Engaging Attendees in a ‘Two-Dimensional World’

Author: Michelle Russell       


How can digital events engage attendees? Derrick Johnson and Gregg Talley of Talley Management Group discuss the importance of changing live-event engagement tactics to capture the attention of a digital audience.

As more physical events move online, the challenge of how to engage the audience becomes more pressing. Convene recently spoke with Derrick Johnson, CMP, DES, who was recently named director of event strategy and development for Talley Management Group (TMG), and with Gregg Talley, CAE, FASAE, TMG’s president and chief executive officer, about the strategies they’ve used to effectively switch up the engagement tactics normally put in place at face-to-face events.

“It’s easier for me to click this [exit button] at the top of my screen than it is for me to get up out of my seat in a room and walk out the door,” Johnson said. So even if many attendees sign up for a digital event, “keeping them engaged and involved in a virtual event is even more important,” said Johnson, “because that exit is much easier.”

What differentiates the digital from the physical environment, Johnson said, is that “we are trying to do everything in this two-dimensional world. We’re trying to learn. We’re trying to communicate. We’re trying to socialize and have drinks. We’re talking to our parents in the same environment that we would talk to our co-workers.”

And in the current work-from-home environment, that might mean that attendees are “walking around in flip-flops and dogs and kids are running around in the background,” Johnson said. Each person’s situation is different with a variety of things competing for their attention. “So, when it comes to communicating in this two-dimensional level,” he said, “our attention spans last but only so long.”

One way to make the experience more personal and therefore more engaging, Johnson said, is accomplished by collecting information at the beginning of the event. “The registration is very, very important in the whole virtual strategy,” he said, so that you can create “customized and unique experiences for the attendees so that they come in and they feel like, ‘Oh, they actually are doing this for me, and this is my meeting.’”

Interactivity options are also key and a way for participants “to customize their whole learning experience. As we think about sessions and people actually sitting in front of a computer or on their mobile device or on their iPad, I only am going to sit here for X amount of time before I’m distracted by something else around me,” Johnson said. “So limiting the timeframe of the session, ensuring that there are active things for engagement — bringing the attendees into the conversation either via chat or pulling them in via video or streaming call, interactions by polling, sharing screens — things that already exist and are fun ways to engage the user.”

One engagement tactic that Johnson is using with a group during a virtual event is to have them participate in a scavenger hunt for items usually found at home. “That’s another level” of getting people involved, he said, “bringing the humanistic piece to the professional world and showcasing your environment and the things that are more meaningful to you.”

These kinds of ideas are routed in “the neuroscience of how the brain works in learning and adult learning principles,” Talley said. “I actually think we have to completely rethink what we’re delivering and how we’re delivering it over a virtual setting.” That means considering how long people can actually stay focused, and “just really being aware that we’ve got to get this down to bite-sized [content]. It is not the same thing as a 90-minute session where we’re all sitting in the same room,” he said. “It just won’t work.”

The engagement constraints of the two-dimensional world, Johnson thinks, will increasingly be addressed with mixed-reality or virtual reality settings. Convene spoke with Johnson in another story about the mixed-reality model, which he said, “allows the user to literally immerse themselves in an experience and bump into people like you would in a normal situation, and travel through an area that’s been created either for you or designed specifically based off of a hotel or a city or an office building. It creates experiences that you could have in a normal environment, but in a virtual way.”

And Johnson thinks more people will be comfortable navigating their screens that way as time goes on. “I think our precursor to that will be the hybrid model,” he said, “and being able to engage users on both interfaces, either face-to-face or virtual — combining the two, immersing the two and making sure that communication is seamless across all channels.”

Michelle Russell is editor in chief at Convene.

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