How to Overcome Audience Attention DeficitJune 1, 2013

‘Active Learning’ Strategies That Engage and Captivate By
June 1, 2013

How to Overcome Audience Attention Deficit

‘Active Learning’ Strategies That Engage and Captivate
The American Society for Healthcare Engineering tries to drive much of the activity at its annual meeting to a central hub on the exhibit floor known as ASHE Connect. Credit: The Expo Group

The American Society for Healthcare Engineering tries to drive much of the activity at its annual meeting to a central hub on the exhibit floor known as ASHE Connect. Credit: The Expo Group

Any good teacher knows that quality content isn’t enough to engage students; delivering that content in a compelling format is what staves off boredom and distraction. The same principle applies to an association meeting planner’s “audience,” the membership in attendance. They know that cutting-edge educational content and valuable interpersonal connections await them at the convention; indeed, that’s why they’ve paid to be there. And unlike young students, delegates probably won’t get bored or distracted from the agenda. But why not ramp up the overall engagement from suitable to robust, by delivering content in the attention-getting formats of mobile, social media, games and combinations thereof?

Presenters, not just planners, are adapting to the statistical realities of the digital age. A significant percentage of today’s audience will not only be digitally savvy, but obsessed with mobile and immersed in social media. Complementing a presentation — while it’s in progress — with content pushed through these channels will draw in the digital enthusiasts. “I’ve been doing presentations for a number of years, and the first couple of times when you are presenting, and you notice a third of your audience is looking down at their mobile devices, it’s kind of disheartening,” says Kurt Nelson, MBA, president and founder of Minneapolis-based The Lantern Group, an employee motivation solution provider. “But if they are retrieving some of your content on social media and being engaged by it, you are adjusting to a much bigger group.”

Engaging with digital content might even be considered a new learning style. “We have to be flexible because we realize that adult learners learn in different ways: Some just want to look and listen, others want to take notes, and some may want to look at a slide on their mobile device,” observes Amanda Fiesler, manager, education and learning, with association management company SmithBucklin. And most will want some kind of interactivity during the talk, which is being facilitated by mobile technologies that allow survey questions to be answered and questions posed to the speaker in real time. “Many of the audience response systems have already started using mobile technology, which makes it easier for people to be able to afford it,” adds Julie Ferry, senior manager, education and learning, SmithBucklin. Examples include Poll Everywhere, Mentimeter and mQlicker.

“Social media and digital polling software provide an incredible opportunity to get real-time reactions and information from an audience, which is very powerful,” observes Patrick Andrus, director, business development with the American Society for Healthcare Engineering (ASHE). “It allows speakers to adjust their presentation to meet the needs of their audience and deliver a more effective presentation. That does not mean it is applicable for every single presentation and every audience, but it does add value for the attendees if used appropriately.” There is the concern that incorporating mobile into presentations actually draws more attention to the devices, effectively promoting distraction. But Andrus counters: “If attendees are disengaged from a presentation, there’s good chance they’ll get distracted with their mobile device, regardless of whether the speaker is using this technology.”

Mobile-assisted learning is also expanding beyond the duration of the meeting. “Our association clients have been incorporating mobile into their annual and regional conferences for four or five years already, but what we are seeing now is they are using mobile for year-round engagement,” says Fiesler. “For example, I work with a health care group that releases standards every quarter, and they strategically push those updates out to members, who can download them through their mobile apps.”


Perhaps the most active learning style mixes education with games in what’s come to be known as gamification. Competing for points or prizes makes for a fun, memorable experience that supports the educator’s primary goal: retention. Given the popularity of teambuilding, most planners are not strangers to deploying games in non-game contexts. “In the broadest sense of gamification, meetings have been using it for a long time. So for example, if you include a scavenger hunt where you are working either individually or as a team to earn points, technically that would be a gamification of the meeting,” Nelson points out. “But where gamification has really taken off lately is the digital component. A number of different companies have built the kinds of mobile apps that you can use in order to participate in some of these games.”

The scavenger hunt is one of the main types of games that Nelson has seen transition to mobile. In the context of association meetings, such a game can promote booth visitation in the exhibit hall. Certain booths (most often those exhibitors at a certain level of sponsorship) will be among the scavenger hunt locations, but with mobile, organizers can ensure there is significant interaction at those booths by requiring the scavenger hunters to answer a question about the exhibitor’s products or services via their devices. Such games can be woven throughout the conference, Nelson notes, with participants having the opportunity to earn points and be awarded badges that appear on their mobile screens, representing a certain number of items found on a scavenger hunt, networking contacts made, trivia questions answered and so on. “You might earn 100 points for trivia questions, 150 for networking, 75 for the scavenger hunt, and then you are ranked among other competitors in those areas. Conference organizers can set up leader boards that show up-to-the-minute scoring, so attendees can see ‘I’m in 10th place out of 100’ or ‘These three people are ahead of me,’ ” Nelson explains.

Keeping in mind the goal of engagement, game developers want to ensure that a good number of participants will be able to do fairly well and be motivated to continue playing, while still offering a challenge. “One of the most important things is not to create a game that is so easy you are boring people, nor so difficult or cumbersome that it either monopolizes peoples’ time and effort or they give up,” Nelson warns. Assuming the conference is three or four days, participants should know they have major opportunities to score points beyond the first day, particularly on days three and four. That way, even if they end up with a low ranking after day one, they will not be immediately discouraged. Providing awards at different levels of scoring is also a good idea. To bolster engagement with the game, some developers use well-known trivia games such as “Jeopardy” and “Family Feud” as models, and the game might also be run through popular social media sites such as Twitter.

