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8 Easy Ways to Engage Your Virtual Event Audience

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Actionable ways to grab and maintain your audience's attention

Last month, we hosted Impact@Home, a virtual event about building better virtual events, both during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. 

And as we’ve learned, audience engagement is one of the biggest challenges of hosting a successful virtual event. That’s why we were so excited to welcome the following speakers to discuss their top insights to drive audience engagement. 

  • Kim Stimeling, Senior Director of Meetings and Events at CDL Events. There, Stimeling directs and manages staff and crews for large corporate meetings and events. 
  • Alison Hughes, Associate Dean of Students at Florida State University. At FSU, Hughes engages incoming students with events such as New Student Orientation, Family Orientation and other first-year initiatives.
  • Erin Pressley, Vice President of Education and Media at NACS.  

Missed the session? No stress! We’ve compiled the top takeaways for keeping your audience engaged throughout virtual events here:

Editor's note: Some quotes have been slightly edited for conciseness and clarity.

1. Understand what undermines audience engagement  

You can't fight an enemy without knowing what it is. That's true for your favorite superhero and it's also true for events.

Stimeling attributes screen fatigue primarily to the distractions posed by technology. Each incoming text, email, and Slack message pulls you away from the content and into your to-do list, making it more difficult to stay fully present in the programming. 

“Screen fatigue is very real. If [your audience is] asked to stare at screens for hours on end, you’ll lose attendees,” she says. “Because we’re all guilty of checking our phones and emails, or hearing every ding from Slack. So we have to work really hard to hold our attendees’ attention.”

2. Adapt your agenda for a virtual medium 

We could give you some stats about how hard it is to focus in a remote setting. But you’ve already sat through a video call or two since March 2020. You know what’s up.  

So why make it harder on yourself and your audience? As you plan your agenda, think critically about what content needs to be delivered in a live virtual setting — and what can wait until you can meet in-person. 

“The first thing we do is ask ourselves, “Is virtual the way we need to go?’ The answer is ‘yes’ because of COVID-19 right now, but are there events that are not critical — that we can delay until it’s safer to do so?” Hughes says. 

In other words, keep the keynote session but maybe nix the one day 70 session agenda..  

Pressley agrees, encouraging organizers to prioritize their programming according to their business goals. Don’t feel obligated to copy-paste your entire live event agenda into a virtual event format, she says. But only put out content that you’re confident will excite your virtual audience. 

“What are the most important things about this live event we do?” she says. “Say it’s the trade show or the connections [created]. If we can’t deliver them virtually, we won’t do it.”  

3. Harness virtual event technology to increase participation 

Virtual event platforms offer many features designed to spark conversation and active participation. So use these tools to your advantage, Stimeling says 

This starts with the public chat and Q&A, she says. Here, presenters can maintain a two-way exchange with guests instead of just lecturing at them.  

The ability to upvote questions is also useful for both attendees and speakers. By upvoting, guests can tell presenters what topics are most important to them — and presenters know they’re addressing their audience’s most pressing concerns.  

Polls, which appear either as full-screen or slideout pop-ups to attendees, perform a similar function. With polls, presenters can feel out how your audience feels about a topic or the presentation in general — then pivot in real-time if your crowd’s not responding. You may not be able to gauge your audience’s body language, but if nobody’s answering your poll questions, you know you need to change direction fast. 

Stimeling uses automatic push notifications to drive traffic and engagement in different event modules. “This way, if people get caught up in [a]sponsor booth or networking center. they don’t forget that Joe is speaking in the keynote session right now.” 

She also singles out gamification as an especially good engagement tool. “Gamification has been wildly successful for us,” she continues. “People are naturally competitive, so attendees are excited to play the game. That encourages them to interact with each other, win the prizes, and download handouts,” she adds. 

4. Use the chat creatively  

Useful as engagement tools can be, success lies in the execution. Especially during early morning sessions, people may be reluctant to actively participate. And just like middle school, nobody wants to be the first to speak up. So presenters and hosts should open sessions with thoughtful conversation starters — then encourage attendees to chime in. 

(Pro tip: Encourage a few of your team members to jump into the chat early, so more people in the audience feel comfortable sharing.)  

Don’t be afraid to go off the beaten path. In fact, it’s probably the best way to do it. In her orientation sessions, Hughes uses icebreakers that diverge from the expected “So where are you logging in from today?”, in hopes of facilitating more natural conversations between students. 

