The Real Rules of Attendee EngagementApril 1, 2014

April 1, 2014

The Real Rules of Attendee Engagement

Johnston,Andy-IdeaGroup-110x140Andy Johnston is president and creative director of The Idea Group and is a sought-after industry expert in developing ingenious ways to engage and motivate audiences. Andy has deep expertise in strategic planning, messaging, creative direction, marketing and events. He can be reached at or 404-213-4416.

Engagement is just a big word for “making people like us.” That’s what we want to do at every event, convention and conference. We look at the attendees, analyze and research them in hopes of uncovering their secret needs, and then do everything we can to make them like our event experiences.

But you can’t make anyone like your event experience. You have to give them reasons to like the event and then help them do it. That, boys and girls, is the art of “attendee engagement.”

And here is its biggest challenge: There is no such thing as passive engagement. Engagement requires action. You have to give people the time, location, encouragement and permission to interact in ways that are valuable to them.

But How?

Unfortunately, the basic idea of engagement has mutated like a movie alien into a hot, new business buzzword and an event industry cliché. You know the list:

Attendee engagement, audience engagement, employee engagement, client engagement, customer engagement, engagement marketing, engagement design, engagement analysis, engagement modeling, statistical engagement lifecycle…it sounds like the options at a very bad speed-dating party. To get to the heart of engagement, you have to forget the analytics, statistics and psychology, and focus on what is actually important.

Engagement Is a Relationship

It’s involvement, commitment and personalization. It’s a relationship about a specific topic for a set period of time. People are engaged about something or in something that interests them. It may be a topic, skill, controversy, decision or a benefit, but it is something personal to that particular audience.

Building Engagement

To build engagement you need to:

  • Encourage it
  • Empower it
  • Motivate it

Just giving an audience the opportunity won’t work. Engaging someone isn’t a reaction or a programmed interaction. It has a beginning, middle and, hopefully, no end.

Encouraging Engagement

The typical presentation or workshop is 45 minutes long, and the average adult can only pay attention for about 20 minutes. So take a look at your agenda and content. If it’s a continuous flow of data, details, PowerPoint slides and speakers — then you have very, very little engagement. Tossing in a couple of videos or a simple game won’t help.

To encourage engagement, give people valid reasons to talk, interact and participate in activities that are relevant to them. A game, activity or a competition isn’t engagement unless there is a point. Be sure you explain the reason, point and benefits when you ask attendees to become involved with the information and each other.

Empowering Engagement

Engagement comes from the audience and not from the front of the room. You can empower it by recognizing that you don’t have a single audience. In reality, you have all sorts of smaller groups who share some common interests and needs. So empower engagement with some audience segmentation. Take a close look at the needs and desires of the major groups.

Learn these four key things:

  1. How do they want to be engaged?
  2. What is the most effective way to communicate with them?
  3. Who is the best or most acceptable person to work with them?
  4. How are they different or unique?

Motivating Engagement

Remember, we said that people are engaged about something or in something that interests them. So you have to target the experiences to each group. Every person wants to engage on her/his terms. Give them relevant content and personal experiences that they can use immediately. Here’s how you motivate them.

Clearly define the audience groups and make sure attendees understand how they fit in.

Involve people in activities, discussions or some type of interaction so they can relate to the subject on a personal level.

Give them a sense of purpose, control and value.

Put them in the middle of the relationship as a participant and not a spectator.

Make the engagement emotional and personal.

The Real Rules of Engagement

Successful engagement is a three-way relationship: organizers and presenters to the attendees; the attendees to the organizers and presenters; and attendee to attendee. To make the most of that conversation, try following these rules.

  1. Populate your events with interesting people. Get the influencers and experts out of the general sessions and into the breakouts, workshops and trade shows.
  2. Shake up the content. Get the audience out of their comfort zones and surprise them with information they haven’t heard before.
  3. Look at the event as a whole. If every part of the agenda has the same style, then tear it apart and rebuild it. Change a few session formats, add discussions, target groups, roundtables, etc. Mix things up! If it’s predictable, it isn’t engaging.
  4. Build in legitimate networking opportunities. Give groups of like-minded people a time, a place and something relevant to talk about, and you will trigger more powerful engagement.
  5. Give attendees things to do that relate to your event goals. Random activities aren’t engagement. Just attending isn’t involvement. Make sure you create activities that support both the content and what attendees need from it.
  6. Plan, promise and communicate in advance how people will have opportunities to engage. Then deliver on your promise. In addition to firing up the audience, you’ll increase attendance.
  7. If you have to make a choice between pleasing the audience or pleasing the speakers and presenters — please the audience.

Engage Early and Often

It should be no secret that attendee engagement doesn’t begin when people enter the room. It begins the day you announce the event. Start engaging attendees as a part of your marketing. Hey, emails are cheap.

Give attendees something to do when you first invite them. Communicate with specific audience groups. Ask them questions, send a survey and begin the conversation. It’s much more effective to continue and grow a conversation at an event than to try to start one.

The more you involve attendees early, the more they will understand who you are, what you’re telling them and why they should care about the event. Instead of a list of topics, sessions and workshops, they’ll see valuable opportunities they won’t want to miss.

The Bottom Line

In the end, the goal of engagement is for all of your attendees to want to know, understand and discover more — together.

You can achieve it only if you view attendees as a collection of individuals and not as statistics, demographics and head-counts. Having valuable content is vital. How your audiences get involved with the content and with people who share common interests is engagement. Make engagement a part of your planning and you’ll develop events, conventions and conferences that people will enjoy and want to attend. And — you’ll make them like you. C&IT

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