September 13, 2021
By Hope Swedeen

When planning a virtual or hybrid event, it’s imperative to understand how virtual attendees differ from in-person attendees – or, more specifically, how their engagement differs.

During an in-person event, engagement is almost guaranteed; attendees are locked into their day-to-day schedule and are fully immersed in the event as a matter of course. But when an event goes completely or partially virtual, new digital engagement strategies are necessary to maximise attendee engagement.

An effective digital engagement strategy must address a few difficult truths:

  • Virtual attendees are prone to zoning out and multi-tasking. Distractions are easy to come by and hard to resist, which means your event must work harder to hold their attention.
  • "Screen fatigue" is very real. If your attendees are asked to stare at their screens and interact virtually for hours on end, there’s a good chance they’ll check out early.
  • Virtual conferences provide fewer opportunities for networking. In-person events naturally provide ample networking opportunities, from scheduled happy hours to simply bumping into someone in a session or on the exhibit floor.

Why Prioritise Digital Engagement?

If digital events require so much strategizing and rethinking, why not focus on in-person events? After all, event planners have long counted on the high level of engagement characteristic of an in-person gathering.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we can’t always count on the best-case scenarios.

In-person events might seem like the easiest or most effective event type, but that might not always be the case. Regardless of pandemics, sometimes it’s easier, cheaper, and more effective to host a virtual event. Some major benefits of virtual or hybrid events include:

  • Larger Audience Pool: A broader reach allows for a larger, more diverse audience. For anyone who can’t make it to an in-person event, a virtual or hybrid event may be the answer.
  • Improved Lead Generation and Follow-Up: By tracking attendee data throughout the entire event process, from registration all the way to post-event surveys, sales and marketing teams can track and follow up with leads based on attendee engagement and interests.
  • Easy ROI Event Measurement: More comprehensive attendee data also means improved event ROI measurement for your event sponsors, exhibitors, and stakeholders, as you can track every step of an attendee’s experience. Better understand and quantify attendee engagement using data collected, including registration; session attendance (including duration); feedback surveys for sessions and other content; interactions with sponsors, exhibitors, and other attendees; appointments scheduled; and more.
  • Long-Distance Networking Opportunities: Although in-person networking offers a slew of benefits, virtual networking allows people to meet from hundreds or thousands of miles away, connecting people who might never meet otherwise via appointments and virtual booths.
  • Enhance Brand Awareness: That broader audience reach we mentioned? That helps make your event a success, but it also increases the number of people seeing and interacting with your company’s brand.
  • Flexibility for Attendees: Virtual events offers attendees increased flexibility, as on-demand or pre-recorded content can be accessed outside of event hours. If attendees are unable to adjust their schedules to perfectly match an event agenda, they still might have the opportunity to experience all the event has to offer on their own time if the event is designed with flexibility in mind. This can help grow your audience, as the more schedules you’re able to accommodate, the more people have a chance of showing up.

If all of this has convinced you virtual is the way to go, now what? How do you go about engaging a virtual audience? Three steps:

  1. Create captivating content to enhance digital engagement
  2. Build engagement opportunities into your event
  3. Leverage technology to maximize attendee engagement

1. Creating Captivating Content to Enhance Digital Engagement

As we’ve established, getting (and keeping) virtual attendees’ attention is a definite challenge. It requires more effort for attendees to stay tuned in, so if they aren’t interested in what your event has to offer, they won’t stick around. This is why creating compelling content for virtual attendees is particularly important.

In fact, it’s one of the most important elements of planning a virtual or hybrid event. Regardless of what digital engagement strategies you implement, if you don’t focus on creating great content, your attendees will notice, and their engagement levels will show it. So how do you create engaging virtual content?

