11 Strategies to Keep Participants Engaged as Virtual Fatigue Sets In

Participant engagement has long been a critical element to any event – live or virtual. And in a virtual environment, the stakes are higher. There are more opportunities for attendees to “zone out,” and distraction is only a click away unless there are strategies to keep them engaged.

Here are 11 tips for strategies for virtual engagement. They are in no particular order since they are all worthwhile.

1.  Design for Shorter Attention Spans.   Remember, online attention spans are shorter. When there are multiple presentations, keep them short and targeted. Mix things up with a combination of polls, social Q&A, fun breaks, a professional moderator, and high production values.

2. Give Participants New Ways to Connect. Networking remains a big draw for attendees when participating at any event. Make it easy for them to connect and stay engaged with each other. Select a platform which offers easy networking opportunities.

3. Polls, Polls, and Polls. Go beyond inviting participants to submit questions and open up polls for everyone. A poll allows everyone to share their own experience and opinion, and benchmark their thoughts with those of their peers, which can lead to real insights from the crowd. Polls encourage participants to engage fully with the content and draw them back from their inevitable multitasking to be an active part of the conversation.

4. Shift the Focus from Attendees to Participants. Conversational sessions are conducive to spark audience engagement. Focusing on delivering content with two to three speakers engaging in a conversation is far more captivating than one speaker and a slide deck.

A three-dimensional approach to designing conversations, which moves the audience to participants (active) versus attendees (passive):

  1. Between speakers
  2. Between speakers and participants
  3. Among participants themselves (and it is highly recommended to have a conversation moderator to facilitate this)

5. Become BFFs with Your Audience. OK, maybe not literally best friends forever, but there is something to be said about knowing what motivates participants. You can only engage the audience if you know how they ‘tick’ – do your research in terms of who is your audience, how do they usually engage at events, and what is the closest you can come to facilitate that in a virtual environment.

6. Call Them Out. A strategy that works well during in-person formats that is simple to replicate in virtual events and webinars is to call participants out. If it is a live session, engage with the audience right away by asking them a question to answer, like where are you watching from? And very important: Respond to what partcipants share, so people know you are watching too, and continue that tactic throughout the session to keep relationship and engagement.”

7. Offer Incentives and Rewards. Beyond calling out audience members by name and asking them a question or giving their opinion (and subsequently reading that aloud as well), audiences react well to rewards. If you ask members to engage and stay for the entire length of the session in exchange for a reward (something relevant to the session topic, like an eBook or list of resources, for example), many will do so.

8. Make sure the presenter is engaged. It is vitally important that the presenters are engaged and open dialogue. Audiences will engage if the presenter is engaging, so get engaging speakers (or coach them) and encourage conversation between speakers and audience members.

9. Don’t forget to entertain. Even a “serious” conference should be part entertainment. It could be the surprise guest talking about a new book, study, concert, movie, etc. Mix up the program with a magician, a well-known singer, a rock band. Incorporate elements which we all like to watch and listen to. These elements can be pre-recorded (often a lot easier technically) or done live.

Think of a morning show – a mix of short interviews, a master chef, a song, etc – each taking place at different mini stages inside the studio.

And do not forget to add music during walk-ins and transitions.

10. Start Engagement Pre-event and Keep Going Post-Event. Keeping participants engaged is not limited to the confines of the event. Extend the audience’s engagement beyond the event itself – tease content and facilitate a connection in advance and follow up with continued ‘exclusive access’ content to provide real value for their time and attention.

11. Strategic Agenda. Creating a strategic agenda is important preparing for an in-person event as well as a virtual. A few general tips for the virtual agenda:

  1. Start with a blast so that participants think: oh, this is going to be good.  It could be an entertaining opening show or one of the best keynote speakers.
  2. Schedule at least one of the MUST SEE/HEAR speakers and topics towards the end of the event to keep the audience engaged to the end.
  3. Keep sessions to 25 minutes max as online attention spans are shorter.
  4. Be sure to include breaks vs. constant content, so participants do not drift off to care for personal tasks.

2021 is a year of hope and effort

Effort to conquer the covid-19 and hope that we as private human beings as well as professional businesspeople can live and act with no restrictions – or at least only a few.

