When most people think of the challenges of planning virtual events, their mind usually jumps to all the event technology they must quickly learn and put into action. And to be honest, the technological challenges of virtual events can be intimidating … although with some practice and solid processes in place, they are easily overcome.
However, what often turns out to be a much bigger obstacle to hosting a successful virtual event is attendee engagement, and for one big reason: it is so much more difficult to hold the attention of your audience during an online event.
So why are attendees so distracted when attending a virtual event?
Multi-tasking is the biggest reason.
Virtual attendees will probably be sitting at their desks with dozens of other distractions hovering around them like buzzards. Co-workers interrupting them. Mobile phones pinging them. Pressing projects or assignments looming over them. Or other less productive diversions presenting themselves (gaming, social media posting, etc).
Lack of accountability is another factor.
When you attend a live in-person conference, your smartphone is always there if you get bored and/or need to return a text or email. But most of us then put the device away because we feel ever-so-slightly self-conscious ignoring the speaker or presentation while we text away or watch a video with our earbuds in. With virtual events, there is nobody else present to stare-shame you into paying attention.
Stale event programming is yet another reason.
Unfortunately, some virtual events are planned using the same strategy, format and attendee experience that are used for live online events. And because the virtual environment is so utterly different from an in-person event and demands a somewhat novel approach, the attendees inevitably find their attention waning, and hence your attendee engagement plummets.
But all is not lost and much is to be gained if you dedicate yourself to pursuing an attendee engagement strategy that embraces the strengths of virtual events and avoids the drawbacks of this medium. The virtual event ideas listed below are a great place to start, but you can also find great ideas here and here and here.
Give your audience content of value
The attendee experience doesn’t begin when someone logs in on event day. In fact, it really starts back at the initial planning stages with determining what your target audience desperately wants in terms of content and entertainment … then over-delivering on that expectation.
You should first create a content and programming strategy that keeps people tuned in from session to session with new, fresh ideas. This requires lots of target audience research and internal brainstorming to hit on the key themes and topics they want to hear about (as well as the personalities, subject matter experts and influencers they want to deliver those messages).
So like any live in-person events, much of the success of your virtual events will still hinge on the content you deliver, who delivers it and how they deliver it.
Prepare for success with great marketing
If the attendee experience begins on Day 1 of planning your event, then attendee engagement starts with the first email you send to your potential attendees or first time they visit your virtual event website or your event’s Facebook, Instagram or Twitter pages.
Your event marketing tactics and materials must convey a sense of continuous engagement and expectation, so everything from your email designs to your event registration form should guide them down a path of discovery and surprise at every turn.
And don’t stop marketing to registrants once they have signed up, because once an attendee registers, there’s a 50% chance they won’t show up (yes, the average attendee attrition rate for virtual events hovers around 50%). You need to continue to hammer home the value of your event (plus any updates, like new presenters) via consistent emails and social media posts right up to the morning of the event.
Send a gift to registered attendees
You may want to set aside some money in your budget for sending your attendees a nice gift or even a preparation kit prior to the event. This helps you succeed in three ways:
- It’s a great way to give your event a “premium” feel, inspiring registered attendees to show up on event day and see what other surprises are in store for them.
- It’s a great substitute for a swag bag giveaway that appeals to in-person attendees.
- It gives you an opportunity to provide something tangible that attendees can use on event day to follow along and stay engaged.
Provide virtual directionals
Many of us have shown up for a virtual meeting or virtual conference only to find a “waiting” screen or to be dumped straight into a session without so much as a hello.
This small step can set you up for success or failure right out of the gate, so if at all possible, provide a short intro screen, video or walkthrough that gives your virtual attendees a warm, friendly welcome and some pointers on how to get around the virtual space and navigate your chosen video streaming or webinar platform.
Timing is everything
Most in-person events usually have session lengths that vary between 45 to 90 minutes (because nobody can sit still for longer than an hour and a half), with the average being 60 minutes.
For virtual events, your sessions need to be at least half this long, with the ideal session length being 15-30 minutes long. Attendees don’t want long, exhaustive presentations or speeches. Rather, they prefer quick hitting briefs or short single-topic sessions so they can learn an idea quickly and move on.
Hence, you will need to plan on splitting your content up into very small, bite-sized chunks that can be easily digested, one after another.
Everybody emphasizes this when it comes to enhancing the attendee experience, and yet it seems so few good stories still get told (it’s enough to make an event organizer scream). But to be honest, the virtual environment is tailor-made for storytelling. People are focused on just a small screen area and want to be captivated by what is being said. They are yearning to be both entertained and edified. Stories not only accomplish both, but they will keep your audience riveted.
