In the meetings arena, no topic is more prevalent today than attendee engagement. And as the list of options provided by rapidly evolving technology continues to grow almost daily, a key issue becomes a focus on the tools and tactics that work best. And what works for one association meeting planner might not work as well for another.
But there is wide consensus among planners on one key point: A successful meeting is now defined by genuine attendee engagement more than it is by any other factor.
“Attendee engagement is a big topic and it is changing very quickly now,” says Renee Radabaugh, president and managing director of Delray Beach, Florida-based Paragon Events, a 25-year-old event planning and association management company. “So because of that, there is a lot of ‘noise’ out there about it. And by ‘noise,’ I don’t mean that as a bad thing. I mean there is a lot of conversation about what is going on when it comes to the idea of attendee engagement. There are so many buzz words now, like gamification, that are used to imply that there is a structure to all of this stuff. But it’s really something that’s all over the place in terms of what you either want to do or can actually do.”
There is a much greater appreciation among associations and their meeting planners of the ever-expanding role of technology tools in driving attendee engagement and a growing awareness that meetings are becoming a multidimensional experience, notes Marie Hunter, senior director, meetings, conferences and events at the Piscataway, New Jersey-based Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the world’s largest professional association dedicated to advancing technological innovation and excellence for the benefit of humanity. “So we don’t have to be afraid of new tools that accomplish that or the fact that they will expand and enhance conversation.”
Furthermore, the notion of continuous engagement before, during and after the meeting is now an established best practice, and the tools are in place to be able to do that, Hunter says. “And so the more savvy associations and planners now use those tools to create ‘360-degree’ awareness around the meeting throughout that cycle,” she says. “But at the same time, there is also room for growth in terms of doing all that and creating a robust conversation that is ongoing.”
“The more savvy associations and planners now use those tools to create ‘360-degree’ awareness around the meeting throughout that cycle.” — Marie Hunter
From a planner perspective, Hunter says, “the most important issue is how to grow your skill set professionally, or to partner with others who have the skills to do a better job. It’s now quite easy for planners to get up to speed on using specific tools. But then the issue becomes how they fill that gap between finding and developing relevant content and curating that for their audience. It almost becomes a sort of ‘editorial’ function. In our organization, we are doing that now. But I don’t think it’s being done very widely yet.”
As Hunter sees it, the two key ingredients in the recipe for innovation in terms of attendee engagement are truly excellent content and robust conversations about it. “And today, if you do not have both those things,” she says, “you will erode your audience and not have the level of engagement you want.”
Corbin Ball, a leading meeting industry technology expert and consultant based in Bellingham, Washington, says the critical issue today is one of semantics and perception.
Ball cites what he says is an emerging transition from the age-old term meeting “attendees” to meeting “participants.” In other words, he says, the relatively passive perception of attendance is being eclipsed by the precise and all-important notion of full participation, enabled by the ever-increasing array of technology tools that foster that level of involvement.
There also are different levels of engagement, Ball says. “If you’re talking about engagement in the meeting room, that’s one level,” he says. “Then there’s the overall sense of engagement at the event.” Then, too, there is the level of engagement with colleagues and peers — before, during and after the event. So for many planners and meeting hosts, Ball says, the notion of engagement begins on the day the meeting is announced and carries forward far into the future once the meeting is over.
The explosion of social media is one of two primary drivers that have redefined the notion of participant engagement at meetings, Ball says. “And it has opened all sorts of doors that allow you to engage people and get them talking about the meeting, including giving their input before, during and after the event. But the other big change is that while meetings used to be driven by a ‘top down’ (dynamic), now they are ‘bottom up.’ ”
That inverted reality, by definition, is a result of engagement that has directly generated ever-increasing interest in being part of the creation and presentation of the meeting, rather than just attending the meeting.
At the same time, however, the ongoing proliferation of social media creates a challenge for many planners, Radabaugh says. “And that challenge is that there are so many social media tools out there now. You have the obvious ones like Facebook and Twitter, then you have newer ones like Tumblr and Foursquare. The list just goes on and on. And sometimes, it’s a matter of the economics of it and what your budget is. But you also have to look at the outcome you want and then (assess) that against what a particular tool can do.”
There also are very good tools, such as Constant Contact, that are usually not thought of as social media or engagement tools in the same sense that Facebook or Twitter are, Radabaugh says. “But we use it a lot and it is a great engagement tool if you use it right.”
Meanwhile, there also are well-defined extremes, at either end of the performance spectrum, in terms of how well meeting planners and hosts use technology for attendee engagement, Radabaugh points out. “On the one hand, it is absolutely imperative now that you use social media tools,” she says. “But on the other hand, I think that a lot of associations do a mediocre job of it — at best. And because most people have what amounts to a 7-second attention span now, it’s very important that you know what you’re doing and that you do it right if you want to engage people and have them stay engaged. If you don’t capture their attention right off the bat and give them something that makes them want to come back for more, there will be a dozen other things competing for their attention.”
The second major driver of engagement cited by Ball is mobile technology, which is transforming the Internet in general and not just in terms of meetings.
“Mobile technology is really what allows engagement to happen during the meeting,” Ball says. “In addition to using social media, people are taking pictures or sending Tweets and doing other things that involve them in the event. And then there is a whole list of specialized apps that get people involved in the meeting, such as the things that allow for polling or other forms of feedback in real time during the event.”
Mobile technology and the emergence of smartphones have increasingly brought engagement tactics directly into the meeting room. “It used to be that meeting organizers and speakers wanted you to turn off your phone in the meeting room,” Ball says. “Now they want you to leave them on because of all the things you can do with them during the meeting that help keep you engaged.”
