about experience. You can be any title, and you can either have a good or a bad experience. It’s all about mood. We developed these mindsets that were like, you could be any one of these people when you enter, when you log in, when you step on site, and I can't control what happened before you got here. And I can't control, necessarily, your experience while you're here. I can control certain parts of it.
And I think that's the part of it — what is controllable, and what's variable that we can't control? How do those affect mood? Understanding what those moods are, and then planning for different moments that can turn those moods around. And that is where we start to get really interesting. Then you're not measuring the old models that we used to have — like NPS and CSAT — and those are still important metrics, but if you can change someone's attitude about your brand in the moment and be able to gauge them, that's where we start to talk about some really interesting stuff.
JS: I think right now in the event world, there's not really a lot of work being done to understand that. I think fundamentally what happens — and this is my experience as somebody who's been to a ton of these — you get these very granular surveys: How is this particular session? How is the coffee, the food? But what you're not actually getting at is, what were the needs? What did I come there trying to learn? And did that actually help me do it?
One thing, back to data, that is probably underutilized is — we talk, especially in event world, about top level revenue and things like that, and that's great. But again, back to the why and the context and the story behind it. Is it because you raised prices? Is it because you added on new things that you're charging people for that you weren’t in the past? What is your audience retention?
If you are delivering an experience that is valuable to people, they will come back, and back, and back. If you see that you have 50, 60, 70% attrition as far as attendees from a year to year basis, then you're not doing it. It doesn't matter. Your revenue might be going up.
RD: You’re building a new event, you’re building a new audience every single time. We want new people. Replacing the same audience isn’t growth. That's survival. Growth would be new people on top. So we've told ourselves a data story about success that really to me shows a decline. And shows the actual opposite of what that looks like.
JS: That’s where it’s about understanding the context. I'm biased, and I've always felt that having a dedicated analytics team or function, or somebody that was not reporting up into the business, is really helpful to be able to have an outside lens, third party perspective, while they're actually internal to your organization. It doesn't have to be a consultant. But the point is, you want to make them feel independent so that they're not just in a place where they're trying to tell the story that the business leaders want to be able to tell. You can fool yourself for only so long. If you keep doing that, if you keep playing the game of, “Well, guess what, every year we're up 3% in revenue because we keep increasing prices a little bit and we keep finding new audiences.” Wouldn't it be better if you created an amazing experience that people wanted to keep coming back to, and now those new audience members are on top of the ones that were already there. Now you're turning into a Dreamforce scenario where you just keep outgrowing venues. That's a nicer problem to have.
RD: Organic growth is lovely, some organizations just don't care. But that's not our problem. We’re the ones who do care. So we’re telling the story of now through data. Part of what I believe is super important is trends and threats. As we talk about threats and retention, how important is taking data and moving that toward futuristic thinking?
Because when we're trying to create strategy, it's super cool to do right now, but we really need to be thinking at least five years out in order to enact this stuff in a timely manner, because event cycles are about a year, and most organizations aren't working on the year cycles. So you're caught in this continual madness of trying to play catch up, and now there's a ton of digital options, and people are now video producers versus event planners.
So how can we utilize data to start to tell the future?
JS: I think the big thing is to break it down to its component parts. We've seen a lot of a lot of change and shift in the landscape over the last couple of years, like everything moving digital. We've seen so much accelerate to the place that it was probably heading anyway, but at a much faster speed than we could keep up with. Fundamentally, just back to research for a second, one thing that's important is that marketers are now saying, “hey, it's become so much harder.” From our perspective, if you break it down to its components, the most important thing, the thing that will unlock growth, the way to resonate with your audience, is to deeply understand your buyers. Period. That was true yesterday. It's true today. It'll be true tomorrow.
So same thing — not to think of it in terms of here's what the delivery has to look like, but break it down — with an event or an experience, what are the components they're trying to get out of it? I know that part of your framework. Ultimately, what's the content delivery mechanism? What are they trying to learn, and what's the best way to deliver that? It doesn't necessarily have to be one monolithic tentpole. You can still have the plans. I think this opens up completely new opportunities to say, what is advantageous? What lends itself better to be able to do live and in person, in a place where there can be some of that magic that happens when everyone's in a room together? How much of it — if it's really more pure learning — is best done independently? And things like that. I think that's a starting point.
RD: It's that, and I feel like I always have to catch people too. It's understanding your buyer now, but if we're talking about the future, who's your buyer of the future? I hear so much legacy audience speak. There’s this legacy buyer — who do you want? Your data might not tell the story of what their needs are and what their problem are. That's a whole other mechanism of data and discovery and research that needs to be done to get where you want to go. Because growth will die once they stop coming.
JS: I'll give you an example of a client we worked with. They were saying that at the time, about half of their business was — and this is a cybersecurity company — done through higher ed. But as we were talking about it, what came out was, that's not where the growth opportunity is. So then when we're uncovering those pain points and the priorities, we want to exclude that audience. To your point, it's who is the audience of the future, where's the growth opportunity? Those are the people you need to resonate with. And this is my big thing, if you're looking at dashboards and reports, or if you're talking to your current customers, that's great, but that's looking in the rearview mirror. So you need to be mindful of what's out ahead, and who is that audience that you want to be the audience of the future? How can you understand them, and how to deliver and develop something for them?
There was a great LinkedIn post I saw today, and it was a woman who's a sales consultant. She was saying this happens to everybody, but how do you handle this scenario? You're working on a sales opportunity. Everything's going great. And all of a sudden, you get the dreaded email, where it's like, “Hey, I've just been promoted to this new role. So here's the new person you're going to work with.” And again, it's that moment of panic where you're like, “Oh, I knew how to talk to that person. I don't know how to talk to this one.” That's fundamentally what's happening in corporate America every day. So how do you get in front of identifying the needs of your future audience, not just your present and especially not your past?
RD: Thank you, Jeff. Two final easy questions. First, what’s one piece of advice you want to give to event experience professionals?
JS: We already talked about retention. The biggest thing, and this applies to any profession just about, is what I refer to as intellectual curiosity. The idea is, no matter what realm or field we work in, there are all these different handoff points. The example I use from B2B marketing is if you're developing content and the goal of that is to be able to say, “Oh, well, we're trying to move people through the funnel.” Okay, well, then what's going to happen? Oh, after they convert on this, that's going to be sent over to sales. Okay. Now, are these people resonating with sales? Just being able to think through all of the upstream and downstream impacts of what you're doing. And ultimately, to start with your audience in mind, begin with the end in mind. Works every time.
RD: I couldn't agree more. Last question, which is a curveball, but I asked a previous guest, Eric Brownstein, also a Philly guy, what his favorite cheese steak in Philly was. So I'm going to ask it to you. What is your favorite cheese steak?
JS: Dalessandro's, has been since middle school.
Note: This transcript has been edited for clarity.
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