Why Audience Collaboration Is the Future of Events

Breakout sessions must fulfill a very different purpose at online events compared to in-person conferences, says creative strategist Justin Boone. Here’s the approach the Convening Leaders speaker thinks we need to take and why.

Author: Barbara Palmer       

Justin Boone

“It’s rather important that we continue to explore and push the boundaries” of hybrid events, said Justin Boone, Untitled Future founder and Convening Leaders speaker.

Justin Boone has worked for more than a decade as a creative strategist and events marketer for clients including Google, Amazon, and Microsoft. Before that, he was in musical theater — Boone has been performing since he was three — and he calls upon that background as an experience designer. “There is a story arc to anything and everything,” Boone said. “In a nutshell, I’m a storyteller.” But beyond that, theater also can “effect some sort of change in an audience,” he said. Whether it is to change a belief around a particular subject or make an appeal for support, theater “can shift perceptions for the benefit of society.”

After years of working for others at creative agencies, Boone went out on his own last fall to launch his own company, Untitled Future. It was a move aligned with his own personal mission to do good in the world, along with his conviction that the corporations that have found ways to benefit the world as well as themselves are the corporations that are going to thrive in the future, Boone said. “Core to the business that I do is to increase empathy with individuals and to empower them with sense of agency,” he said. “It all comes back around to storytelling again. How can we, through the experiences that we deliver to our audiences, create advocates that bring credibility to the work and help further the mission and expand it to new frontiers?”

Convene talked with Boone, who is co-presenting “7 Change Actions: Strengthen Engagement with Emerging Digital Communities” at PCMA Convening Leaders 2021 on Thursday, Jan. 14, about his company and strategy for creating change through experiences. Here is some of what he had to say.

Creating a Sense of Agency for Participants

We need to get away from being overly prescriptive to our audiences, to any stakeholders, or to anyone that we’re trying to engage within any capacity. When I talk about agency, it is the empowerment that you offer through the right tools and the right knowledge, so that [participants] can become contributors.

Engagement as an Emotional Driver

I look at [the ability to make a] contribution as an emotional driver that fosters a sense of connection. When we think about actively contributing to something collectively — whether that is a customer and a brand that they happen to support or developing a relationship — it is through that contribution that we develop a greater appreciation for the other as well as a stronger connection. And as a result, you build a wonderful history, you develop a sense of accomplishment. And that collective contribution becomes a binding agent. In the act of all of that, you are continuing to cultivate a sense of purpose, and commitment to whatever it is that you are trying to accomplish.

The Content Renaissance and the Power of Hybrid

I think we’re at this wonderful renaissance in storytelling, in terms of corporate storytelling and experiences and the way that we think about delivering even educational content. We can’t just rely anymore on the magic that comes from being assembled with other like minds in a group in a room.

One key takeaway, after seeing so many examples of live entertainment or corporate events over the past several months, is that if you have a [physical] audience in the room, even if you’re not in the room, it makes a massive difference in helping you to connect to the content and the speaker. Just by our nature and our psychology, we’re wired to vicariously live through others — we build inferences off of reacting to how other people perceive something. To me, it’s rather important that we continue to explore and push the boundaries [of hybrid events]. Even though there are limitations and health and safety concerns and many considerations around this, we can continue to explore how we can safely bring people into the room, even if the majority of your audience is not able to be physically present in that room and are participating in that content via some other screen.

Why the Way We Think About Breakouts Must Change

When we think about breakouts for more than five or six people [in virtual events], they’re no longer a breakout, they’re just another keynote. We can’t look at breakouts — those groups of 50 to a hundred to several hundred people — like we could at a physical event, because in those instances, you’re really just focused on breaking out that content around specific tracks or interests. We have to think about breakouts [this way]: How do I effectively facilitate this in a way that allows people to actually get involved, to stay engaged, and be a part of that conversation?

When you think about those smaller, more intimate moments — those conversational moments — we have to consider that there’s no cost savings in doing these sorts of virtual experiences versus physical experiences, because we need to ensure that the proper technology tools are in place to allow for very small groups to be able to assemble together. And that may require multiple rooms or environments.

On the Name Untitled Future

Our futures are untitled — they’re yet to be written and they’re not yet defined. And we invest so much energy, particularly when it comes to strategy, in observing trends and forecasting what the future may look like so that we can drive our business forward and make decisions with a sense of certainty. And I don’t think that that is where we always should hang our hat.

I’m not diminishing the importance of data in any of it, or any of those insights and metrics that are necessarily fundamental to the way that we operate our business and allow us to recognize that our strategy is effective. But be more inclusive of your audience in that future process and be less rigid and focused on defining that for them. That’s what I’m trying to impart with the name: Let’s create the architecture where we can bring our community, our audiences, and our other stakeholders together with us to build upon each other and create together.

Barbara Palmer is deputy editor at Convene.

Become a Member

Get premium access to provocative executive-level education, face-to-face networking and business intelligence.