At an event that I attended recently, the conference pack included the usual feedback form. It was a bit smaller and printed on stronger paper, so it was more of a card than a sheet of paper. At the closing session of the event, one of the organisers reminded the attendees to leave feedback and put the feedback cards into the provided box. Said box stood on a nearby table. It was half-transparent and the sun happened to be shining on it at that moment, so you could clearly see that it only contained one feedback card at that point (which happened to be mine - I had just filled it out before the closing session). The woman was clearly shocked and had to ask her team if someone had emptied the box before (answer: no).
While having only one feedback form at the end of a full-day conference is indeed a bit on the low end, an overall low return rate at that point shouldn't really come as a surprise; it's a simple matter of logistics.
Why? Because feedback forms usually include an option to rate the overall event. How am I supposed to answer that question before the end of the event? Also, people need time to fill out the forms. In the above case, it was just minutes after the last sessions had ended. People had only just gathered for the (informal) closing session. They were still talking to other participants, were busy getting one of the provided drinks, etc. The feedback form was probably the last thing on their mind at this point.
Getting feedback from your attendees is of course very important for you (as the organiser) and your speakers. But you have to make it as easy and painless as possible for them to give it to you.
A feedback form on paper still works reasonably well these days. Specifically, it works as a reminder for your attendees. Since they will come across it several times during the day when looking at their conference pack, they're more likely to eventually fill it out.
On the other hand, there's the above-mentioned problem of finding the right time to fill it out. This is where online feedback forms have an advantage. Once the attendees are back home or in their office, they are more likely to have a quiet moment to think back to the conference and provide feedback. So don't forget to send them an email soon after the event, thanking them for their participation and including the link to your feedback form.
I'd say having an online feedback form should be standard these days, and the paper version should be optional. The paper form should also have the URL of the online version printed on it. It has happened to me on more than one occasion that I found the paper form when I got home and felt a pang of guilt and regret for not having provided feedback. Let me fix that easily at that moment. Don't make me hunt for the URL of your feedback form.
Keep it simple
Content-wise, feedback forms should be easy and quick to fill out. Don't ask too many or too detailed questions. Allow me to simply check off things for most questions (which also makes it easier for you to evaluate the form), but provide space to leave (optional) comments.
From a speaker's point of view, I would of course welcome getting feedback on my talk. So let your attendees rate individual talks. That's easier to do online - simply link to a feedback form from each talk description in your schedule. On a paper form, I'd only do that if you have less than about 10 talks or so. Otherwise, it will look like too much work to fill out the form and will discourage your attendees.
These are the things that come to mind from my perspective as both a speaker and occasional event organiser. What would you like to see added to or left out from feedback forms?
(Image credit: Feedback form: excellent by Dominik Gwarek, from freeimages.com)
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