9 Ways to Engage Virtual Attendees

Meeting experts shared their tips for getting more out of hybrid events, improving online networking and keeping attendee attention.

Clockwise from top left: Moderator Alex Palmer of Northstar Meetings Group, MeetingPlay's Joe Schwinger, tbg Events' Tammy Dickerson and Miller Tanner Associates' Meredith Shottes

Engaging event attendees online begins with finding ways to help them make personal and relevant connections, both to the content and with the other attendees. That was a central theme of the webcast, "New Ways to Keep Your Online Attendees Engaged," hosted by Northstar Meetings Group. Featuring a panel of experienced digital-meetings professionals, the event explored a range of aspects related to connecting with online attendees and running effective hybrid events.

The full session can be viewed here. To recap, here are nine takeaways from the session.

Encourage Attendees to Express Themselves

Engagement company Play with a Purpose hosted an activity in which participants used an app to draw answers to questions like "What engages you?"
Engagement company Play with a Purpose hosted an activity in which participants used an app to draw answers to questions like "What engages you?"

It's great to get attendees talking in chat or the Q&A field, but planers can take things to the next level by encouraging them to participate via more creative means. In the case of this week's webcast, that happened via an activity hosted by Sharon Fisher, CEO of experiential strategy firm Play with a Purpose. Fisher invited attendees, using their smartphones, to scan a QR code that directed them to a web-based illustration app where they could draw their answer to the question "What engages you?" 

"All of the nerves in your fingers are connected to nerves in your brain that stimulate your brain to pay attention," said Fisher. "So, if you're doodling or you're drawing, or you're doing any kind of art, then that brings alive your brain cells, and it's a great way to have a conversation."

Think Like a Reality TV Producer

Tammy Dickerson, founder and lead planner of tbg Events, drew comparisons between producing a digital event and producing a reality television show — balancing preparation and engaging speakers with elements of the unexpected.

"It's a very creative mix between interesting content, your delivery method and big personalities," said Dickerson. "It's a blend between making sure that you can have real content, but you have excitement and hype about your events."

And like a producer creating an engaging reality show, Dickerson emphasized that it's important to understand your target audience, from demographics to comfort with technology and professional needs.

Make a Human Connection

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The full session of "New Ways to Keep Your Online Attendees Engaged" is available to view here and is eligible for CMP credits. Watch now!

Meredith Shottes, chief experience officer for Miller Tanner Associates, described an online national sales meeting in which a slide show was running as attendees entered, spotlighting top performers and their personal stories.

"It was slide after slide of personal moments from employees at the company," says Shottes. "It wasn't a beautiful graphic or 30-second teaser; it was about the people in the company and immediately I was mesmerized by the courage and heart of these people and their personal photos and videos of what happened in their lives the past nine months."

She gave another example of a client that had considered featuring clips of celebrities from the Cameo platform but decided it didn't quite strike the personal note they were going for. Working with Shottes and her team, they came up with the idea of "customer cameos," which followed the same concept but instead featured the company's top customers sharing their appreciation in a personal way.

Keep Online Content Short and Punchy

As professionals have been required to attend a growing number of virtual events, attention spans have been tested and "Zoom fatigue" has become a growing challenge. To manage this, Joe Schwinger, cofounder and CEO of virtual conference platform MeetingPlay, predicted that content would continue to shift to "shorter-format content, bite-sized or micro services, to make it more consumable and pack in more information." 

The speakers emphasized the importance of building in breaks and changes to the event format to maintain a sense of novelty and provide opportunities for more creative connections between attendees.

Keep Virtual Attendees on the Platform

While incorporating breaks and a variety of content is key, the panelists stressed that a planner should still aim to keep their attendees on the platform. 

"The break should keep them on the platform, whether that's engaging in a breakout room, doing some one-on-one chats or watching a video," said Dickerson. "Having various options is going to make sure they're engaged."

Encourage 'Self-Selecting'

While meeting platforms have added capabilities around prequalifying and matching attendees based on their interests or job titles and descriptions, Shottes urged that planners not overlook the power of letting attendees "self-select" when it comes to networking and choice of content. She gave the example of a virtual event that Miller Tanner planned in which audience members were given prompts throughout the conference.

"For example, 'Are you looking for a mentor or do you want to be a mentee?' and they would virtually shake hands," said Shottes. "So, instead of an algorithm, it's a personal question that connects the audience."

The shared-interest groups they created would then connect via messaging and stay connected after the event.

Schwinger discussed a new "ambassador program" that MeetingPlay has rolled out aimed at using networking to bridge the divide between digital and in-person attendees. At-home attendees will "subscribe" to specific channels or subject matter experts who are on property, creating and sharing content. He compared it to the gaming platform Twitch, in which viewers can vicariously join a person playing a game, getting their commentary and seeing them in action.

Embrace the Possibilities of Virtual

Attendees illustrated the ideas, takeaways or action items they'd be applying to their next event.
Attendees illustrated the ideas, takeaways or action items they'd be applying to their next event.

The presenters emphasized that planners should do their best to avoid viewing digital programming as a hindrance and instead think of it as a chance to try something different.

"Now is the opportunity for all event planners to get a whiteboard and come up with ideas with your clients on this blank slate," said Dickerson. "When have you ever been in a corporate meeting where we could stand up in the middle of the room and do a stretch exercise or a cocktail class at lunchtime or have a mentalist drop in?"

She urged planners to think of the creative ways that they could bring elements of an in-person event into the digital environment, as well as taking advantage of the technology to do things that could not ever happen at an in-person gathering.

Virtual or hybrid events also present the opportunity to access a much larger audience. Shottes cited an event that Miller Tanner planned that enjoyed a 2,100 percent increase in attendance when it moved online. Now the client is looking to incorporate virtual offerings even when in-person meetings return.

Create FOMO for Face-to-Face

Planners can think of a hybrid meeting as two simultaneous events, and consider the revenue-generating opportunities associated with using one to market the other. In other words, create in-person content that's compelling for those at home — and also makes them eager to take part in the face-to-face component next time.

"Create great content on property and you will create that FOMO," said Schwinger. "Then you turn that negative of the additional cost into a positive."

Give Attendees Reasons to Stick Around

A three-night stay at the Hyatt Ziva Rose Hall, courtesy of Playa Hotels & Resorts, a partner of webcast sponsor Jamaica Tourist Board, was an incentive for attendees to remain engaged.
A three-night stay at the Hyatt Ziva Rose Hall, courtesy of Playa Hotels & Resorts, a partner of webcast sponsor Jamaica Tourist Board, was an incentive for attendees to remain engaged.

An effective way to ensure that attendees stick around for your session is to offer a reward for those who do. We concluded the live webcast with a giveaway, a three-night stay at the Hyatt Ziva Rose Hall and Hyatt Zilara Rose Hall in Montego Bay, Jamaica, courtesy of Playa Hotels & Resorts — a partner of the webcast sponsor, the Jamaica Tourist Board. The lucky winner had to be the first to answer a question based on information conveyed in the sponsor presentation. 

There are plenty of other ways to incentivize attendees to stick around, such as gift cards or free registration to a future meeting, or even just by providing an answer to a question that you promised at the start of the event.

At a recent online awards show on the MeetingPlay platform, organizers kept attendees watching by including brief video case studies on each winner — and by promising an interactive, requests-only performance by the Spazmatics to close out the show.

"We knew the case studies were going to hit with meeting planners, because all of us want to sponge ideas off of each other and bring those into our workflows," said Schwinger. "If you make it relevant and give them a reason, they will stick around."