5 Ways to Keep Audiences Engaged in Virtual Events
From the lens of someone who attended webinars (a lot!) in this pandemic year.
In case you organized any virtual event in this pandemic year, then you might recall the dread in your heart on seeing attendee count dropping in the middle of the session. And if you have been on the other side with device-in-hand attending virtual events, then you might definitely recall the ones that made you sleepy or pushed you to multitask.
Is it really that hard to design virtual events that make the participants want to stay focused till the end? Let us find out.
The greatest (and perhaps only) blessing this pandemic has given us is — opening up the world of remote working and making virtual events normal. Hefty conference fees and first-come-first-serve events are passé. You can choose to attend any number of learning events, workshops, and webinars remotely, right from the comfort of your couch. Even time zones are no longer a limitation and you can attend events from the opposite end of the world, without even putting on your shoes.
But, no matter how well-intentioned and topical virtual events are — they are way more difficult to design for effective audience engagement, compared to an offline event. In this new virtual world, options are plethora, quitting mid-session is easy, attention spans are limited and we are constantly surrounded by distractions.
Convening an effective virtual event is an art as well as science — and needs human centric thinking for design as well as sharp management skills for execution.
Making the Audience Stay Put and Focused
Throughout my 12 year career, a part of my work has involved attending and organizing a lot of convenings ( seminars, workshops, conferences, roundtables). Even during this pandemic year, I ended up facilitating a bunch of virtual sessions as well as attending 50+ virtual events.
And I mostly observed that after attending a badly executed event from any organization, in all likelihood, we end up not joining any of their subsequent ones. Hence, it is all the more critical for organizations to get (at least most of it!) right the first time.
So, here I am wearing my audience hat to share 5 ways for organizers to make sure that we — as participants — stay put and focused during virtual events.
Let the Audience Know What to Expect
In the case of workshops, this can be done by asking the participants to verbally share (or type in the chatbox) what they expect from the session. In the case of webinar-style events, we expect the facilitator to definitely outline the lay-of-the-land so that there is no mismatch of expectations for the audience.
Explicit agenda setting in virtual sessions can help set boundaries for the Speakers as well as contour expectations for the participants. I cannot stress how cheated we feel like participants, after investing half an hour and realizing that the session wasn’t a right fit (for instance, expecting an expert session and getting served an introductory 101).
Time Does Have Value
I definitely feel this is one of the most important, yet most overlooked aspects. In remote work settings, we generally have our calendars blocked for the day - whether for meetings, deep work, home time, or mindfulness breaks. And nothing is more off-putting than events that overextend beyond the promised duration.
Spillover by a couple of minutes to conclude the discussion is acceptable, but extending by 10 mins or beyond just makes us question the planning and facilitation. We expect facilitators to value the time of the speakers as well as participants — even if it means prepping the panelists to be comfortable with being interrupted midway on overshooting allocated speaking time.
Keep It Tight and Together
One of the most uncomfortable experiences I had as a panelist (at a pre-pandemic day-long conference) was when the organizers did not tell us the panel theme (and just called it a ‘Technical Discussion’) till we got onto the stage. Hence our whole panel was as much unprepared as the audience and through the day, there was an overall lack of connectedness across various sessions.
In the case of virtual events, the audience attendance span is even shorter, and walking out of the room can be done with just the click of a button. So it is absolutely imperative to make sure that the agenda is well planned and fits into a narrative so that sessions flow seamlessly.
Build Narratives Forward
There is nothing worse than forums where each speaker considers themselves as an individual contributor. Since they mentally tune out while others are presenting, the speakers very often end up repeating or contradicting the points made by previous ones. And we, as the audience, end up feeling that the discussion lacks cohesiveness and structure.
There is nothing better than seeing speakers actually making an effort to ‘engage’ in the discussion — to absorb and not just share. In fact, one of the best things we appreciate as an audience is when speakers ‘quote and build’ on points made by other speakers to nuance further. It makes us feel enriched and helps us stay focused.
Don’t Ask If You Won't Answer
Despite the absence of an opportunity to network, we are still attending virtual events since we are genuinely interested in the topic. This gives us a right to have substantiated opinions and most importantly, questions. I have attended a few events where the organizers have invited the audience to ask questions (on chat, apps, google forms, Menti, etc.) but have not bothered to acknowledge, let alone answer them— making our participation feel unappreciated.
Well-facilitated events should make the audience feel included, respected, and valued. I remember being appreciative of two events in particular last year. In the first one, the organizers had a couple of team members actively documenting and bucketing the questions live — so the panelists could answer them during Q-A. At the second event, all questions were collected and a response document was emailed post-event to all the participants. In both cases, as an audience member, I felt heard and needless to say, I attended many more of their forthcoming events.
I want to stress that as we leave the first pandemic year behind us, we are left with Zoom fatigue that is all-too-real! And hence, it is no wonder that now most of us choose events strategically to attend. In closing, I tip my hat to all the organizers who put together wonderful sessions that I attended this past year and also to the not-so-great ones — I still learned something from each of you!
What was your experience in attending virtual events this pandemic year? What did you love and what could have been better — do leave a comment.
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