Even though things have started opening up since COVID started back in 2019, the world is still far from how it used to be. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the events industry. Galas, conferences, events generally have to be executed now with caution and always in line with the dynamic development in COVID trends and safety guidelines. So, a lot of events have been forced online, while others have really taken to the new way of engaging with audience.
I recently had the opportunity to host the Engagement stage at the 2022 Spark of Change conference where I was in conversation with emcees Amy McWhirter and Dan Ram. Both Amy and Dan had unique insights from their careers on how to make a virtual event so engaging that the audience is compelled to stay on their screens for the whole duration of the event (a quick hint: it’s not about the speakers). Going through our conversation, I picked out some of their best advice and my responses to bring you the meat from our conversation. Read on if you want to know how to level up your audience engagement for virtual events. And if you would rather watch our panel, you can scroll right to the end of the article where the video is linked!
1. Invest in production for online events
When there’s no venue to be booked or food costs, organizers make the mistake of not reallocating resources into costs that can elevate virtual events.
As Dan points out during the talk, it’s rare for organizers to think about where an audience would be “seated” during an online event. It’s rarer still for them to consider if the audience can be “seen” which is a given in in-person events. Dan’s point was that often organizers of events forget to consider the audience when planning a virtual event. They should start focusing on the audience experience, start thinking about if the audience is comfortable enough and involved enough in the event. Is there a space for the audience to interact with the speakers or the event host at least? Can members of the audience chat with each other (another thing that’s likely to happen in in-person events)?
Dan offered some great suggestions: have integrations with third party apps to bring in freshness to the event. Games, quizzes that have prizes and polls are great options to keep the audience engaged through the event in a meaningful manner. I also recommend that organizers encourage speakers to go beyond their presentation: interact with attendees over chat, maybe participate in breakout rooms and just generally stir up some excitement with active participation.
These are some of the many things that can be done so that audiences do not leave events because they are unengaged. Keep in mind that these little investments can result in great returns—the audience is the messenger and a great event means that they will not only return for another edition, but they will spread the word about your event. And all of these are things that an experienced event host can help you with.
2. Pay attention to your emcee/event host and not just your speakers
Because of changes that the COVID-19 pandemic enforced on all of us, in-person events have been replaced by a greater number of virtual events and trends forecast suggest that this will likely keep happening . This means that a great line-up of speakers is not enough. A great speaker line-up is like having a good show on one of the streaming platforms. What is going to drive audience presence in real time? The answer is engagement! And the biggest part of engagement for virtual events is a great emcee or event host. Amy rightly brings up that every human being wants to be seen, loved and appreciated. So it’s important to get in from the start and establish a human and authentic rapport. An event host does that while also acting as the glue, as Amy put it so aptly. We as events hosts are there to help connect the dots between the event organizers, speakers and the audience. In Dan’s words, we are that “human bridge” between the different groups of people at virtual events.
Where in-person events have many opportunities for people to connect, to bring a change of pace at events (via networking booths, coffee breaks, etc.) the opportunities are greatly reduced at virtual events. So, it’s imperative to have a good emcee in your corner who can create the right ambience and hold the event together.
3. Have a virtual event strategy
Keep in mind that a virtual event is radically different from an in-person event. Where there are many points of connection, engagement and overall stimulus at an in-person event, the virtual event isn’t loaded with as many opportunities. On top of that, there is of course the unspoken competition that is created by streaming platforms that offer entertaining and educational content. So keeping in mind the nature of consumption is very important to organizing a successful virtual event.
How long should a session be? What are some things that can be incorporated into a session without breaking the speaker’s flow while also helping the audience stay alert and engaged? What kind of tech will be most suitable for your particular event? Which platform would be the most conducive to host an event in an interactive manner? These are only some of the many nuances to consider when organizing a virtual event.
4. Keep cultural context and diversity in mind
A virtual event means that you are inviting the world. Since there are no geographical boundaries, anyone can turn up for your event. So if you can remember that and mix up the content that you will be presenting, that would keep a larger group of people engaged. This is another place where audience interaction becomes important. For example, Dan shared how it’s crucial to remember that calling out participants by their first name might be alright with an American or European audience, but would come off as rude with an Indian or Japanese audience of a particular age or social group.
So, being aware of these nuances becomes important. Once you can see the people appearing in the chat for your event, you can ask everyone to do a first line of introduction, by sharing, if they are comfortable, their names and where they are signing in from. This can not just be a great icebreaker but also create a sense of diversity and community among attendees. Who does not like knowing that they are a part of a global village? And once you know your audience a bit, an emcee or moderator can then engage them keeping cultural context and inclusion in mind.
5. Have fun with it!
Who does not love a perfect surprise? Audiences are no exception to this. So if you can have some good Easter eggs hidden with your emcee or event host, that’s going to take audience engagement to the next level. Throw in a couple of small prizes or a really big prize at the end of some discussions and you will see that your audience become active participants. A game and ice-breakers are also good to get the metaphoric blood flowing through the event and lastly, perhaps surprisingly, a physical background dedicated for the event instead of a virtual one. Sure, green screens are great and have their own benefits but there’s something about a physical background that really grounds the audience and tells them that a lot of effort has been put into the event for them. After all, if an audience understands that they are wanted and the event is not just about the speakers, then they are going to not just sit through but bring more of themselves to an event. And isn’t that what great engagement is all about?