To increase digital engagement at your events, content should be:

  • Interactive: How many times have you sat through a lecture-style PowerPoint presentation just waiting for the session to end? Now picture that in webinar form. Regardless of how interesting your sessions might be, if your virtual content doesn’t allow for some interaction, your attendees will be slumping in their seats – or simply ignoring your content. To avoid giving virtual attendees a “talking head” Zoom experience, try to make content engaging with dynamic visuals, free-form conversation, audience engagement and Q&As, and interesting camera work.
  • Varied: Content should be varied in two ways: 1) Format: For the sake of flexibility, you could offer a mix of live and pre-recorded content, both on-demand and only available via streaming. To create this mix of content, you’ll need a virtual event platform that can host a wide range of content. 2) Type: Content types could include thought-leadership, research, client insights, product highlights, service trainings, etc. The phrase “something for everyone” definitely applies here.
  • High Quality (Production): Many event planners were brand new to the virtual events space in 2020, but now that attendees have seen what’s possible in a virtual event platform, hosts must deliver professional-grade streaming content, including well-produced video content. Pay attention to set design, camera angles, microphone quality, lighting, graphics and branding, and slideshow presentation quality. When filming a session, make it look dynamic – make your attendees feel like they could be in the room hearing your speakers in person. Rather than setting your speakers up in front of a backdrop as if they’re on a Zoom call, set them up to be able to offer a more dynamic presentation.
  • Focused: Content should be geared toward specific interest areas to ensure attendees don’t feel they’ve wasted their time. Consider adding preview content to agenda items to help attendees choose content that interests them.
  • Flexible and Non-Linear: Rather than organizing an event with back-to-back, stringently scheduled sessions, consider a non-linear event format. Flexibility in content access allows attendees to experience as much of your event as possible without having to worry about scheduling conflicts. When sessions are spread out or content is made available longer, attendees can stay engaged for even longer, tuning in to event content several times over the course of days or weeks rather than hours.
  • Short (Enough): Attendees aren’t surrounded by others when watching a virtual session, so they have more opportunity to multitask or click away from your event. Consider cutting content a bit shorter than you would for an in-person event.

2. Building Digital Engagement Activities into Your Event

Keeping attendees engaged means offering opportunities to stay engaged outside of sessions and agenda items. During an in-person event, there’s something for attendees to do at all times, even if it’s relaxing in a break room. Virtual events should be no different.

While your virtual or hybrid event is going on, keep virtual attendees engaged with readily available content, in-app activities, and more. Some opportunities for increased engagement include:

  • Session Choices: To make your event a bit more dynamic, offer multiple sessions at the same time, and let attendees “choose their journey” by selecting those that interest them most.
  • On-Demand Live-Session Replays: Some attendees may want to attend multiple sessions that happen to be running simultaneously. Offer on-demand live session recordings for attendees who miss sessions or want to attend more than their schedules allow.
  • Live Q&As: Include a live Q&A during live-streamed sessions to enhance attendee engagement and make sessions more interactive, as an in-person session might be. When possible, have speakers call out attendees by name to make the session feel more personalized.
  • Breakout Discussions: Include opportunities for audience interaction or virtual breakout “rooms” to discuss session content with other attendees.
  • Pre-Recorded Content: Offering content that’s available at all times gives attendees something to do between sessions or before the event begins.
  • Networking: Offer in-app or scheduled virtual networking opportunities for attendees to meet with exhibitors, sponsors, sales teams, and other attendees. Think virtual happy hours, scheduled appointments, attendee matching, etc.
  • Wellness Workshops: Consider offering mindfulness and wellness sessions or content to help attendees take a break throughout the event.
  • In-App/Event Platform Gamification: Games and contests are a simple way to get attendees’ attention and keep them on your mobile event app between sessions.
    • Session Live Polls: Collect real-time participation and engagement data.
    • Feedback Surveys: Track engagement and gather feedback for later events.
    • Quizzes and Knowledge Tests: Allow attendees to test what they’ve learned and brush up on anything they might have missed or need clarification about.
    • Engagement Leaderboard: Track and compare attendees’ engagement and offer prizes for in-app activity and quiz results.
    • Social Media Challenges: Encourage attendees to interact with each other on social media by offering prizes for online activity.

3. Leveraging Technology to Maximise Attendee Engagement

Virtual events require a heavy investment in technology – there’s just no getting around it. If you’re investing money and time into finding the best technology for your event, make sure that technology can not only make your event possible but can also help maximise attendee engagement.

