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Conference organizers are finding new ways to engage remote audiences

Organizers are trying everything from yoga and cooking classes to care packages and remote networking to engage virtual attendees.

Conference organizers are finding new ways to engage remote audiences
[Photos: Pixabay/Pexels; Karolina Grabowska/Pexels; Polina Tankilevitch/Pexels]
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More than eight months after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many are struggling with the effects of Zoom fatigue. And online events are no exception.

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In recent months organizers have expressed concern about their ability to engage a virtual audience and offer a worthwhile digital conference experience. In response, some have experimented with novel solutions, gimmicks, and giveaways aimed at keeping audiences interested.

“A lot of people who are used to running an in-person event might just take their standard format and throw it into an online format, and sometimes it works but sometimes it doesn’t, because of screen fatigue,” explains Nicole Dal Ferro, an account manager for virtual events platform Hopin. “It’s important for organizers to really look at the format of their event to consider what new opportunities it provides them.”

Dal Ferro says that one of the primary advantages of virtual conferences and conventions is their relative cost. She says that event organizers can put the venue, catering, travel, and security budget toward securing higher profile speakers who would typically fall out of their price range but can help draw participants.

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“You also need to find ways for attendees to become engaged in the environment, rather than 24/7 content from one speaker to another,” she says. For example, Dal Ferro recommends scheduling regular breaks and finding creative ways to utilize the digital medium to “gamify” the conference experience.

“One concept that comes to mind is what we call a virtual scavenger hunt, which is something that we worked on across a few events,” she says. “Basically it’s challenging attendees to look for tokens—that could be a keyword that dropped in the keynote, for example, or a quick flash of an image on their screen, basically something attendees have to keep an eye or an ear out for—and traditionally there’s some kind of prize at the end.” Dal Ferro says that in recent months Hopin clients have also offered yoga classes, stretching breaks, and live music performances between sessions.

Engaging the senses from a distance

Some organizers are also seeking to create more of a distinction between virtual event attendance and a typical day of staring at a screen by engaging more of the senses. “The Culinary Institute did a virtual cooking class, where they had a guest chef come in and lead a cooking demonstration,” says Del Ferro, explaining that conference attendees were provided an ingredients list in advance. “Everybody at home was tasked with following along with it, and with that you get your recipe and this actual experience as part of the event.”

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Some organizers have even taken the extra step of mailing out packages containing some of the promotional items one would typically collect at an in-person event, along with a few items intended to create a more immersive experience. Paul Armstrong, founder of Here/Forth, even took the extra step of offsetting the emissions of the boxes he’s currently sending out to attendees of his upcoming TBD (Technology Behavior Data) conference this January.

Armstrong says the box includes a range of items provided by sponsors and partners, including a sleep aid for the night before the event, and a nootropic to promote better focus during the day. The kit also includes tea so that attendees can enjoy a shared tea break, and a resistance band that will be utilized for a conference-wide exercise session.

“We also created a bespoke scent,” says Armstrong, adding that there is a strong correlation between scent and memory. “The idea is that if you spray the scent or use the candle whenever you want to remember stuff [from the conference].”

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Less programming for a less captive audience

Armstrong adds that the transition from in-person to virtual events requires organizers to be more mindful of participants’ time, as they are less likely to dedicate as much of their day to an online event as they would an in-person conference. That is why he’s changed the format of TBD from one full day to two half-days.

“You’ve got to be more respectful than ever of people’s time,” he says. “I keep seeing five-day conferences, and one, that’s a lot of content, and two, nobody in their right minds has five days off to go to a conference, so pare it down and know that everyone’s days [are] a little more stressful, and staring at a screen all day is hard.”

Facilitating remote networking remains a challenge

At the end of the day, Armstrong says the majority of conference attendees show up for the opportunity to network, but facilitating those opportunities remotely remains a challenge.

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“Any way I’ve seen that done online just fails spectacularly,” he says. “It’s just very forced, contrite, and it’s just not a good experience, and that’s a big problem for the industry, because that’s how it makes a lot of its money.”

According to Paddy Cosgrave, CEO and founder of a number of international technology conferences including Web Summit, Collision, and Rise, people might come for the speakers, but they stay (and return) for the opportunity to network.

“We know that before attendees arrive, the majority of people say they’re coming for the speakers, roughly 60/40, but after it goes 80/20, with the majority saying the value was in the networking,” he says, adding that the data is derived from polling his attendees after each event he’s hosted since 2010. “Networking is king, not content. Content is the excuse.”

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To that end, Web Summit, which is in early December, will offer a range of virtual networking features to help people mingle with strangers in their industry, schedule one-on-one meetings, and participate in more workshops and smaller, more collaborative sessions.

“For introverted people I think online conferences work well,” he says. “When I go to conferences normally I get stuck in conversations with people I don’t want to meet, whereas on a virtual platform that won’t happen. I just click ‘exit’ and they go away.”

Temporary solution, or the new normal?

Now that organizers have the technology and experience to host digital events, Cosgrave believes they will continue in the post-pandemic future, especially international events that are harder for some to attend in person.

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“We’ll probably increase the number of online conferences we do, because we really know how to do them now,” he says, explaining that it would be relatively easy to scale from a few large general technology events to a series of more niche virtual conferences. “In theory, hybrid conferences should also be very economically viable in 2021 or 2022.”

For example, future events could include a pre-event mixer to foster some familiarity and connection between attendees before they arrive. Cosgrave also imagines a lower-cost, digital-only ticketing option becoming the norm in the future. He does not, however, believe that digital alternatives will ever fully replace the in-person experience.

“There was no technological impediment to virtual conferences pre-COVID. It’s just that COVID forced a situation where there is no alternative,” he says. “You simply can’t replicate what real-world events do online.”

About the author

Jared Lindzon is a freelance journalist and public speaker born, raised and based in Toronto, Canada. Lindzon's writing focuses on the future of work and talent as it relates to technological innovation, as well as entrepreneurship, technology, politics, sports and music.

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