Tools of EngagementSeptember 1, 2017

The Options Are Many, but First, Know Your Audience By
September 1, 2017

Tools of Engagement

The Options Are Many, but First, Know Your Audience
Attendees at ASAE’s Annual Meeting & Exposition in August enjoyed multiple opportunities to engage with programming and each other. Credit: Jennifer Roberts

Attendees at ASAE’s Annual Meeting & Exposition in August enjoyed multiple opportunities to engage with programming and each other. Credit: Jennifer Roberts

Many are the roads that lead to increased engagement. Some are digital, ranging from gamification to livestreaming to audience polling via apps and social media. Others are event design approaches, ranging from signage and branding elements in the convention center to receptions targeted to certain peer groups. And others are content and speaker choices, such as hot topics and keynoters who will generate a buzz. All of these roads can lead to engagement with both the convention and the host organization. But which are the most expedient for a given association? And how exactly should the roads be traversed? After all, there are a variety of ways to implement gamification, many different branding styles, many options in keynoters to hire, and so on.

The specifics of an engagement strategy should be informed by knowledge of the association membership, as opposed to fads in engagement techniques. Trendy approaches surely have worked for many associations, but that does not guarantee they will work for your delegates, or that they are practical given your staff and budget. So it is always best to take knowledge of your audience as a starting point to determining what are the “best” tools of engagement. “I think it’s very important to determine the constituencies you’re trying to serve,” remarks Ramón R. Santiago, MTA, CMP, director, exhibits and conferences for the American Healthcare Association (AHCA). “We have found throughout the years that just because it is the latest and greatest engagement (approach), whether it’s gamification or a high degree of social media (use), it may not work with every single group.” And even when planners find the right road to engagement, it’s essential to have patience along the journey. “It’s not as simple as introducing a new tool to communicate and engage one year and then that gets 100 percent traction,” Santiago says. “You have to be realistic as a meeting planner and understand that that is a process that might take several years.”

Your Expo, Your Way

Even getting to know the needs, preferences and demographics of potential attendees can take patience. A case in point is the processes of the National Confectioners Association when it comes to the delegates of its Sweets and Snacks Expo. “We put a lot of effort into getting to know who our attendee is, via many different mechanisms,” says Jenn Ellek, senior director, trade marketing and communications. The Expo draws about 18,000 attendees, including about 6,000 retailers. And even though trade show growth overall has been down 8 percent this past year, the Expo’s attendance has been up 14 percent over the last two years, Ellek notes. “We didn’t get there just by happenstance, but because we planned to get there. I think with engagement people don’t really stop to look at their data on whom are they talking to. Do you know what their problems are? Can you provide them solutions? We try to find out what their pain points are; what keeps them up at night. And then we build our offering and our show to meet their needs.”

Customizing the offering begins with the Expo’s website, which features a “Your Expo, Your Way” tab where a potential attendee can identify as Specialty, Snack, Confectionary, New Attendee or Returning Attendee. Clicking on each yields information about the show geared toward that segment. “We list all the education that is geared to that market, what they’ll find in their specialty market when they attend and a preshow planner,” Ellek describes. First-timers receive more basic information about the show, while returning attendees get informed about what’s new this year. “We wanted to use the web as our main proving ground, and we wanted folks to design the expo their way,” Ellek explains. The URL to the website is included in the direct-mail pieces marketing the Expo, and 33 percent of the recipients visited the website specifically to design their own experience — without any incentives such as registration discounts, she reports.

The overall approach is called “Show Me You Know Me Marketing,” and that knowledge of the membership also informs the design of the convention itself, beginning with the general session. “We used to get headliners for our general session, like James Carville and George Will, and what we found is that it was mainly the exhibitors attending and not our attendees, which is whom it was designed for,” says Ellek. “So we looked at the surveys about what kind of education they want, and what we found is that they need information about their industry, shopper insights, the trends. They’re not looking for the big names.” Based on that knowledge, Ellek’s team added “State of the Market” morning sessions led by subject matter experts on trends in different areas of the confectionary industry.