When working with your online event platform and mobile app, there are three ways you can leverage technology for a better attendee experience:

  • Thoughtful User Experience: Make it clear how attendees can interact with each other, with speakers, with exhibitors and sponsors, and with event content. If your platform isn’t streamlined and easy to use, attendee engagement will suffer. To help combat any technical difficulties, consider using an FAQ page and help channel for attendees using your event website or mobile app so they always know where to go if they have questions.
  • Empower Digital Attendees with Training and Tips: Teach your attendees how to interact with your event platform and mobile event app. Keep in mind that not all attendees will have experience with virtual events. Provide instructional videos, easy-to-find FAQ and help pages, and virtual event tips to help attendees enjoy the event and use your platform effectively.
  • Send Automated Push Notifications: Use push notifications from your event app or email notifications to inform attendees when a session is starting or when there are additional opportunities for engagement (such as polls, quizzes, and surveys). This ensures attendees don’t have to stay glued to the event site or set up session notifications themselves.

Tracking and Reporting Digital Engagement for Internal Stakeholders

Now that you’ve ensured your attendees have ample opportunity to interact with your event platform, how do you track attendee engagement? And how do you report engagement analytics to stakeholders?

Engagement starts and ends with data. Throughout every step of your event, attendee data should be tracked so that you (and your stakeholders) can get a clear picture of each attendee’s activity during your event. Data tracking tools can include:

  • Session Attendance Tracking: What content do attendees find most interesting, and how long can it hold their interest?
  • Engagement Scoring: Combining all event activity, attendees can be assigned an engagement score to help sales and marketing teams evaluate post-event communication strategies.
  • Web Analytics: Track which content is being engaged with most on your website, and use this information as a “lessons learned” when designing your next event website.
  • Survey Feedback: Go directly to the source; ask the attendees themselves about their experience and level of engagement for a clear picture of what was done well and what could be improved.

Using Engagement to Demonstrate Sponsor and Exhibitor ROI

In addition to internal stakeholders, event planners must also answer to event exhibitors and sponsors, and the process looks very similar to internal reporting. To prove event ROI to your sponsors and exhibitors, begin by using your attendee engagement data, including the tracking tools mentioned above, to demonstrate your event’s impact and reach.

Beyond those metrics, take a look at attendee engagement through these lenses, as well:

  • Networking: One-on-one virtual conferencing allows attendees and exhibitors to self-schedule meetings to discuss company and product details as they would at an in-person booth. Exhibitors must have ample opportunity to interact with attendees despite not meeting in person, or they will question the ROI of a virtual event versus in-person.
  • Lead Capturing: Drive inbound leads by letting attendees submit their interests directly to specific exhibitors, and document those leads so exhibitors don’t have to track them themselves.
  • Sponsored Sessions Data: If you choose to host sponsored sessions, make sure attendee data is tracked carefully during those sessions, and work to gather attendee survey feedback. Sharing this data with sponsors, as well as a list of session attendees for potential follow-up, offers valuable tools to help measure the ROI of their sponsorship and may influence their decision to invest in future events.

Getting Creative with Digital Engagement Opportunities

Digital engagement is a new challenge for many event planners, and it certainly comes with a unique set of considerations. Despite the difficulties of engaging virtual audiences, however, the risks are worth the many rewards.

If you’re committed to all the benefits a virtual or hybrid event has to offer, consider your engagement strategy carefully. Think about what has worked in the past at in-person events and how you might translate that into a virtual setting. Consider who your attendees are, what they want out of your event, and how you can make your virtual events as successful as your in-person events.

If you’re looking for more insight on digital engagement and crafting a successful hybrid event, check out our Hybrid Event Strategies for Dummies eBook.

Hope Swedeen

Hope is a Senior Content Marketing Associate with Cvent and has several years of experience producing content for corporations and small businesses, associations, nonprofits, and universities. As a content strategist and writer, she has dabbled in a wide range of industries, including government and defense, education, health, and more.
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