Keeping Virtual Attendees Engaged

Keeping Virtual Attendees Engaged

By: Matt Swenson
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It's safe to say virtual attendees are going to be naturally envious of the in-person crowd. Human nature compels us to want to gather to share experiences. In other words, planners, sponsors and hosts have little to fear about a virtual production taking away the need to come together. But there is plenty to be concerned with about keeping online attendees signed on and actively participating.

"The challenge is we have to design for distracted audiences, and now audiences are more distant and distressed," says Mindset Digital Founder and CEO Debra Jasper, PhD, an international keynote speaker who was recently named one of the top 12 Entrepreneurial Winning Women North America by Ernst & Young.


"We are in triage every day with information overload." Debra Jasper


Beyond delivering her own speeches, Jasper teaches presenters how to capture an audience's attention, with a specific concentration on making a big impact on the small screen. She says speakers have about eight seconds to connect with attendeesno pressure, folks.

"It's easy to get your message out; it's hard to get a message in," Jasper explains. "You don't have to dumb it down; you have to break it down."

Jasper encourages visual storytelling with fast cuts and few words on each slide. She easily goes through 200 slides per 45-minute session.

The speaker solution is a microcosm for what event planners need to consider for presenting content. "Gone are the days of setting up one camera in the back of the room and calling it a virtual experience," says Katie Bohrer, CMP, vice president of meeting design and experience for Associated Luxury Hotels International. "People expect more."

Soliman Productions, Inc., President and CEO Sarah Soliman Daudin's team utilizes three cameras, including a roaming device to capture audience reactions and maintain a sense of motion during sessions. She continues the same technique during breaks with walkthroughssome live, others pre-recordedshowing off the host venue's capabilities.

If attaining momentum is a challenge virtually, maintaining it is a necessity. Long breaks, anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours, may be a perfect respite for in-person attendees. Such a lull may be the kiss goodbye for the virtual group.

"Fifteen minutes is good," says Daudin of an online break to walk the dog, check in on remote students, or to grab a drink.

After that it's time for the virtual event producer to shine with enriching filler material like interviews, destination showcase videos and other packages taking the place of in-person networking.

"We're not going to leave you high and dry; we're going to feed you content," Daudin says of the online audience.


Changing the Channels

In Walter Cronkite's day, there was his beloved CBS competing with NBC and ABC. Fox was an '80s phenomenon and a pre-cursor to the type of content cable/streaming sticks provide. The speed of growth is remarkable and may foreshadow what's ahead for the events industry.

Simple livestreaming isn't going to cut it. And the longer planners have to work in the omnichannel space, the more tools they will use.

Apps like Slido are already dramatically facilitating audience interaction through live polling and chat features.

The role of social mediafeaturing four major channels: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedInis still being determined.

Posts are a great way to gauge attendees' response to programming. Yet with all the apps built into your virtual platform, to say nothing of the overall event app and its push notifications, planners and organizations will need to determine the ROI on external communications.
Above all else, it is not imperative that social media provide a free resource to the content your organization has spent months encouraging attendees to purchase. But a short Facebook Live video, for example, could spur last-minute registrations or increase brand awareness to audiences tuning in for the speaker or sponsor being promoted.

"Always start with your goals and objectives and work backward," Bohrer says.

Another question to answer is what to do with content after the conference concludes. On one hand, you don't want to lose the momentum and engagement built up over the course of the conference. On the other, it would be a disservice to attendees who showed up during the live event to offer the content to the world for free a few days later.

Associations, in particular, will be inclined to charge a rate to access content after the fact. Splicing the content into chunks is an easy way to promote an event's effectiveness while also filling an editorial calendar. "It's a way to keep monetizing outside your three- or four-day event," says Daudin.


What's Next

More than a half-year into the pandemic, innovation and progress are obvious. Look for the trend to accelerate.

The next movement, being adopted by ALHI and PCMA, is setting up regional sites for in-person components while maintaining remote programming. This opens up travel to flight-averse attendees and overcomes state and local restrictions for gatherings. It also means extra coordination between the in-person team, which will need representatives at each location, and the virtual production team that will need to cover it all.

Once an audience is in place, Bohrer is working toward bridging the gap between the virtual and in-person attendees. One strategy is to allow in-person audiences access to the online chat so both sides can share their reactions.

"You have to make it simple," says Bohrer, who might as well be summing up the entire omnichannel experience.

The more complicated or cumbersome it feels, the less engaged audiences will be.

Says Daudin: "You never want to make anyone feel left out."

photo credit iStock.com/fizkes