Interactive Presentations

The mode of delivery for such targeted content also makes a difference to engagement. Presenters with a more interactive style tend to be preferred, as are those who can make themselves available to attendees post or pre-session, in person or virtually. “For several years we have encouraged our keynote speakers to engage with smaller groups after the general session, in a meet-and-greet before opening of the exhibit hall,” notes Santiago regarding the AHCA/NCAL Annual Convention. And on the show floor, exhibitors are “encouraged to have interactive presentations,” he adds. TED Talk-style presentations also tend to connect more with delegates, Santiago observes, as many of the qualified decision-makers on the floor are pressed for time.

Helping exhibitors to be more engaging ultimately supports the appeal of the convention itself. “We work with our exhibitors to have the most eye-catching builds, to go beyond your typical 10-by-10-foot booth,” says Stuart Ruff-Lyon, CMP, DES, vice president, events and education at the RIMS – The Risk Management Society. “If they want to hang signage, whatever technicality there may be when it comes to rigging, we try to work with them step by step to make sure they’re really getting their money’s worth on their investment in the exhibit hall.”

Random Acts of Engagement

Opportunities for engagement extend beyond the session rooms and exhibit floor. Indeed, a team of good partners, from the convention center to third-party exhibit and entertainment companies, can help to create a compelling experience in common areas. “We do a lot with our event branding now that we didn’t five years ago; we’re really big on the show look, color scheme, etc. There’s a strategy behind everything that we’re doing now,” says Ruff-Lyon. “We’ve done simple things, like having giant wooden block letters for our RIMS logo, and people became the ‘I’ in ‘RIMS’ and tweeted it. Little things like that go a long way.”

A more extravagant element was added to the registration area. “This year when people arrived for registration on the Monday morning, we had aerialists performing, dropping down from the ceiling, and jugglers juggling knives — things that are ‘risky’ and were engaging to our membership. They stopped and took photos,” Ruff-Lyon describes. “Some people have been to this conference for 30-40 years, and if it’s not different every year to some degree, we’re not doing a good job.”

One of the most familiar components of any convention is the traditional reception, where hundreds if not thousands of delegates stand around with drinks and perhaps musical entertainment. A major reason this type of event tends to be un-engaging is that many attendees will not happen to connect with anyone of business or career value amidst the crowd. Thus, helping guests to effectively network at receptions has become a trend in engagement.

Micro Meetups

Ellek’s team takes the approach of staging “micro meetups” within the reception. “We looked at our audience and how they selected during the registration process. We picked Snack, Specialty, First-timer as the three types of audiences we wanted to cater to, and created meetups for each during the reception to engage these types of folks,” Ellek explains. “One of the things we know to be true in the trade show world is that there’s always competition: they all offer products, education and networking. What’s going to differentiate you from the rest? We think it’s creating a community. And you have to work a little bit harder; you can’t just throw a big reception and assume everyone’s going to talk to each other. Instead, (help attendees) create a memorable moment with someone they connect with, and they’ll come back next year to see that person.”

Attendees of the Sweets and Snacks Expo receive RSVPs for the meetups, inviting them to join their peer set at a certain time and place within the reception. “And in order to add more excitement we built an Instagram contest we called the Selfie Contest: You take a picture of you and somebody that you met at the reception and post it to our Instagram feed, and you would be entered to win Amazon gift cards, etc. So over the hour of the reception and a little into the night we got over 150 posts of selfies from our industry,” says Ellek. “It was a real moment where people were feeling connected and engaged.”

Digital Engagement

Social media such as Instagram is increasingly a useful metric for engagement. “It has really taken off with our group,” Ruff-Lyon says. “We have seen about a 300 percent increase in activity in Twitter, Instagram etc. So that is one way we can tell people are enjoying themselves, if they take the time to tweet about their experience in a positive way.”

But this sort of social media commentary just scratches the surface of digital engagement. Both digital interaction with presenters and digital polling of attendees achieve deeper levels of engagement with content and the event itself. This can be facilitated by what is known as second-screen technology. “There are ways you can engage with a presentation via your mobile app or your iPad; it could be pulling questions the speaker asks and then people are voting on their phones,” notes Jennifer K. Kush, DES, executive director of PCMA’s Digital Experience Institute.

