March 01, 2021
By Mike Fletcher

Over the past few months, I’ve witnessed a lot of event planners who are planning virtual events tell their clients to keep them short, presentations succinct, and the overall event length to under an hour in order to maintain virtual engagement. The reason? Apparently, our attention spans have been so degenerated by TikTok-style short bursts of content that we can no longer stare at a screen for any significant length of time.

The problem I have with this is that it’s simply not true. If content is engaging and we have a reason to watch it, we’ll spend hours online watching our screens. I’m happy to watch a 90-minute football match on my laptop and most people I know will regularly binge-watch an entire series of Netflix content online without drifting off into a dream-like state and missing crucial plotlines.

Virtual engagement is no different when it comes to virtual events. You just need to plan attendee engagement into your event rather than staying focused on the logistics, which admittedly can be tricky given that the logistics of a great virtual event may not always be the easiest to wrap your head around.

Busting the Attention Span Myth for Virtual Engagement

According to Dr Gemma Briggs, a psychology lecturer at the Open University, our attention spans are ‘very much task-dependent.’ How much attention we apply to a task will vary depending on what the task demand is. In the case of a virtual or hybrid event, the attendee task demand is to engage with content that they’re obviously interested in (otherwise they wouldn’t have registered) and to develop their learnings around a subject they’ve given up their time to explore further.

So the lesson here is to boost your attendees’ virtual engagement by continuing to offer more, not less, content that you know your attendees want and are willing to spend time-consuming. During a recent virtual event where a packed agenda was broken down into strict six-minute presentations, the two most repeated complaints on the post-event feedback forms were that the sessions weren’t long enough to learn anything and there was never enough time to ask questions.

Audiences Have More Time to Invest in Virtual Attendance

While a majority of us are still working from home, conversions from registration to event attendance have remained high – no matter the set length of a virtual offer. Perhaps this is a consequence of people having a little more time in their day without the two-way commute or the pressures to ‘just do’. Whatever the reason, event planners currently have an opportunity to deliver compelling virtual content to a willing audience, with more time to give. Planners just need to keep the online audience engaged. When an accelerated return to normal life sees more hybrid event setups and more in-person elements to design the event around as a result, it will become even more challenging to maintain an engaged audience across two separate event experiences – those watching from home and those seated in the room.

Virtual Engagement Ideas: How Can We Captivate Our Audience?

To begin, virtual audiences need clear instructions on all the ways they can interact during the event with the content, the speakers, and other participants. This can be communicated via the event moderator or via push notifications from the mobile event app. Once attendees understand how to interact with the platform, they can have fun creating personalized event experiences with non-linear content. For example, the traditional conference design model is to place a ‘big draw’ keynote at the top of the agenda so that attendees don’t drift in late. Planners often then schedule another one for the end of the day, in order to mitigate attendees from leaving early.

In virtual event design, this isn’t required. The conference could take place over multiple half-days, spread out over a couple of weeks, with on-demand replays available during the intervening days. Sessions can be different lengths and start at different times or be targeted at certain time zones to attract specific global audiences.

A Non-Linear Attendee Journey Can Offer More Format Options

Instead of running sessions consecutively one after the other and forcing your attendee down a linear event path, attendees should have a choice of:

  • Which live session to drop into
  • What pre-recorded content is available to view
  • Where to find out more about sponsors or exhibitors
  • What the opportunities are to network with other attendees or speakers online.

Keep Virtual Engagement Going With:

  • Live polls
  • Feedback surveys
  • Quizzes
  • Session preview videos
  • Information on how to collect points for engaging with the online content throughout the day. Create a leader board on your event app and offer some attractive prizes.

In linear event design, lively panel discussions are often positioned at key points throughout the day when attendee energy is low or multiple sponsors have been promised onstage airtime.

To maintain non-linear engagement and energy levels, lots of different formats should be offered including pre-records, audience-driven sessions, Q&As, live presentations, and workshops when ideas can be discussed and developed.

Keep Virtual Attendees Networking

Coffee breaks are another element of in-person event design, which are designed to facilitate networking and manage attendee flow. Without a physical flow to manage, networking can instead be encouraged by connecting people through the app or, by ensuring that moderators in discussion rooms introduce all participants and help to form those initial digital connections. Virtual engagement can be further driven through virtual networking formats and can include the ‘virtual pub’ environment or ‘discussion rooms’ between sessions.

The pub format could attract people to join by encouraging them to pour themselves a drink and enjoy a performance from an entertainment headline act, while virtual chat rooms could be dedicated to particular problem solving or niche discussions.

For more insights on this subject, read ‘Leveraging Content for Virtual Events’.

Virtual is Here to Stay

While virtual events come with a unique set of challenges, there's no denying that virtual and hybrid events are here to stay. To overcome these challenges and ensure we can operate effectively in this new, virtual reality, we need to keep the pulse of industry best practices and technology trends to create new virtual engagement programs.

Remember, attendee attention spans can handle longer networking sessions if they’re given adequate time to talk and listen to others, without making everyone feel rushed. Attendees are also free to drop in and out once they’ve achieved their task demand, without disrupting everyone else.

In fact, if attendees understand how the virtual event platform works and how the content they’ve signed up for is being made available to them in the most engaging and accessible of ways, there’s really no limits to how long they will give you their undivided attention.

Mike Fletcher

Mike Fletcher

Mike has been writing about the meetings and events industry for almost 20 years as a former editor at Haymarket Media Group, and then as a freelance writer and editor.

He currently runs his own content agency, Slippy Media, catering for a wide-range of client requirements, including social strategy, long-form, event photography, event videography, reports, blogs and ghost-written material.

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