‘A Rich Seam to Mine’

Meeting Planners See Information Bounty in Virtual Events From COVID

By Joanne Cleaver 

As a professional event planner and association manager, Annette Suriani is especially aware of privacy controls and exposure during online events. 

As executive director of the Association of Meeting Professionals (AMP) in Fairfax, Va., the group she manages is wrestling with these issues daily, on behalf of their clients and employers.

Like the rest of the conference-going world, AMP members are getting a grip on what privacy toggles suddenly are important as they navigate the previously unfamiliar world of online event-hosting and facilitating.

One thing’s for sure, though: Like the real world, the business of conferences requires data about participants from the moment they register to long after they leave.

As virtual meetings become the norm, planners are figuring out what additional information, in additional formats, they can gather — none of which should be a surprise to meeting-goers, industry experts told Digital Privacy News.

“When we do virtual meetings, we gather a lot of information.”

Annette Suriani, Association of Meeting Professionals.

From the registration process on, attendees’ attention is the commodity that event organizers and sponsors want — and the mechanics of such tracking translates somewhat seamlessly from onsite to online venues, she said.

Mastering Privacy Issues

As events have been forced into the virtual realm by the pandemic, privacy protocols still are catching up.

While Suriani, who has worked with associations for decades, said that most membership organizations extended traditional privacy courtesies to online venues, other meeting hosts were nearly giddy at the prospect of mining additional data from attendees whose every move through the event could be tracked — almost. 

While meeting platforms offer technical tools for tracking, monitoring and even projecting what attendees might do and pay attention to from their home offices, it’s up to meeting hosts to actually use those tools.

“All virtual and on-site events are about collecting information, including about the people who attend,” Dominika Paciorkowska, managing director of ClickMeeting.com, a Poland-based platform for meetings and conferences, told Digital Privacy News.

AMP’s Suriani said: “If you sent out a unique link to participants, so they can access sessions, you know if they’re signed on and how long they’ve been on.

“When we do virtual meetings, we gather a lot of information.”

Virtual Events Seen for Year

Conference-goers will be faced with issues of virtual-event privacy for the forseeable future, as meeting hosts consider adopting hybrid event models this year at least.

If anything, event planning is even more chaotic, as the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine remains erratic.

Research conducted in mid-2020 and released last month by the meeting-industry arm of American Express Co. found that 25% of North American meeting planners intended to increase their use of technology this year — on top of last year’s use.

But privacy is shrinking at events regardless of venue: A February 2020 report from ResearchAndMarkets.com predicted that the business-to-business market for scanning and tracking artificial intelligence and other technology to frame participants’ end-to-end event experiences was growing 15% annually. 

Tools like bar-code scanners on badges, to track which sessions they attend, have been used for years by event hosts — so moving the same dynamics online shouldn’t require much of a mindset shift for experienced event-goers, Suriani said. 

Core Purpose: Networking

The point of associations is for members to network, which requires sharing information about one another in the group and with associated industries, she pointed out.

Members of associations, which organize conferences as part of their member services, are accustomed to trading some privacy to gain credit for professional-education sessions that are essential for renewing credentials, Suriani said. 

While associations typically remain protective of member information, they also use personal data to attract sponsors, whose fees usually include access to membership contact data.

“All virtual and on-site events are about collecting information.”

Dominika Paciorkowska, ClickMeeting.com.

But the difference, she said, is that at online events, tracking and recording is more visible to participants because they can see some of the tools on their desktops and control some aspects of privacy during the event, such as the video and audio controls. 

Information-gathering starts with registration, said ClickMeeting’s Paciorkowska.

“Then, hosts want to know as much as possible about attendees so they can send advance information,” she told Digital Privacy News.

“The organizer needs access to tools to collect information during the event, when they enter and when they leave.

“That might be useful for the organizer,” she said.

“For instance, they need to evaluate if a particular participant saw an offer or not — and the organizer must know what device attendees are using.”

More Data Collected

Even more information is collected after events — through evaluations, follow-up offers and tracking attendees’ use of recorded sessions, she added.

Throughout, Paciorkowska said, the onus is on meeting organizers to gather enough information to satisfy hosts and sponsors and to customize participants’ experience without clogging their entry to and navigation through sessions.

Major platforms and event-hosting companies are talking among themselves about gathering more information on attendees but aren’t eager to reveal details to the public. 

Attendify, a company in San Jose, Calif., long has been promoting its features.

The company’s platform enables conferences that substantially replicate the on-site experience of keynotes, breakout rooms and networking to apply algorithms to recommend sessions to attendees based on preferences and use history. 

“While still respecting the crucial boundaries of users’ private information, the Attendify platform can look at how registered guests interact with the event app,” the company said in a news release.

Attendify officials declined to comment to Digital Privacy News on the privacy practices it recommends to users. 

Engaging Advertisers

But in a news report last July distributed to members of the International News Media Association, Leigh Gilmore, general manager of live journalism and events for The Wall Street Journal, noted that “one critical benefit of running virtual events is the access it provides to data.

“We know who registered, who chose not to, who didn’t show, who dropped midway.

“We can quickly come to know the behaviors and preferences of different demographics — and be able to program, format and price accordingly.

“This rich data will allow us to share with advertisers and sponsors who were in attendance and how best to engage them,” she said.

“We know who registered, who chose not to, who didn’t show, who dropped midway.”

Leigh Gilmore, The Wall Street Journal.

“For sponsorship and audience development going forward, the data will be a rich seam to mine.”

Gilmore, however, declined to elaborate further on the Journal’s privacy practices or intentions for its events to Digital Privacy News.

Other Privacy Concerns

But a more insidious privacy violation, AMP’s Suriani said, is the recording and sharing of routine meetings by boards and committees and workshop leaders who still are mastering the nuances of managing virtual meeting technology.

“I’m on so many of these virtual meetings now, that I expect the host to handle all privacy,” she said.

“Privacy violations are more likely to crop up with spontaneous communication that’s recorded in ways that rarely occurs in real life.”

Joanne Cleaver is a business writer in Charlotte, N.C.