The host organization also can poll attendees throughout the event on various aspects of the convention. “We have the ability in our mobile app to crowdsource on sessions and content onsite,” Ruff-Lyon says. “We will then review suggestions and create additional, on-the-spot sessions around that, which makes people more engaged in the education sessions as well. We use eShow for all of our events; they’ve been a good partner to RIMS, constantly evolving their product to something we want it to be.” There are quite a lot of questions that potentially can be asked of delegates, from what they thought of a particular presenter to their opinion of the convention center food. How often should digital polling be deployed, bearing in mind that attendees already have so much vying for their attention? “You have to take a look at what you’re doing holistically, and you don’t necessarily want to have polling in every session,” Kush advises. “You want to make sure that it makes sense, so you have to look at the format, the flow and the timing. If you have too many polls it can be distracting, but if you have the right one at the right time, it can be a very powerful way to engage.”


Beacon technology is an up-and-coming medium for a variety of engagement practices. For instance, beacons can enable a kind of gamification where attendees hunt for digital badges from beacons placed in less popular areas of the show, via a mobile app. Thus, they are encouraged to fully explore the show layout. Attendees also can receive information on upcoming sessions at a given hall when they walk by the nearby beacon. They even can obtain profile information on attendees in their immediate vicinity, facilitating networking. (The latest development here is the wearable beacon, affixed to the lanyard or in the form of a smart badge. Companies offering such beacons include Loopd, Hubvents and Limefy.) Such potential uses for beacons have prompted both the AHCA and RIMS to explore the technology for future conventions. “One interesting experiment that we’ll be carrying out this year will be how we can use RFID for crowdsourcing,” says Santiago.

Remote Engagement

More conventions are welcoming virtual audiences: Remote participation was the top emerging technology cited in Planning for the Meetings of Tomorrow: The Present and Future of Technology in Business Events, a June 2017 study conducted by Association Laboratory on behalf of the PCMA Education Foundation. Thus, digital engagement strategies will increasingly include best practices for capturing the attention of remote attendees.

The starting point for engaging this audience is the same as for the face-to-face audience: attendee knowledge. “You need to know what they’re interested in and what provides them value, and then you have to deliver that in a very engaging way,” says Kush. Options include polling the virtual audience, conducting a moderated text chat, presenting live interviews with presenters exclusively for the remote audience, and of course, streaming the sessions that will be most compelling to those participants. (Interestingly, the Digital Experience Institute’s 2018 Digital Event Benchmark Report notes that survey respondents said that the use of an emcee when streaming content increases engagement.) All of these approaches help to keep the attention of the virtual attendee, who is prone to multitasking and distraction. They also pique interest in the face-to-face experience. RIMS makes sure to broadcast its general session, “which is usually a big hit with the beautiful staging and a celebrity keynote; for example this year we had Michael J. Fox,” says Ruff-Lyon. “When they see everything RIMS is doing, hopefully they think how cool it is and are more likely to attend (face to face) in the future.”

There are many providers planners can tap to produce hybrid events that effectively extend the life and reach of onsite meetings and conventions for a global audience. INXPO is one provider that markets itself as a turnkey, virtual events platform designed to seamlessly integrate the physical event’s content and experience so it can be promoted and experienced as a single entity for both online and in-person attendees. The online platform drives attendee engagement with interactive tools such as chat, polls Q&A and social media sharing, and captures and measures real-time analytics to immediately measure event ROI. Planners have found that rather than cannibalizing attendance at face-to-face events, a digital version can stoke interest in attending the next meeting or convention in person.

It is telling that when asked “What are the goals of using new technologies at events?” the respondents to Planning for the Meetings of Tomorrow said “improving attendee experience” (84 percent) and “make event more fun/engaging” (78 percent) — the top two replies. We can therefore expect ongoing exploration of how various types of technologies can be appropriated to attendee engagement, a prime example being virtual or augmented reality.

“It’s not as common (at conventions), but is becoming more and more so,” Kush observes. In fact, 39 percent of respondents to Planning for the Meetings of Tomorrow said that in the next three years they anticipate using virtual or augmented reality tools. Currently the technology is making inroads on the exhibit floor, where companies are giving attendees VR experiences with their products. The future may see educational session attendees wearing “mixed reality” headsets (e.g., Microsoft’s HoloLens) that superimpose holograms onto the environment, keyed with the presentation.

It may seem rather farfetched, but then again, today’s world of digital engagement seemed that way not that long ago. AC&F

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