Almost every blogger, analyst, journalist and vendor has identified data integration as one of the most important trends in the events industry this year. The concept isn’t something new with most organizations having taken on some form of an integration project through payment gateways, registration scanning tools or event apps. What is new, however, is the increasing number of event planners taking the plunge and integrating their event data with some of their organizations’ other business systems – from finance and CRM to marketing and membership systems.
The case for data integration is quite simple: It makes business sense. It cuts costs and improves your team’s productivity. It reduces the endless hours event planners spend replicating data from one system to another and it also helps eliminate all the errors and inconsistencies commonly associated with data entry. More importantly, it makes better use of your data by putting it in the hands of the people who need it the most. Integration between your event management and membership systems, for example, can provide automatic delegate membership checks as part of your event registration process. Integration with your finance system can provide your events team with real-time updates on delegate payments. Integration with your CRM can help you create detailed invitation lists, whilst providing your sales team with new leads whenever you have new registrations.
If this is something you’re considering doing in the near future, then there are some key things to think about to make sure your data integration project works and brings real value around your events. Have a look below:
Make Sure You Know What You Want to Achieve
The most important consideration when implementing a data integration project is to figure out why you want to integrate your event data with another system. Is there a strong business need for it? Can it help solve a particular problem around your events, like chasing delegate payments from your finance team? In the case of an event app, what data do you want to pass on from your event management system? Should the app be used by delegates to make changes to their agendas? What will this entail and how is that information tracked? Assess and document the benefits of integrating the two systems together, both in terms of cost and time savings, before making any decisions. If you’re finding it difficult to identify how the integration is going to answer important questions around your events, improve the service you provide to your delegates or create efficiencies within your events team, you’re probably wasting your time.
Ensure All Stakeholders Are Involved from the Beginning
The more you know about exactly what you want to achieve, the more likely you are able to identify who needs to be involved in the project. If you want to integrate your event data with your CRM, then it makes sense to have your CRM manager involved. If it’s with your accounting system, then it should be your finance manager, and so on. The next step is to approach your software providers, find out if the integration is technically possible and agree on the objectives. It is in your interest to help the provider understand your business requirements correctly as this will help them accurately identify and integrate all the required data points.
A common pitfall at this point is for event planners to pass the project on to their developers or IT departments but you need to remember, data integration is a business initiative, not a technology one. There should be someone throughout the whole process that understands the value of this data and will be able to lead discussions about the long-term goals of the project in order to make it consistent, successful and beneficial.
The other important factor is good communication with all team members throughout the duration of the project. This involves ensuring that there is ‘buy in’ for your project from everyone involved – from the executives in the different departments within your organization to the techies who will be carrying out the roll out of the project and the events team whose work will be affected by the integration. Everyone need to understand what it is you are trying to achieve and why – you’ll be in a better position to identify potential problems and won’t need to make as many last-minute changes to the development work.
Agree Detailed Specifications & Data Maps Before Starting
It is crucial to determine early on which systems need to talk to each other, which fields within your systems need to be updated and how often this needs to be done. Is the data going to flow one way or two ways between the systems? So if you’re integrating your registration software with a CRM solution, you should decide which questions from your registration page (names, address, telephone numbers) should be updated in the CRM and vice versa. This ‘data mapping’ process is important as it ensures that the right data goes into the right field of each system.
Often, your expectations of what you’re able to do must be realigned as the sheer quantity of data that needs to be dealt with is sometimes underestimated – especially with CRM integrations. Gathering the data can be harder than you think and the data you have might need more ‘cleaning up’ than you first thought. Take delegate phone numbers, for example. They could be entered in all sorts of different formats: ‘020-888-4567’ or ‘(020) 888-4567’ or they may have no separators at all. Slightly different formats, minor typos or extra spaces and characters in your CRM system can cause problems when your event management system is expecting things one way and gets another. Take these factors into account when mapping out your data flows. Consult with both software providers and make sure you have workarounds put in place as even the smallest discrepancies and inconsistencies can stop your integration from working as it should.
The good news is that integrating two pieces of software together is no longer the big financial commitment it once was, largely due to generic communications tools (such as Java, APIs and REST) that make it simple to consume and post data from one system to another. Dealing with good software companies also helps as they can provide all the relevant support and expertise you need – which means the whole process can take as little as a few days at a fraction of the cost. However, don’t underestimate the time and budget you need to allocate for such a project.
Think about things like data discrepancies we mentioned earlier on. If your event management and membership systems, for example, record delegate birth dates in different formats, you will probably need to invest in a bit of development work that will allow the automatic conversation of data from one format to the other. This is a small example of a simple format issue and by itself, no big task. But multiply this across thousands of data fields and records and dozens of types of formats, and the development work to do clean-up, workarounds and validation can be substantial. Remember that development time can be expensive so think about all these eventualities when mapping out your data flows at the beginning of the project.
Allocate Adequate Technical Resources
Avoid wasting valuable time by ensuring you have the adequate IT staff on hand to answer any technical queries that may come up during the development, implementation and testing stages of your data integration project. Developers from your event management solution provider, for example, may have specific inquiries about the set-up of your bespoke finance system or vice-versa. If you don’t have the necessary technical staff, consider hiring an independent consultant or specialist system integrator for the duration of the project. Once the development phase is over, your technical staff should also be responsible for the proper testing of the integration to ensure that data flow between the two systems is correct, complete and up-to-date.
Both the technical and business teams need to be involved in the testing stage to ensure that the results are as expected or if anything needs to be resolved. So if it’s an integration with your finance package, set up a test on your event management system and put through enough transactions to make sure both sides are comfortable and have covered all delegate payment scenarios. It is then the responsibility for each department head to train their relevant teams on how the system works.
Ensure your team are aware of how the integration impacts their daily tasks. When creating new events in your event management system, for example, staff need to know that certain fields can no longer be changed as they are now also being used by the finance team to track delegate payments. Create an action list of do’s and don’ts or include it with your event management system template each time a user logs in as an administrator.
Thinking about all these points when planning your data integration projects will ensure that the whole process will be smoother and lot more flexible for any changes you want to make in the future. It is important to note though that regardless of size, an integration between two systems is a moving thing and technology can always change. Don’t forget about it once implementation and testing is over. Stay on top of it with continuous testing and regular meetings with your software providers to ensure everything is working as it should.
Written by Ian Webb, Business Development Manager, Eventsforce