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):
- Between speakers
- Between speakers and participants
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- Keep sessions to 25 minutes max as online attention spans are shorter.
- Be sure to include breaks vs. constant content, so participants do not drift off to care for personal tasks.