“We’d do waterfall chats asking things like, ‘Is cereal a soup, yes or no?’” Hughes says. “Then everyone would respond at the same time. They’d have a debate that has nothing to do with FSU, but it pits them against each other and gets them talking.” 

“Another thing we did was a house hunt: Have them find something in their home that showcases their hometown or relates to their major. So if they’re from Wetumpka, Alabama and I’m from Wetumpka, Alabama, we’ve made an instant connection.” 

Also consider holding a fundraiser to foster more conversation in the chat. 

“We said that for every chat [submitted] in the chatbox, we’re gonna give a dollar to this particular organization,” Pressley says. “That encouraged a lot of the participants to say hi or ‘Hey, that’s a great point.’ Then at the end of the session, we could say, ‘Hey we just gave 200 dollars to this week’s nonprofit.’” 

5. Tape a photo of your family over your camera

At the end of the day, audience engagement comes down to the audience. But speakers can impact the energy level of their sessions as well. 

Many of the same best practices — asking questions from the audience, using your hands, and enunciating clearly — still apply in a virtual setting, Pressley says. 

“One of the biggest differences, though, is looking at the camera. Computers are built with cameras in the dead center of the screen so if you want to make eye contact you have to look up,” she says. That results in many speakers staring at an unknown point offscreen as they talk — and failing to make eye contact with their audience. 

That’s why Pressley tells speakers at her events to cover their cameras with something that’ll catch their eye.  

“We’ve told our speakers to put a picture of their family on top of the camera. So you when you naturally go to look at that picture, you know you’re making eye contact with your audience.” 

6. Integrate social media into the event experience 

Sure, these tactics make sense. But will they really stop my audience from spending the session on Reddit or TikTok instead? 

Working with college students, Hughes has definitely accounted for social media in her event strategy. Don’t fight it, she says. Embrace it — and let it enhance your event experience. 

“That fear of missing out, especially for our younger population is important,” Hughes says, “So bring it in and embrace it. We make sure we’re using Stories and we also take song suggestions for what to play in downtime.” 

“For every session, you’re gonna get a playlist that complements it. That way, we’re encouraging students to come into the light and customize their experience further.” 

Communicating with people using their preferred methods signals that you’ve taken the time to understand them and their lifestyle. Especially if you’re heading a mandatory virtual event, that can go a long way toward turning an obligatory meeting into a mutually beneficial and dare wesay fun experience. 

It provides a much-needed switch-up from the standard lecture-lecture-breakout schedule. And it’s just more fun, whether you’re speaking to college students or experienced business professionals.

7. Maximize engagement with on-demand content 

Stimeling says that hosts shouldn’t expect attendees to sit in front of a screen from 8 to 5 and consume all the content at once. No “my way or the highway” games here. Instead, hosts should provide their content in multiple formats — such as media hubs and on-demand video players — so attendees can view it on their own time. 

“What works great for us is on-demand or live session replays. Some of our attendees are across multiple time zones or have childcare needs,” she adds. “Offering pre-recorded sessions allows attendees who miss it to watch and engage on another level. Maybe they’ll go into the networking center and say, ‘I wasn’t live, but I loved the topic you talked about.’” 

8. Schedule optional and/or 1:1 programming for the end of the event 

By day 3 of a weekend-long event, even the most enthusiastic event goers will be mentally fatigued. So if you schedule demanding breakout sessions or long lectures for the final day, many people will skip out. 

Hughes encourages hosts to save the optional programming for last — your group lunches, your networking sessions, etc. Think of it as the dessert following the business-heavy dinner portion of the proceeding.

“That way we can allow students to participate in more social content if they want to. But if they and their families are already tapped out, they can skip.” 

This is also a great time to schedule one-on-one appointments or consultations. After absorbing a lot of information, attendees will want to act on it — but they may not know where to start. Or they may just crave more personalized advice after passively watching lectures for a few days. 

That’s why Hughes saves 1:1 registration appointments for the final day of FSU’s orientation event. 

“We try to provide some connection that’s not structured at all, where you’ll get that one-on-one time,” Hughes says. “This goes a long way to make sure people feel cared about as they’re going through that process.” 

In a B2B or SaaS setting, we recommend holding sales meetings and product demos during this time. This ensures that after ingesting all of the important information, attendees are able to discuss their specific needs and challenges with a sales rep in a 1:1 environment.

Want to learn more about captivating your audience? Our team is here to help! Contact us at sales@bigmarker.com to schedule a demo and get started, 

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