Social Media Strategy

With all of the social media options available today beyond the big four (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube), more thought has to be put into which sites the convention will have a presence on, in order to maximize engagement. “Five years ago people would (do little more) than say, ‘Oh, we’re out there’ on social media. Now I think people are taking a step back and strategically thinking about how they are incorporating their social media to reach out to different types of membership communities,” says Fiesler. “For example, one part of the membership might use more of the association’s website rather than publicizing on social media.”

Another approach is to try to consolidate most of the virtual communications on one platform. Andrus explains that “While we use a number of social media platforms in our communications plan, we try to drive all conversations to one platform (Twitter) to increase the value of these interactions. This is a commonly used outlet among our members/audience, and allows onsite and remote attendees to comment and react to specific issues discussed during the event.”

Creating an Engagement Hub

Speaking of consolidation, ASHE also tries to drive much of the activity at its annual meeting to a central hub on the exhibit floor known as ASHE Connect, a 40-by-50-foot booth that serves a number of functions. Given the booth’s success as an engagement tool, the slogan “If You Build It, They Will Come” has certainly proven accurate. Both onsite and remote attendees come to ASHE Connect, insofar as it’s where the streaming session is conducted. “Our goal was to engage our members that were not able to attend, as well as enhance the experience for onsite attendees and exhibitors,” says Andrus. “Attendees, exhibitors and the remote audience can all engage with key speakers at the booth, which also includes our ‘Internet zone,’ a new product launch area, and an area for meetings/networking.”

Designed by Irving, TX-based The Expo Group, the hub is “a turnkey service of the company since 2010,” remarks Dana Freker Doody, vice president, corporate communications with The Expo Group. “But no association client has embraced it as much as ASHE and really made it their own. It’s a showcase of everything ASHE offers their community, and education is obviously a big focus for that association, which is why they bridge the gap between conference and exhibition with the booth. You have a lot of shows where the conference and exhibition are separate and people don’t necessarily visit the exhibition; they’re there for the conference. So this is a way to bring the conference right into the exhibition. It really has been very successful for ASHE in promoting the education that they are offering; they use it as a marketing tool. There is always an ASHE membership representative in the space, in a corner area. It’s like the old Main Street Town Hall concept.”

Conference speakers are invited to give informal talks at the booth, adding to the draw. “After a conference speaker is done speaking, about half a dozen people rush up there, and they have questions and want to give their business card, etc.,” says Doody. “So we encourage speakers to take that conversation that happens afterward and put it on the show floor. Tell attendees, ‘I’m heading to the trade show now; I’m going to be at the ASHE Connect booth for the next 15 minutes. Come hang out with me there.’ ”

Allaying Exhibitors’ Fears

Doody admits that “sometimes exhibitors get really nervous when they hear there’s going to be education on the show floor, because in their mind that means you will be taking those people and trapping them in a classroom that you’ve built on the floor. And in my experience at the Expo Group and working with exhibitors and their needs, that’s exactly the opposite of what this is designed to achieve. We keep the education segments short, about 15 minutes, so that attendees can then get up and go shopping at the exhibits, and maybe they come back in another half an hour because the next speaker’s coming up. Or maybe they start engaging with someone on the show floor and they don’t make it back.” In addition, the booth has a very open design so that attendees aren’t hidden away from the trade show experience.

The gamification trend is also reflected at ASHE Connect, although the emphasis is basically diversion. The membership team will conduct games for attendees during the evening exhibit hours, such as Plinko from “The Price Is Right” with tchotchkes as prizes. “Sometimes those old-fashioned games are very effective on the show floor,” Doody observes. “We’ve kind of embraced gamification as ‘It has to be on message,’ but many attendees, especially the younger generation, really want five minutes where they can take a break from having to deal with salespeople in a booth. So they’re putting in foosball tables, air hockey tables and so on.”

Urban-Planning the Show Floor

Social media and games have a key engagement-boosting factor in common: They both make participants feel like part of a community. The convention isn’t just a place to listen to presentations and exchange business cards on the show floor. It’s a communal atmosphere where people are in constant virtual dialogue and even partake in diversions together. Ideally, the design of the exhibit floor will support that environment by providing places for members to gather as well as the rows of “storefronts,” just as if they were in a downtown.

“These kinds of spaces on the show floor, especially when there are engaging and fun activities, help people’s brains break out of that same old routine” of scanning exhibit after exhibit, Doody maintains. “I really encourage show organizers that the Expo Group works with to look at the trade show floor more as a retail environment where you maybe have the big box retailers at your four points and then smaller ones in between. Commonalities also exist between city planning and trade show planning. You need to think about how your citizens, your attendees, are using the space and what activities you want to incentivize when you create your floor plans. A good city plan will have smaller tighter streets with residences and mom-and-pop shops, and then wider boulevards with those big-box retailers. Several associations are starting to segment their show floor like that and having success.”

What’s more, show floors that appear to be maximizing every inch of selling potential may even disengage some members of Gen Y (roughly, those born between 1980 and 2000). “Studies have shown that Gen Y has this aversion to being marketed to and sold to,” Doody notes. “So it’s a stressful situation for them to walk onto a show floor and be bombarded with exhibit after exhibit. Sometimes they’re criticized as being the ‘Me Generation,’ but that doesn’t have to be a criticism. They need options, so give them choices as to how they want to spend their time and how they want to interact with people. If they get to the end of the aisle and there’s a little hub there where they can sit down or they can challenge their boss to a game of foosball, that’s a five-minute break and it’s not hurting anybody.” AC&F

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