As if our attention spans weren't short enough already pre-smart phones, now event professionals have to contend with a whole technologized universe of distractions - including social media apps, gaming apps, wearable technology, media walls, etc. - on top of fighting off good-old-fashioned boredom and daydreaming.
Getting and keeping the attention of our guests has been and always will be one our biggest challenges as event professionals, and our jobs have not gotten any easier in the 21st Century. But instead of swimming against the current, some event pros have found ways to use technology to their benefit in enhancing attendee engagement, while others have turned to tried-and-true methods and even some unconventional tactics.
So here are several event engagement strategies that some seasoned event pros are using regularly to improve attendee engagement at their events.
1. Keep Everyone in the Same Environment
"Often event engagement is tainted by the layout of the event." says Norman Aamodt, founder and CEO of Event Strategy Group
. "Breakout groups are in one space, food and beverages are in another, keynote presentations are on a different floor - you get the drift."
Instead of creating a disjointed environment of separate spaces - which silos your attendees and hence your event - consider designing a floor plan where you have one large event space divided up into concentric areas using wall panel systems. For one of their clients, Event Strategy Group designed a layout that split one large space into four separate layers, starting from the perimeter and moving inward.
"This design made the flow of the event intuitive and easy to navigate, while creating a number of open areas that encouraged interaction." says Aamodt. "Using a wall panel system, the perimeter encompassed 10 breakout rooms. Moving inwards, the third area contained food and beverage stations, the second-to-center layer contained a Product Showcase and finally, the center of the space held a Feature Display."
Aamodt said that interaction at the event was "at an all-time high," and it's easy to understand why ... because everyone was in the same proximity and there was a logical, intuitive flow for attendees.
2. Set the Tone With Assigned Seating
"There is a reason why brides go nuts about seating charts," says Cristin Massey, a PR and events pro with Cover Story Communications
. "They know that it can make or break the celebration."
She has employed assigned seating for other events like meetings and professional networking events and has seen engagement skyrocket simply because she is forcing people out of their comfort zone and to interact with new people.
At these business-oriented events, "people are more often than not just wanting to get through the presentation, check emails and get back to the office," says Massey. So by assigning attendees to seats and/or tables where they don't know anyone and providing them with icebreaker activities, you have created an environment that encourages engagement from the outset, which sets the tone for engagement throughout the rest of the event.
Yes, this may be old-school, but it still works because it acclimates your attendees to interact with each other from the outset.
3. Entertain First, Then Educate
Assigned seating is one way to prime the pump regarding event attendee engagement, and providing guests with some form of entertainment first also sets the stage for increased participation and creates a lighter, more collegial mood.
"On stage, engage your guests right away with live entertainment rather than video screens or slideshows," says Kostya Kimlat of Event Magic International
. "The human connection makes people pay attention, especially if they are asked to interact and answer questions."
In addition, Kimlat also says that entertaining first can build anticipation and raise expectations about what's coming up at the event. "When our company hires an entertainer on the main stage at a conference, we always have strolling entertainers interact with the crowd beforehand." he says. "It's especially perfect for a cocktail hour. [They] entertain the crowd, but more importantly, tease them about the big show to come."
The first step in improving attendee engagement is getting organized and laying the foundation for a great event.
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4. Employ Games and Activities Using Social Media
Since most people will be looking at their phones throughout the event regardless of what content you put in front of them, you might as well use that behavior to your benefit.
For example, Cristin Massey has used an Instagram scavenger hunt at her professional networking events to stimulate attendee participation. "This can be done with any social platform that allows for images and hashtags," she says. "I did this at several professional work events as well as some city events and it worked incredibly well. Just create a scavenger hunt that is related and relevant to the event, then direct people to take pictures of each scavenger point and use an event hashtag. Not only will this get people moving around, engaging in the event, but it will also help to promote your event via the hashtag."
Holly Holliday of Create Promotions
also employs Instagram printers onsite at her festivals to bump up interaction among guests. "Attendees take Instagram photos of themselves and their friends and the amazing time they are having. Then they use the event's designated hashtag and the hashtagged photo is automatically printed out at the event and a free takeaway for attendees. [It has] increased my event engagement during the event by 300%!"
And Rachel Rosenthal
actually provides corporate meeting attendees with rented iPads for presenting content. Not only does it turn the focus away from their own devices, but the loaner iPads "allow the attendee to be engaged further through the use of surveys and participation during the session with questions.
5. Show Attendees Something New
Attendees are almost always interested in seeing something new at an event - in some cases that's the reason they are actually attending in the first place. So you can either showcase the latest trends and ideas in the industry, or you can use new technology to wow them and enhance the event's environment.
Augmented reality is one such tool for accomplishing the latter, and Elburz Sorkhabi of nVoid
has used this successfully at many events to enhance attendee engagement. "This is becoming quite a large commodity at trade shows - especially auto shows - and in museums and educational environments. The idea is that in most of the above areas, most of the objects people are looking at - like stationary cars or dinosaur bones - are very static, so using augmented reality by projecting images and holograms can create an interactive and more engaging experience around these extremely static objects."
Making a wall or structure come alive by superimposing a moving, morphing image on top of it certainly stimulates conversation and adds another dynamic element to your events.
6. Approach Your Attendees From a Variety of Angles (Literally)
As guests and attendees, we have been trained to look at a stage or focal point to take in the main content of events. But what if content and interaction came at us from different angles, engaging us in surprising ways?
Julie Austin of Speaker Sponsor
has implemented such tactics to snap people out of their event doldrums. "If you keep your program the same every time it can tend to become monotonous," she says. "There are some tricks that filmmakers use - especially in the horror genre - that keeps an audience on their toes. Make use of the vertical and horizontal dimensions and have information coming at them from different angles. In other words, do something they don't expect. They expect a speaker on a stage and a power point presentation. They don't expect something dropping from the ceiling or popping up from the ground."
7. Innovate With Comfortable Seating and Accommodations
There's something to be said for making your event environment comfortable for guests and attendees. COOK Medical Group
has created such a welcoming meeting environment by outfitting their meeting space with lounge chairs and sofa-style seating (in white leather, no less).
"These large seats accommodate attendees by offering comfort and a less stratified form of seating. No rows of folding chairs," says John Eckberg of COOK. And it is making a difference, making guests feel more relaxed and tuned into each other and the event activities.
8. Hire a Professional to Boost Your Content
Sometimes in the scramble to secure the perfect venue and create exotic menus, things get lost in the mix, and often one of those things is "content." This is why many events end up with industry experts as keynotes and content providers ... because it's almost a no-brainer.
Industry experts can be extraordinarily knowledgeable," says author and speaker Barry Maher
. "But sometimes they can also be so dull it's all attendees can do to stay awake. And panel discussions can be lively and instructive. But just as often they're unfocused, redundant and so boring that after a few minutes it's hard to even focus on what's being said."
On the other hand, professional speakers have spent many years honing their craft to grab an audience's attention, inform them in unique ways and inspiring them to go out and take action on their new understandings. Plus they also have tons of experience custom-tailoring content for a wide variety of audiences.
So if you want content that will make your attendees put their smartphones down and engage, consider hiring a professional to create and deliver your content and keynotes.
You can also go a step further and hire a professional MC as well as script out your shows and main content sessions to ensure continuity and avoid those dull spots in your content.
Have more ideas on how to improve attendee engagement at events? Provide them in the comments below.