Communication when we cannot meet in-person. We have all learned that it is possible to communicate on a video platform, Hundreds of platforms are now available, and many have been busy innovating and introduced new features. Some platforms are now offering extremely well-functioning conference-like online environments with plenum conference hall, breakout rooms, lounge and networking areas, exhibitor booths, opportunities to network on 1:1 video calls, or group calls, engagement elements, etc. And we have no doubt that these platforms will get even better over time. TCC can help you get started (or continue your journey) on virtual meetings / conferences. Matching your objectives, ambitions, and budget, we will find the optimal solution regarding platform and content. As well as taking care of the technical execution.

Virtual meetings vs in-person. Many people feel that online meetings are a necessity at the moment but definitely not as effective as in-person meetings. Feelings and emotions do not show on a flat screen. It is difficult to detect body language and creating a real relation with a person whom you have not met before is not as advantageous as standing next to the person. Online, you miss the small talk, the little stimuli which inspire you and move you forward. You miss the social vitality you get during physical coffee breaks, meals, and over a beer in the bar. You miss the great fun people can have together – when did you last have a REAL laugh attending an online meeting?

All kinds of meetings. TCC has developed, planned, and executed in-person meetings, incentives, conferences, and events all over the world for 30 years. We are experts on management meetings, kick-offs, product launches, road shows, partner events, hospitality events, branding events, staff events – all kinds of business events.

Worldwide. We have considerable global experience having worked in more than 50 locations in Asia, USA, Europe, and Africa, and as a Copenhagen based company, we have of course created hundreds of events in Denmark and the Nordics.

All services – virtual, hybrid, and in-person. In close cooperation with our clients, TCC delivers all meeting and event services, such as strategy and concept, content and program development, all logistics, hotel and venue search, contracting, travel, sound, light, and audio-visuals, movie/video solutions, digital platforms, studio set-up, technical production, stage solutions, entertainment, speakers, staffing etc. And we take responsibility for a smooth and perfect execution of the meeting or event, whether it be in-person, virtual, og hybrid. Naturally, our solution will respect the health of the delegates as well as whatever local restrictions and recommendations there might be.

2021. Will businesses be able to host larger meetings in 2021? Yes, if you go virtual, everything is possible. We think that in-person meetings will be possible later in the year as the vaccinations will be more widespread in the general public. We also think travel restrictions will be lifted within Europe mid-year.

Free of charge. Planning takes time, and if you are thinking of hosting a business meeting, maybe now is time to start planning. TCC would love to develop a proposal for your next meeting, whether it be virtual or in-person. The proposal is free of charge.

Virtual meetings and events. Yes…., but….

Virtual meetings, or digital, or online – same thing. People meet on their screens to have a business dialogue. They use Teams, Zoom, Google Meet or other similar platforms. I think that we have all tried it at least once since the corona out-break and the subsequent lockdowns. For many of us, online meetings have been the only way to meet with colleagues, customers, and other business contacts for months now.

And yes, Corona has taught us that it can be done. Not surprisingly, the more experienced we get, the better are the meetings. People have learned to lift the laptop (on a stack of books or similar) to get a better camera angle of the face, to have a well-lit face, and not to have bright sunshine through a window in the background. In general, the simpler the background is, the less distracting it is to the other attendees.

We have also learned that there are limits to how well online meetings work. They are best for smaller groups of 2-10 people who know each other beforehand, and if there is one (or more) concrete issue to discuss. Examples are colleagues working on a project and a board meeting with a fixed agenda.

When it comes to getting to know people whom you meet for the first time, being in a creative process, forming (or strengthening) relations, developing strategy, and the like, online meetings become awkward and ineffective. It is much more difficult (impossible) to read the emotions of the other attendees, you cannot see the body-language, and it is hard to detect whether he/she is being funny, using sarcasm or is for real. It is very difficult to catch the wry smile of another person and to see the little up-and-down or from side-to-side facial expressions of other people. The reality is that spotting all the emotions and bodily expressions as well as being innovative and impulsive in a fast-paced creative process is much more feasible and effective in an in-person meeting.

Nevertheless, online meetings are here to stay. We need, however, to be more disciplined, learn a few new but important techniques, and to have a strong meeting leader. And once we return to a world where we can freely move around, we need to decide whether the objective and the content of a particular meeting is better suited for online or in-person.

