So you’re ready to plan your conference — to realize your vision of a fresh, innovative space conducive to the exchange of ideas, the forging of connections, and the merging of the mightiest minds in your field.
At least, that’s the theory. In reality, truly engaging your conference attendees can be an arduous task. Not because your content isn’t interesting — it’s simply human nature.
Humans are already burdened with a short attention span, and the digital age has only enriched our proclivity for distraction.
When you’re running a conference, you’re not competing against boredom or daydreaming anymore. Those age-old opponents have been replaced with the mobile device, an endless source of distraction.
This already-daunting competition is only further toughened up by the way we use our phones. We don’t passively absorb information; we control and customize as we interact with the digital world. We want our content personalized to our specific tastes, to meet our exact desires.
This is contrary to some of the staple activities of conferences, the primary offender being the lecture. Even if it’s filled with interesting and thoughtful content, a long-winded lecture is contrarian to the interactive world we exist in today.
So how exactly do you generate meaningful engagement, the kind of involvement that has your attendees excited and attentive during the event, the kind that leaves them satisfied and inspired when it ends?
Below are a few methodologies to keep in mind when planning your conference, each with specific, actionable examples to help you organize the most engaging conference you can.
Before the first attendee walks through the door, they should be eager to experience your event! Hype is a powerful emotion, so generate buzz before an event by creating a hashtag, or hosting a contest or promotion.
Even before hyping up the conference, you can ensure the actual content will engage your audience by crowdsourcing the kind of topics, events, and discussions your attendees want to experience.
Administer a short survey, or if time permits, an online focus group, that asks what your attendees find interesting, what they don’t, and what they expect when they’re present at your event.
Gamification is a great way to boost morale, keep your conference upbeat, and tap into the fun (and sometimes competitive) spirit of your attendees.
Gamifying your conference can be as simple as having board or card games out during breaks, or as intensive as injecting it into the presentations, discussions, or other happenings at your conference.
Feel free to use social media as the mechanism behind your conference games; common examples include an Instagram caption contest or a simple Twitter raffle.
For a past Techweek, Codal developed an app that uses beacon technology to create a scavenger hunt, allowing attendees to explore the conference while searching for beacons strategically placed around the venue.
While I did just paint modern tech as the culprit behind low attendee engagement, you should harness the latest trends in technology to create a more immersive experience at your conference.
I’ve already touched on the applications of social media, but there are countless other technologies that can skyrocket engagement, from something as basic as a QR code, to integrating IoT into the conference.
Many conference coordinators even hire a mobile app design company to create an application just for their event. These apps not only engage attendees, but can also serve logistical functions like check-in and registration, or collect data about audience members.
The infographic below, compiled by The Europe Hotel (a popular conference venue), further explores a sample of tech trends, and how they could contribute to your conference.
Technology Trends For Conferences – Source
An oft-overlooked aspect, the physical layout of the conference is instrumental to cultivating an engaged audience. For example, instead of a lecturer-audience type of layout, consider using round tables to promote discussion and an even playing field.
Depending on the scope of the venue, you can utilize different rooms for different events, to get your attendees up and moving between spaces. If you’re working with more limited real estate, design a layout that’s fluid and makes sense as the attendees circulate the conference.
Don’t forget the seating either—some planners use assigned seating, to break people away from their typical social groups and interact with new faces and ideas.
Other conferences have found success in casual seating, creating an informal, relaxed environment more conducive to networking. And if you can, consider doing away with those cold, hard folding chairs—try finding more comfortable seats!
Finally, the last way to genuinely engage your audience is to promote personal interaction between attendees. Activities should have a collaborative or social aspect, and each workshop, event, or other module should end with some sort of discussion.
In fact, this peer-to-peer interaction is so important, that many conference planners prioritize it over entertainment or expert speakers.
“There are more peer-to-peer conversations during a general session,” says Jeff Hurt, executive VP of education and engagement for Velvet Chainsaw, a consulting company that assists clients in strengthening their engagement at events.
“It’s no longer about the subject matter experts. It’s about the subject matter experience. We have to mine for that; to find ways to share stories between peers.”
It’s easy to see that the playing field for human attention isn’t a balanced one. But to combat this for your next conference, you have the tools to engage audiences on a meaningful level.
Whether its preemptive interaction or gamification, a high-tech experience or an immersive environment, attendees will leave your conference happy that they came, already looking forward to next year’s gathering.