The Curse of the Bored Attendees

18/09/2012 - Reproducido con permiso de The Meeting Professional, 2012. © One+, agosto de 2012. Autora: Tara Swords. Traducción: Event Planner Spain

Get your audience involved—and keep them that way—with these 11 tips for excellent engagement.

"Engagement" reached official buzzword status long ago, but that doesn’t mean it’s an idea that should make your eyes glaze over. As every meeting professional knows, engagement—getting people involved and committed to an organization or idea—is everything.

Maybe that’s why it’s so hard to get right.

"Meeting professionals want to sell seats in conference rooms, and yet most attendees don’t want to sit in conference rooms," said Holly Duckworth, CMP, CEO of Oregon-based Leadership Solutions International. "They want to be in the hallways having a dialogue or, if they are in conference rooms, they want to be having an engaging and participatory experience more than ever before."

The good news is that meeting professionals have a mind-boggling amount of tools at their disposal for increasing engagement. As people become increasingly connected through social media and mobile devices put our social networks in our pockets, there is no shortage of ways to reach your audience.

Now for the bad news: Everybody else is using those tools, too, and your audience is overloaded.

"I feel like the more tools we have to engage, the more you have to get on the phone and get your attendees focused," said Caroline Rustigian Bruderer, CEO of K-LINE & Company, a PR, marketing and social media consultancy. "There’s so much going on and so many choices, and that’s one thing I tell people: Don’t think it’s enough to be on Twitter and Facebook. You still have to close the deal personally."

So what’s a planner to do? Start with these 11 tips.

1. Use Your Data
Many organizations do a good job of collecting data about their attendees, even from the first inquiry. Ages, preferences, hobbies—some collect a multitude of data in the hopes they’ll have some clever use for it in the future.

But in fact, you have good use for it now. Use it to shape your programming and surprise your attendees with the amount of care and thought you’ve given to their responses.

"You used to know your attendee in the window of 8 to 5. You knew they went to the office and sold for eight hours and walked out," Duckworth said. "Now you know they have 2.3 children, they drive a white Lexus, they like to go out on the weekends and they’re foodies who love to eat Thai food. We know that level of depth and richness that allows us to be more authentic, and the planner and team that can capture that authenticity and program for it is going to have a great meeting."

2. Co-create With Your Participants
If you’re feeling unsure of what will best engage your audience, go straight to the source: Ask them. Bruderer recommends involving people in planning from the moment they sign up.

"Send a questionnaire asking about their preferences," she said. "Make them feel a part of the program and get their suggestions."

Duckworth agrees.

"Meeting professionals need to step back and listen to where their people are and what they want," she said.

3. Focus on Experience
Event attendance can be a hard sell in a down economy, so people want value. The best way to deliver value is to create an experience attendees normally wouldn’t have access to.

"Think of stuff they wouldn’t be able to afford or coordinate themselves," Bruderer said. "Things they couldn’t get on their own in the free market. Experiential things are what drive people."

That could be access to influential or notable personalities. It could be a ride on a yacht or a private wine tasting. Make it memorable and your attendees will generate buzz for you.

4. Ditch the Stuff that Doesn’t Work
For a long time, the conventional wisdom has been that every event needs a printed program and every attendee must leave with a swag bag of freebies. But do those things really serve your goals?

"I think planners need to look seriously at the 50- and 60-page printed programs," Duckworth said. "For any of us who are green, environmentally sensitive, digital learners, we just know how much ink and time and money and gas went into that kind of thing."

And that, Duckworth says, is a turnoff.

Rather than sending people home with a pile of cheap stuff, why not divert your resources into something that will generate buzz instead of trash?

"Most people would rather have one winner of a larger prize than all these little tchotchkes," Duckworth said. "We throw those away."

5. Add Pinterest to Your Arsenal
Few planners overlook the obvious social networks: Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. But Pinterest, the new kid on the block, is both wildly popular and wildly useful—especially in the meeting and event industry. Millions of people use it to "pin" images to virtual bulletin boards. That concept gives planners a lot of interesting possibilities if they’re willing to be creative.

"You could have each attendee on their own board. They could do a Pinterest board on how they want to see the day go," Bruderer said.

She suggests planners might then select one board and incorporate it into the event’s programming and announce whose board won during the event.

Make your own board before the event, too. Populate it with tantalizing hints of the experience to come.

6. Don’t Forget SMS
Email might reach people on their smartphones, but text messaging may reach a broader audience with a stronger sense of immediacy than an email. Plus, it offers a fast, convenient way for people to respond to any message you may send—including a request for donations.