So have your presenters focus on using a story for the first 5-10 minutes of their presentation to pull attendees in and the next 10 or so minutes to drive home the message.
Provide visual aids and examples
Speaking of driving home the message…
Event speakers at live events already know that images and visual cues not only improve retention-and-recall with audience members but also keep people from looking away or daydreaming. Virtual events are no different, and in fact you should probably use even more images, memes, video clips, quotes and bullet points on screen to break things up.
This is where it is very useful to employ a virtual event software platform that allows you to upload and display images, videos and slideshows during sessions.
Share ideas with virtual bullet points
We just saw an example of this several weeks ago in a virtual event hosted by Event Manager Blog where they had five or so back-to-back 5-minute sessions during which industry professionals provided rapid-fire “bullet point” ideas. The intent was to provide brief tips and best practices for a particular topic in a short amount of time.
This tactic works great and gives attendees LOTS of helpful information in short bursts, providing food for thought so if an idea sounds interesting attendees can research it more after the event.
Get attendees to participate
With online events, you can certainly ask people to get up and stretch or do jumping jacks in place to keep them awake, but with virtual events there are no opportunities to meet your neighbor, do quick breakouts or participate in any meaningful networking activities.
However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try, because getting people to simply respond, comment and ask questions still keeps them engaged and attentive. Take advantage of live chat, polling and Q&A tools as well as use platforms like Twitter with event hashtags to collect feedback. This gets people to react to what is being presented and directs the flow of conversation.
BTW, these are also great tools for event marketers to pose questions regarding certain topics, ideas or products/services for reference in planning future events.
Use a host to keep the flow going
Lulls and dead spots happen in almost all events, and the best virtual events make use of hosts or moderators to ensure that the conversation is always flowing.
Hosts make great traffic cops between sessions, offering advice, directions and updates on the fly, and they can provide damage control when technical issues crop up or if a presenter gets stuck or is having connectivity problems.
Schedule in bio breaks
This is when it’s okay to have quasi dead air. Many virtual events are so intent to engage attendees every second that they don’t give people a chance to get a glass of water, return a call or take a bathroom break.
That’s why, every 30 minutes or so, you should schedule in 5 minutes to take a break from programming so people don’t feel like they are missing something. You can fill the time with recaps on previous sessions, quick interviews, feedback/questions from select audience members, musical interludes and anything else you can think of to make people feel free to leave their desk for 5 minutes.
Remember to entertain attendees
Even though during these online sessions it’s assumed that people want to learn and absorb as much information as possible, you still need to entertain them and make them laugh and feel emotion in order to keep their attention.
A key element of virtual event management is making a human experience out of something that feels detached from the real physical world, and so you should tell your presenters to keep things light and add humor and LOTS of energy to their sessions.
Leave people with takeaways and free content
One thing that is much easier to do with live virtual events vs. in-person events is to provide your attendees with all sorts of digital assets after each session is over. Whether they be PDFs, images, presentation files, white papers or video recordings that summarize the session or expound on it, your attendees will feel grateful that they didn’t have to sit there and take notes the entire time … you and your presenters have done the work for them!
Also, at the end of each session and at the end of the program, make sure to recap the main points of what was discussed so attendees feel like they are leaving with solid ideas they can apply to their jobs and lives immediately. Online meetings, webinars and mobile events feel so much more worthwhile for attendees if they are given a list of things they have learned over the course of the previous hour or two.
Give attendees a reason to return
If you have done a good job of attendee engagement, now is the time to strike while the iron is hot and tell them about your next event. Most attendees feel that, if they have gained at least a few new solid nuggets of new knowledge they can apply, then the event was worth their while and they would be open to attending similar virtual events in the future.
So at the end of your event, be ready with a post-event satisfaction survey and an offer for signing up for the next event at a steep discount (that will expire soon … gotta add that sense of urgency to any offer).
Test, test, test
Fine tuning your virtual event ideas is a never-ending process. Measure everything regarding your online event, which should be doable as you can collect tons of relevant data, from registration and marketing details to logins and real-time event interactions. Every audience is different, and the more you know about yours, the more you can refine and improve your attendee engagement for future events.
These attendee engagement ideas should point you in the right direction in creating a virtual event that attendees will remember and find value in. And if you’re curious about more tips and best practices, here are some great questions to ask before you plan virtual events.