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Why Your Audience Isn't Engaged (And How to Fix It)

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How to grab and maintain your audience's attention, no matter where they are.

Contributed by Joe Matuschka, BigMarker Event Producer

On BigMarker, we spend our days building beautiful fully-branded virtual event experiences, in hopes of helping our customers grow their businesses. But even we know that tech only goes so far. 

Your party could be at Prince William’s castle and it’d still suck if the crowd was dead silent. Same goes for virtual events: No matter your event platform, presenter selection and strategy, you won’t see results if you can’t convince your audience to care.  

So audience engagement is everything. Event organizers understand its importance, as 49% of marketers say that audience engagement is the biggest contributing factor to having a successful virtual event

But it’s much harder in practice. When your audience can’t see, hear or talk to you in person, it’s harder for them to stay fully invested in what you’re saying. The numbers bear it out: More than half (67.7%) of event marketers find it more difficult to keep attendees engaged during sessions at virtual events, compared to their IRL counterparts. 

But with simple audience insight, strategy and storytelling, you can create an event that inspires your audience and keeps them coming back for more. 

Understand the Real Problem 

First, you need to understand audience apathy as a symptom of a larger problem: customer apathy. So before you trot the gimmicks and splashy activations, you need to answer one question: Why do people check out of virtual event sessions? 

  1. It feels like a lecture: It’s hard to pay attention to an aimless, bland speaker in person. But in an IRL setting, there’s a social expectation to pay attention or at least act as if you’re doing so. In a virtual event, nothing besides the Attendance Monitor stops bored people from switching tabs or exiting entirely. So all it takes is one aimless tangent to get your online crowd checking out.
  2. They can’t participate: The difference between IRL and virtual events comes down to active v. passive learning. Sitting in a crowd, in front of a speaker and among colleagues, you’re part of the conversation in a tangible, physical way. You and the speaker can make mutual eye contact, you can share notes with the person sitting next to you, you can see how other people are reacting to the presentation. In an environment that engages all five senses, you’re an active learner.

    But if you’re sitting behind a laptop listening to a presenter that can’t see or hear you, you’re a passive consumer and less likely to pay attention without additional external stimuli from your virtual event platform. 
  3. They feel like they’re being sold: From the age of traveling salesmen to today’s virtual events, one thing is consistent. People really hate being sitting through a sales pitch if that pitch doesn’t offer them any value in return.

    We get it, players gotta play, 94% of virtual event organizers consider pipeline-building their main success metric. But if you use your sales pitch as the reasonable conclusion to a narrative that’s compelling and valuable on its own, people are more likely to pay attention for the full 45 minutes. 
  4. You’re telling them the same things they’ve already heard: One scroll through LinkedIn and you’ll see that most people marketing themselves as marketing gurus are saying the same exact thing in different words. And you’ll probably sign off in 20 seconds. Same goes for virtual event sessions. If you can tell people something they’ve never heard before, teach them how to solve a problem, or give them a compelling narrative, the sheer novelty will motivate them to stick around. 
  5. They’ve just got attention spans: It’s the sounding call of every boomer in marketing. Attention spans are shrinking down to nothing. Shorter content sells, so there’s no room for nuance. There’s an element of truth here, but only to a point. Today’s consumers may not read the NYT front-to-back, but they can binge seasons of Netflix for hours straight, listen to 2- to 3-hour podcasts and generally focus on their own work product. 

The common denominator between those three things? They’re all personally relevant and interesting. Our attention spans expand and contract based on our interest level. So it’s your job as an organizer to create an event architecture and program that elicits interest. Here’s how! 

1. Use interactive tools to your advantage

The right virtual event platform will have engagement features built into each session, so speakers and attendees can interact with each other as seamlessly and naturally as they would in “real life.” But since none of us grew up making friends online, it’s not enough to just have the features sitting in your interface. Use them strategically to get your audience buzzing and maximize your impact. 

Chat: Virtual event platforms come with live public chats so that attendees and presenters can chat throughout sessions. But depending on your crowd’s dynamic, it can be thousands of comments deep or a ghost town. So have your presenter start the session by asking people where they’re coming from, what they want to learn, or something related to the event topic, then have them answer in the chat. From there, have a moderator plant questions every 10-20 minutes to continue conversations and maintain a high energy level. 