Radabaugh cautions that although virtually all associations and their meeting planners are now trying to create some kind of mobile app, “there is no such thing as ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to these things. You have to know exactly what you want to do and why you want to do it.”
As a result, she recommends getting professional guidance from a vendor, rather than relying on a do-it-yourself, off-the-shelf approach.
One of Radabaugh’s primary tools is gamification.
But, she adds, it should not be used as a mere curiosity that is currently very fashionable. “You really have to understand what it is,” she says. “And again, one key to using it properly is that you have to create good content. You can’t just say, ‘Go on this scavenger hunt and earn points.’ ” In other words, she says, planners have to think of it as an important engagement tool and use it for a precise purpose, not just to have some fun.
Radabaugh’s preferred gamification vendor for the last six years has been Play With a Purpose, which helped pioneer the very concept almost a decade ago — long before it became the red-hot tactic it is today.
The most fundamental key to its successful deployment, Radabaugh says, is fully understanding that its real purpose is to steer a particular kind of behavior, such as attending what is perceived as the most important session at the meeting or directing attendees to the show floor and the exhibits of major sponsors.
“But another important use is to get people to absorb and remember as much important information as we can,” Radabaugh says. “And in order to do that, you have to make it fun. So another way to understand and use it is to think of it as using the principles of a ‘game’ to have people take a deep dive into the information you want them to remember.”
Related to that is the fact that the essence of the game must in some way be directly connected — and relevant — to a particular objective of the meeting and support retention of that goal-related content. It can’t just be about “winning a T-shirt,” Radabaugh says. “If you haven’t created real interest in and credibility for what you’re trying to accomplish, then it was just a goofy game. But on the other hand, if you use gamification right, the engagement that it produces is astounding.”
Yet another highly innovative and powerful engagement tool is second-screen technology, which simply means using more than one device for more than one function. For example, attendees can follow a speaker’s presentation on a laptop or tablet while using a smartphone to respond to poll questions or send live Tweets as a form of interactivity.
Another way to think of it is that attendees can watch or follow one thing while doing something else.
Hunter agrees with Ball that second-screen technology is now a key tactic for planners who truly understand the full dimensions of participant engagement during meeting sessions. “And I don’t even call it second-screen anymore,” she says. “I see it as multiscreen.”
For example, a third screen could bring in feedback from remote participants back at company headquarters or in a regional or overseas office. “You shouldn’t just think of it as multiple screens,” Hunter says. “Think of it as a multidimensional experience.”
And for a tech-savvy association meeting planner, she says, it is not a trend. It is a mainstream best practice.
Her current idea of genuine next-generation innovation is to use Google Hangout to engage people from multiple locations and then live-stream that via YouTube and use Twitter to send questions and get feedback.
Rachel Daeger, associate director of the Society for Nutrition, Education and Behavior (SNEB) in Indianapolis, has started using what she considers a top engagement tactic: QR codes.
She uses them to give attendees easy access to posters mounted in meeting rooms that serve as supplemental onsite materials to support articles published by researchers in SNEB’s professional journal.
“The posters are extremely detailed,” Daeger says. “They have scientific references and lots of charts and graphs. They are very visual presentations of the research that has been conducted. And the authors are there to discuss the posters with attendees.”
Although the posters are published online, they have long and complex URLs that often lead to mistakes when typing them into a browser, so Daeger uses abbreviated URLs created at Google’s Goo.gl site to link to QR codes that make onsite capture into smartphones or tablets quick and easy.
Another of Daeger’s current go-to tools is Keyhole.co, which allows SNEB to track Twitter reach before and during a meeting.
“Our members are heavy Twitter users,” Daeger says, explaining that Keyhole.co is a dashboard tool that is set up before the meeting to track and report on use of SNEB’s meeting hashtag before and at the event. Keyhole.co updates in real time and is used specifically to track the reach of a particular hashtag — how many attendees are reached by that hashtag.
Daeger also uses the tool before the meeting to track use of the meeting hashtag and track Tweets. After the meeting, Daeger says, it also serves as a broader engagement tool, especially for reaching and identifying influencers and then recruiting them to promote next year’s conference. It also can be used after the conference to see which topics and sessions generated the most interest among attendees, which allows improved content planning for next year’s event.
Despite the constant expansion of the universe of technology tools used to engage attendees, the simple fact remains that one basic tactic trumps all of them.
“Content is king,” Radabaugh says. “And most of the time, meeting planners and the host association are not putting in the time and energy to really build great content. They say things as simple as, ‘Come to our meeting, where you’re going to learn how to achieve your potential.’ ”
If that is your message, she says, it’s not very exciting and it’s not going to truly engage many people in today’s business world. “The real issue is the ability to tell people, very precisely, why they should come to the meeting and what you want them to take away from it,” Radabaugh says. “That’s the starting point when it comes to engaging people and keeping them engaged.” And the opposite also is true: If you fail to engage someone from the start, Radabaugh stresses, it is going to become increasingly difficult to ever truly engage them.
“The other issue I see today is that a lot of people also ask, ‘Well, whose responsibility is it to engage people?’ ” Radabaugh says. “And the answer is that it’s everybody’s responsibility — the organizer or planner, the association that is hosting the meeting and the attendees, who should be engaging each other.”
At the same time, meeting attendees will continue to drive an important element of the debate over what constitutes effective engagement. And such discussion will be dictated by the constantly evolving role of technology.
“As more and more of these tools become available, and as more and more people think of themselves as active participants in the meeting, as opposed to just being attendees, I think they will continue to expect more and more of these kinds of capabilities,” Ball says. “In their lives outside the meeting, they are doing these types of things on a daily basis, so they will increasingly expect the same level of ability to connect with people at meetings. So that’s why planners and speakers will have to think more and more about how to use these tools to improve the quality of their events.” AC&F