Most webinars are….. (yawn) Over the past months, we have all been offered loads of webinars via LinkedIn and Facebook. And thank you for these initiatives from companies and individuals. I have to say, however, that many webinars that I have watched have been terribly boring. A person sits in front of a camera talking about a particular subject – after five minutes it becomes so mind-numbing that I start thinking of other issues, checking my mobile, or whatever. I may still have the webinar on my screen, but I am not really listening. I am not comprehending and processing what is being said. Webinars need to be short, dynamic, interactive, and entertaining to keep the attention and interest of the viewers. In order to be a success, a webinar much be carefully planned and rehearsed.

Hybrid may be an option, however, be careful Many meeting planners advocate hybrid meetings where some of the participants meet physically, while other participants attend the meeting online. Typically, the people attending physically are from a larger office (the headquarter) of the company and the ones attending digitally are working in offices located in other parts of the country/the world. Hybrid meetings are practical, less time consuming, and less costly (no travel).

I believe we will see more hybrid meetings. Companies will introduce meeting policies which will enforce hybrid meetings. The way I see it, there are two issues to be very careful about. One, since one or more of the participants are online, the hybrid meeting has the same limitations as the 100% online meeting (see above). It is difficult to be creative, to be innovative, to create relations, and to “read” the emotions of the online participants. Two, the online participants may feel crippled and secondary to the physical attendees.

They cannot see the faces of the physical attendees up closely; they do not feel or see the emotions among the physical attendees, they are not part of the informal discussion during breaks – they may very easily feel they are observers rather than participants. It requires a very strong meeting leader to make the online attendees feel that they are participating on an equal level with the physical attendees.

Virtual conferences and bigger meetings – like a tv show Companies that want to host a bigger virtual meeting or a conference need to approach this in a completely different way than in-person meetings.

Being an attendee at an in-person conference you feel part of a small community. There is human interaction, you small talk with the people around you, when the speaker makes a joke, you laugh together with everyone else, and should your mind start wandering, it will (usually) come back rather quickly because of the relevance of the subject and the speaker’s enthusiasm which radiates into the audience.

In the case of a virtual conference (or other type of meeting), there is no community feeling, no human interaction, no communal laughing – each participant sits alone by him/herself in front of a screen. It is actually very much like watching television, and I do not think you have ever watched a tv show where one person speaks for 30-40 minutes, and the only thing you see on the screen is that person.

Television is much more lively, more pulsating, more entertaining and so must your virtual conference be if you want to keep the interest of your viewers. If you do not want them to zap away for real – or mentally.

Even though the subject(s) may be serious, you need to make the viewing easily consumable engaging, dynamic, and entertaining. Think of a morning show on your favorite tv station. There are 3-4 different settings in the studio, maybe a sofa where one of the two (or three) professional hosts can interview a guest, a high table with 3-4 chairs where another host may lead a conversation between 2-3 experts, a small kitchen where a chef prepares a dish, and a host comes by and asks how it is going, and maybe a stage where a band plays a song a few times during the show. Hosts (and cameras) move from setting to setting, getting the experts to talk about the issues of the day, and no feature is longer than 10-12 minutes (sometimes shorter). Relevant graphics are shown on the screen, and once in a while a pre-produced interview from an outside the studio location is shown.

Your virtual conference should be conducted in a similar way, and of course the design and branding of the studio should reflect the overall issue of the conference and/or your brand/company. One very important and engaging facility which the various meeting platforms offer (and television does not) is interactivity with the attendees. Participants may comment or ask questions during the show, and organizers may ask the participants of their opinions in polls.

To achieve a successful virtual conference or other type of bigger meeting will require detailed preparation by professionals – meeting and event experts, tv-production people, hosts, and others. A detailed script must be developed (and of course approved by the conference owner), and rehearsals carried out so that everyone is comfortable with his/her contribution to the live show.

There will be more virtual conferences in the future. They will be relevant to some companies and in some situations. I am convinced, however, that in-person meetings and conferences will be back in big numbers. Not necessarily “just like they used to be” but rather with an even more dynamic and engaging twist. The benefits of human interaction will always prevail.

Meeting and event companies are ready to create and execute your next success, whether it be virtual or in-person.

If you would like to discuss and/or get advice on virtual vs in-person or any other matter regarding corporate meetings and events, please contact me on LinkedIn or mb@tcc.world.

Michael Bramsnas is the owner of TCC (The Competence Company). Michael is extremely experienced within creation and execution of corporate meetings and events, having worked worldwide with these matters since 1990.