Are Your Attendees Engaged? Three Experts Share How They Do It

How do you keep attendees engaged when the needle is always shifting? Tactics to encourage attendee engagement are wide-ranging, dependent on attendance numbers and often differ case-by-case.

In the latest Smart Meeting webinar, “Give the People the Hybrid They Want,” Robin Farmanfarmaian, speaker, author and “early-stage” entrepreneur; Gianna Gaudini, global head of events, training and certification for Amazon Web Services, and author of The Art of Event Planning; and Ryan Burn, CEO of BuzzCast, shared ways to not only drive attendance but how to keep attendees engaged.

Read MoreHow to Produce Compelling Content that Drives Engagement

Prime your Chat Box

“One of the things I’m seeing is that the most successful [virtual events] are making sure you have a team in place to start the online conversation,” Farmanfarmaian said. “If you want people to be engaged in talking to each other during the actual presentations and asking questions in the chat, you have to prime it.”

This means recruiting people who can be active in the chat box to get the conversational ball rolling. “Nobody is going to be those first 10 people that [raise] their hands, start a question, or start chatting,” Farmanfarmaian said. “You need people that work for the conference, right? But then you should also have five or 10 (depending how big your conferences is) people, who have no relationship whatsoever to your conference, and [you can] honor them with a title; give them a little bit of power and make [starting conversations] their job.”

This encourages everyone who wanted to participate but felt hesitant in the beginning to jump in, Farmanfarmaian said. “If you don’t have that team in place, your chat is going to pretty much be empty,” she added.

You Want them to Attend? Give a Reason

Watching an event live is typically much more engaging than watching on demand, because when everyone is watching simultaneously, there is potential for attendees to begin to chat. “If you want to drive a synchronous experience, give attendees a reason why they should tune in live rather than watch on demand,” Gaudini said. “One thing I’ve used is a no-book-in-advance, 15-minute session to meet with a subject matter expert at the event.”

Gaudini is a fan of giving attendees a sense of incentive. “If you actually tell people these sessions are booking up quickly, and [they] won’t be able to rebook it, it drives demand and a reason to tune in live at a specific time, and also offers value to the attendee and a deeper, more meaningful engagement during the event.”

Gaudini is also an advocate for shorter sessions and longer audience engagement periods. Despite having gotten pushback from people, she said. “I have a 20/80 recommendation; I recommend speakers prepare 20 percent of the content, and leave the other 80 percent for peer-audience engagement— chat, Q&A, [etc.]—because that’s a reason to tune in live.”

Ultimately, Gaudini believes what most people want is to be heard, and that’s something a speaker, talking for X minutes or hours, can’t fulfill. “The speaker doesn’t know what the audience wants necessarily,” she said.

“Unless…” she continued. “You’re [using] an app, like Slido, to encourage questions in advance and a voting question so that you actually know [what audiences want], or send out a survey in advance, so you’re informed about what your attendees want to learn.

“If you don’t do that in advance, the keynote speaker might not know, the panelists might not know, what the audience really wants to hear about,” Gaudini added.

Gaudini has one last trick. “If I have a really great A-list keynote speaker, or someone that I know will drive attendance, and people will not want to miss, I say they’re not going to be recorded, even if I am recording for a later time.”

Nor does she announce when the speaker is going to show. “That drives [attendance], too, and this works really great for live events, as well,” Gaudini said. “Announce that there is a keynote speaker within a timeframe, but don’t announce exactly when [they’ll] be speaking within that timeframe; people don’t want to miss them.”

Read More6 Tips for Keeping Attendees Tuned In During Your Online Events

Change It Up and Make It Intimate

Given the number of distractions that present themselves to the virtual attendee, Burn believes meeting professionals have to change the format. He presented as an example a 10-minute on/10-minute off scenario, where the speaker talks for 10 minutes, poses questions to the audience and then speaks for another 10. “Something that keeps it active and [grabs] your attention,” he said.

“We’re so used to putting somebody [on] the podium, [having] them talk to the audience, while everyone listens to their fabulous speech they’ve prepared down to the T,” Burn said. “That format ends up feeling like just a talking head. I don’t think that that works as well when we’re online.”

Burn hosts a lot of larger events, an environment which can be tough to create a sense of intimacy within. To combat this, Burns’ technique is as follows: Creating as many breakout sessions as possible to get people into intimate-enough groups where they can actually interact.

His company has held events with as many as 140 breakout sessions. “[In intimate breakouts like this] it’s very hard to not be able to answer questions or just sort of hide away over here and say, ‘I’m not going to participate,’” he said.

“If we can get people into groups that feel like they’re matched and like there’s a chance for them to talk or participate, that’s another way I think we can get people involved and then feeling connected with the events,” he continued.

All three went on to give insightful (and maybe a little sneaky) responses to concerns such as encouraging higher attendance versus registration rates and making sure attendees remain engaged and retain the information they’ve been given. Watch the entire webinar here.

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