There is no one-size-fits-all set of guidelines to follow to engage attendees — and trying to force interaction can backfire. But, as three industry experts tell us, there are plenty of ways you can set the stage for connection and collaboration at your meetings.
If anyone can be described as impassioned about attendee engagement, it's Greg Fuson. For nearly two decades, Fuson was vice president for content development for PCBC, the Pacific Coast Builders Conference, where he founded The Vine, a smaller, PCBC-sponsored conference dedicated to exploring the nature of community. Now principal of a company called Artful Engagement, Fuson presented a session last month at PCMA Convening Leaders in Orlando called “The Art of Engagement: Making Your Conferences Extraordinary, Not Extra Ordinary.” So when I interviewed Fuson by phone at his home in Sacramento, Calif., I took a deep breath before I asked him this question: Has the term “engagement” become so commonplace in the meetings industry that its meaning has become diluted?
“Absolutely,” Fuson said. “Engagement is a term that is very much in danger of becoming a cliché. It is so overused and, in a lot of cases, so misused that within the meetings community I think that it's this sort of nice, warm, and fuzzy term that we like to use because people want to hear it.” The problem is that the term “is ultimately hollow unless we can define and illustrate it in ways that are practical, actionable, and that you can actually do something with.”
But that can be a double-edged sword. “Engagement is this phenomenon that's sort of like love,” Fuson said. “You know it when you feel it, but it's something that defies formulization. We all try to create meetings that have engagement baked into them. The temptation is that we try to overprescribe it, and we end up doing things that can be counter to engagement, that don't engage people.”
Like love, “when you try to force yourself upon someone, it's not attractive. It's kind of weird and awkward. It drives them away instead of making them wanting to come closer to you.” Instead, Fuson said, “think of yourself as a gardener or something organic, because that's what interaction is.”
We decided to follow Fuson's advice and offer not a step-by-step guide to attendee engagement, but something more: an invitation to listen in on conversations about engagement with industry experts. Along with Fuson, we talked to speaker, consultant, and conference designer Kare Anderson, a columnist for Forbes.com and The Huffington Post, who has worked with Marriott International, Yahoo!, and state and national political candidates; and Dave Serino, strategist and educator for Think! Social Media and founder of the fast-growing Symposium on the Use of Social Media in the Tourism Industry (SoMeT), which is held in the United States and Australia.
Here are some of the things Fuson, Anderson, and Serino had to say about engaging meeting attendees that most engaged us:
Begin Before the Beginning
Greg Fuson The first and most essential step towards creating an engaging conference is that it doesn't begin when people arrive. It starts well in advance. It needs to be an ongoing community that occasionally meets in person, not the other way around. It's not an in-person meeting that's trying to layer on a year-round community through social media. You have to be a community first.
Direct Attendee Experience
Kare Anderson The goal, in my view, is this: to increase the number of meaningful, memorable, positive moments, and to decrease the number of boring, irritating, or embarrassing ones. You don't know [in advance] which moments will matter to people. But just as directors “storyboard” a movie, TV show, advertisement, or photo op for their candidate, leverage your opportunity to optimize an experience by making every moment count. And, again like creating a memorable movie, manage the sequence of moments your guests or customers will experience, from the climactic opening scene through [to] the end.
Dave Serino Our first [SoMeT] event was in 2010. We did very little to market it or do any advertising. When we originally started, we had a core group of online influencers that we knew were very passionate about travel, tours and hospitality, social media, and digital marketing. I used technology and my relationships within the industry to find those people. I personally made contact with them through phone calls and Skype. We engaged, and I asked them questions and told them about my idea for the event. I asked, “What would it take to get people here? How should we develop [the conference]? What do you think is important?” And from that core, all of their comments and feedback is what I used for the foundation of the event.
Say Hello Like You Mean It
KA At what point are they stepping into the experience where they feel like they're going to the conference? Frankly, it's when they're getting on the airplane. So if there's something that I get on my smartphone if I have one, or just before I go, that's either a tidbit of a tip from one of the speakers, because you asked for it ahead of time, or a tantalizing question because we know you're moving into the conference experience — it's recognizing that moment. Because if it's a regional or national meeting, we're probably getting on a plane.
Setting it up in the beginning is important. It's usually boring, the waiting in line to go to check in [once you're on site] — there's never enough people to do the registration for the meeting, and the signage [in the registration area] doesn't have any kind of slogan on it; it just says speakers, attendees, A, B, C.
So, what can you do there? You might have an improv group acting out a scene in costume, complimenting people, and asking, “Wow, what do you want to get out of this thing?” Something with a bit of drama and interaction.
There might be one of those rear-projection backdrops on a side wall, which has iconic scenes from the destination. There are these big, beautiful, full-color scenes, and you say, “Go over there and have a friend take a picture of you in front of that scene.” Do things that are low-tech, high-impact, and that are shareable. Shareable is the key, because then I'm sending it off to my husband, or to somebody else back at the office. You want to multiply these positive moments where possible — have three multisensory cues happening simultaneously. For example, stepping on a cushy red carpet, while a smiling volunteer hands you a scented card with speakers’ tips.
DS One of the things that we do for all of our VIPs and presenters — something technology-based but personalized — is that when they arrive there will be a welcome-card QR code. You scan the QR code and it pops a brief video that personally welcomes you to the event and is totally customized. We will look at your bio and your Twitter stream and your blog — say that you are a runner or you're a foodie or you enjoy wine. Our event was in El Paso [last] year — we'll say, “Hey, hope you have some time to enjoy the warm weather. If you have some time, we know you would like to probably get out and get a run in. We recommend this little route, and if you get a chance, you might want to try such-and-such Texas wine.” People are flattered. They really enjoy it. I think it is something that we have really hit a home run on.
Change the Scenery
GF When you put people in a standard hotel ballroom, you're triggering the memories of every meeting they've ever attended, and they'll behave according to script. But getting them into a unique, unconventional setting — like a theater, concert hall, or museum — cues a completely different response. It preps them for something new.