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Mission: Engagement

Mobile apps and social media, live polling and game kiosks: Technology has turned attendee engagement on its head in recent years.

For today’s meetings, technology is invaluable and irreplaceable when trying to boost attendee engagement, whether it’s between attendees, or with speakers or sponsors. But there are still many low- or no-tech ways ways to encourage old-fashioned person-to-person connections.

Know Your Audience

Before planners can know how to engage their attendees, they have to know their attendees — and know them well. Intuit’s annual QuickBooks Connect conference brings together people from various industries and backgrounds, primarily accountants, entrepreneurs, app developers and small-business owners. When Chicago-based Agency EA took over the event four years ago, the staff did a deep dive to understand “what is this audience like, how do they normally interact, where do we push them a little, and what do we let them figure out on their own,” said Kristin Barbour, account director with Agency EA.

It’s also important to understand the reason for that engagement. When you’re trying to boost attendee engagement or audience participation, “you’re trying to create a conversation,” said Samuel J. Smith, managing director of Interactive Meeting Technology, which specializes in attendee engagement for events. “If the goal is to create some kind of conversation, you also need to ask what kind of conversation are you trying to get people to have?”

Engage Digitally

Though it’s common for events to have their own mobile apps these days, planners still don’t use apps to the fullest.

“Look for opportunities to build connections digitally,” Barbour said. Planners should lean into their event app to engage attendees. Have attendees fill out a five-question survey about their interests or backgrounds, and then deliver suggested connections based on the results. Provide a list of attendees in the app so others can see who they may want to seek out. And have an in-app messaging function so they can connect.

Paragon Events, headquartered in Delray Beach, Florida, has designed custom Snapchat filters branded with the event and client’s logos that are available to attendees on-site. In addition to promoting an event’s official hashtag, organizers can use Cvent’s SocialWall, which allows attendees to see their posts shared on a larger scale; that “provides an exciting, interactive experience,” said Paragon president and CEO Renee Radabaugh.

Paragon recently used Estimote Proximity Beacon technology for the first time to engage attendees based on their behavior and mobile app usage, Radabaugh said. Beacons broadcast a radio signal to smartphones, so when an eligible mobile app enters the signal’s region, vendors, planners and exhibitors can send information directly to an attendee’s smartphone based on the attendee’s location. Using Bluetooth notifications, beacons engage attendees with information that is relevant to them based on their proximity to the next session or special event.

Designate Time and Space

Looking at your event agenda can be eye-opening. Most conferences are back-to-back breakouts and speakers, which forces attendees to the nearest Starbucks to chat over a cappuccino. Planners can and should provide attendees with designated time and space to connect and engage with one another, Barbour said. In addition to having lounge furniture throughout the venue during QuickBooks Connect, Agency EA also created themed “Connection Lounges,” like the Sound Lounge, with pop-up musical acts and performances, and listed them on the agenda.

Give Them Something to Talk About

Not everyone is an extrovert, and in today’s age of smartphones and social media, it can be awkward to try to spark an IRL conversation. Give attendees something to talk about, whether it’s simple icebreakers or an over-the-top crowd wower. At Connect, organizers placed table tents in lounges and other areas with prompts such as, “What is your funniest story from owning your own business?”

But organizers also shipped in a robotic bartender from Italy, which “was insane and supercool,” Barbour said. “It was the highlight of the welcome reception.” During the rest of the conference, attendees could be overheard asking each other if they had gotten a drink from the robotic bartender.

“Always try to have one ‘delighter’ that is kind of out there that people can laugh about,” she said.

Make Them Play

Games are taking off as an interactive way to get attendees to play and learn.

“The content of the game is designed to mimic the learning objective, so you have the game as another touchpoint to reinforce your core message,” Smith said.

Different games work for different audiences, and not every game works for every event. There are trivia-based content games, like a trivia bar where sponsors provide the content, “so if you visit the suppliers’ booths, you should know the content,” Smith said. There are challenge-based games like a photo-based scavenger hunt or challenges related to a specific market.

Content-oriented participation games let attendees win by showing what they learned, answering questions to earn points or to spin the prize wheel.

As a twist on the trade show passport, attendees go around the trade show floor with a digital passport and participate in activities at stations, watch demos at booths or answer questions at kiosks to earn points.

Not everything should be in the event app, though, because there are attendees who aren’t app driven, Smith said. Smith’s company once placed buttons, each different but related to the event, around the show floor, prompting attendees to try to collect them all. One client has a game where attendees compete to assemble the company’s equipment the fastest.

“If it’s related to the theme and the content, that’s really the win,” Smith said.

Engage In-Session

At Connect, the breakout speakers added a slide before their presentation with a prompt like “Tell your neighbor why you’re here,” and “people actually ended up doing it,” Barbour said. “It was great because you’d walk into a breakout session before it started and people were already talking, instead of it being cold and silent.”

Live polling has become popular, but planners can use it more effectively.

“To get more ideas and better solutions, don’t ask people just one question,” Smith said.

Instead, break a problem or a topic into pieces, assign those to different groups, and have them come up with ideas; then ask the whole group to vote on their favorites. “In a room of 16 people, you can do that with flip charts; in a room with 600, you can use polling,” he said.

No technology is necessary to boost attendee engagement; discussion formats or facilitation can be just as effective. The fishbowl technique, for example, allows people to jump in when they want and helps draw in more voices for richer dialogue, Smith said. Instead of having all speakers, switch to facilitated sessions. A facilitated session doesn’t need to have 50 activities; it can simply mean spending more time on topic-based discussion, dialogue activities, polls or Q&A sessions.