Q&A: Your audience has questions. Your presenters (should) have answers. Your audience signed up to get answers from those presenters. So logic dictates that if your audience will be pumped if they can bring their questions to presenters and get really direct business advice straight from the source. 

But if they have to hear the speaker go on about something only tangentially related to their problems? Not so much. 

In addition to regular chat features, BigMarker’s innovative question and answer functionality allows event organizers to better structure and moderate how attendees engage with speakers and presenters. Attendee questions can be automatically published for the entire audience to see. Attendees can then upvote the questions they are most interested in hearing answers for. 

Toward the end of the session, ask attendees to submit any questions that haven’t yet been answered to the Q&A. Choosing to crowdsource communicates to your audience that you care about helping them solve their problems, which reflects well on your brand. And if your attendees submit thoughtful questions, it can stimulate another interesting round of conversation. 

Polls: 81.8% of virtual event organizers use polling to promote interaction—and for good reason. It works. With BigMarker’s polls, hosts can ask single-choice or multiple-option polls that appear as full-screen pop-ups for attendees. 

But polls aren’t just about making people click. If hosts ask targeted questions about their audience’s experience or understanding of a certain topic, they can use the answers to inform their content going forward, thus ensuring they’re not speaking to their audience’s mastery level—not too high or too low. 

(Pro tip: These polls can be pre-loaded into webinars and automated to pop-up and send at specific times, so hosts can distribute them mid-session while engaging with the audience.) 

Handouts: Condensing a 45-minute session into more digestible bulletpoints, downloadable handouts also enhance audience comprehension and attention. If your attendees know they’ll have “notes” from the session, they won’t be so easy scribbling down notes that they stop interacting with the presentation. So especially if your audience is going to be tested on the information presented, consider using handouts.

Offers: Mastering the art of audience engagement means appealing to human nature—and people will always go for deals. There’s no bad time to give people discounts, but the best time is mid-session, when some viewers take a bathroom break and don’t bother coming back. 

Fight mid-session fatigue by triggering exclusive discounts throughout the session, and communicating that you’ll do so right away. This motivates attendees to stick around and stay engaged so they don’t miss out on the products/services they want. 

Best of all, speakers and admins can pre-load all of these assets in their presentation before going live. That way, they can trigger engagement features mid-session with the click of a button, without interrupting their own attention to the session. 

2. Tell better stories 

But splashy tech features can’t magically make people care about boring content. So beyond all else, you need to tell stories that your audience cares about.

Easier said than done, we know. Effective stories do two things: They create value and an emotional connection. Stories create value by giving people the tangible resources they need to solve their problems and achieve tangible goals in their lives. Consider that the substance of your story. 

But despite the near-universal need to do taxes, none of us are reading tax manuals anytime soon. Why? They’re boring, impersonal and impossible to relate to. 

That’s where the emotional connection comes into play. Through personal anecdotes, vivid detail and vulnerability, you can communicate your message in a way that people can relate to. And when your audience can relate to you, they’re more likely to listen to and learn from you. 

In addition, using pre-recorded and/or automated videos and media can help event organizers structure content very precisely to help accomplish and meet their overall show and event goals. BigMarker allows speakers and moderators to switch between live and pre-recorded content seamlessly. Jumping between content and pertinent topics also makes sure that content remains fresh and interesting to the audience, further driving engagement.

For more on creating a captivating content strategy for your online events, check our blog post here

3. Plan your schedule strategically  

The best way to win your audience’s attention? Knowing how much of it to ask for. So while planning your event schedule, consider best practices on audience behavior during sessions. In our experience, we see audience interest during a standard event session peak between the 20- and 40-minute mark, then peter off. So aim to make your agenda sessions 50 minutes to an hour long, depending on the speaker’s skill level and your business needs. 

Similarly, breakout sessions capped at 30 minutes, with 20 minutes for conversation, are most effective. And 63% of people say that the ideal time for a virtual round table discussion is between 60 and 90 minutes, depending on the audience’s interest level and conversation quality. 

Captivating your audience’s attention is difficult in any setting, and doubly so at a virtual event. But by leveraging your virtual event platform’s features and your own stories, you can inspire your audience and keep them coming back for more.

Want to learn more about the world's most innovative companies are leveraging online events to drive business results? BigMarker's team of Account Executives is here to help. Contact us at sales@bigmarker.com to get started or schedule a demo today.

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