"If it’s a fundraiser, we have often used text message campaigns so guests are not only engaged to give something but they are followed up with ways to keep involved with an organization via text," said Rachel P. Goldstein, founder of Agent of Change, an event production agency.

7. Connect Your Participants
It’s not just about you connecting to attendees; it’s also about your attendees connecting to each other.

Goldstein recently attended a festival at which a popular brand gave each participant a bag with a number attached to it.

"Once given a bag, a person is to find a matching number, so people were constantly talking to each other trying to find their match," she said.

8. Make it Meaningful
Duckworth says many organizations are deciding to make community service a part of their events. That may serve multiple purposes: First, it brings value to a worthwhile cause; second, when people are hesitating to commit to an event, community service might give them exactly the excuse they need to justify the expense and time commitment of attendance.

Bruderer sees the same trend.

"It’s the same reason why people take their vacations and go volunteer," she said. "You’re killing a couple of birds with one stone and you’re not just going to be sitting in some room getting lectured at. Plus, paying it forward is really good for the soul."

9. Don’t Do the Same Old
You might feel great temptation to repeat whatever you did last year if it worked well enough. But predictability can lull attendees into a state of boredom.

Bruderer says she sees this at corporate events, where people are accustomed to a more buttoned-down style.

"Sometimes corporate marketing people can be too literal and not playful," she said. "When you get out of the linear, you get people excited and the creativity goes up."

10. Engage People Afterward
Your event is over, and it was a huge success. Now what? Don’t lose momentum. Incorporate post-event engagement into your planning so you can capitalize on the good feelings that your attendees took home.

Social media can play a big role here, too.

"After the event, use Facebook or Pinterest to share pictures and videos," Bruderer said. "Create a post-event reel, and tag the end with something about next year."

Amith Nagarajan, CEO of Aptify, a company that makes management software for associations, says that if organizations don’t do a good job of keeping the conversation going, they’ll soon be outsmarted by competing forces.

"Online communities—such as LinkedIn groups and Facebook pages—have the potential to displace one of the traditional roles of an association" as a creator of discussion forums, Nagarajan says. "People don’t need you anymore. How do you make your forum the one people turn to?"

Nagarajan suggests finding thought leaders who can contribute valuable content to your online forums and interact with members regularly.

11. Measure
You can’t know whether you’ve increased engagement unless you start measuring it. And measuring it requires more careful thought than you might currently put into it.

"Most people think it’s transactional—the member did something or bought something," Nagarajan said. "They aggregate all of that stuff and determine whether the individual is engaged or not. We say engagement is only meaningful if it’s aligned with the strategy of the organization. If those individuals are doing things in alignment with the desired direction, then it’s helpful. If not, it’s neutral or damaging."

When organizations attempt to align engagement with their strategy, they may be surprised to find that they don’t actually have a strategy—or at least not a clearly defined one. Nagarajan suggests identifying three priorities. Anything that members do in support of those three priorities is useful engagement.

"You may have people in the organization who are, in a traditional format, very engaged," Nagarajan said. "They come to conferences, speak, maybe write for journals. But maybe they’re not involved in the online format. That person would be considered low in an engagement score. They’re in alignment with the old strategy and not the new one." One+

Cutting-edge Cool
Five Sweet Tech Tips to Incorporate at Your Next Event:

1. High-tech accessories. At recent Coldplay concerts, attendees have become part of the light show with small LED wristbands controlled via a radio transmitter. Organizations could take advantage of this technology for flashy effect, too, by incorporating branded bands into event activities. Turn them on at the same time or communicate messages or schedule elements via the different light colors. ("Green—break into groups!") For a smaller investment, consider wristbands with QR codes. People can scan each other’s bands with their phones and automatically download contact info.

2. Storify.com. This website captures tweets with your assigned hash tag and turns them into mini digests of the event, complete with images.

3. Kred.com. Kred tracks tweets with your hash tag and can give you a report of who used it the most.

"As a planner, don’t just look at that and say, ‘That’s interesting,’" Duckworth said. "Talk to those people and find out what are they getting out of your meeting. What do they want more of? Planners aren’t doing that yet but they should."

4. Live polling. An app like Poll Everywhere can turn your participants’ phones into poll response systems. They respond via SMS, and their responses can appear moments later on a big screen.

5. Connectivity. Want people to hang around your event a little longer? Two words: Free Wi-Fi.

News - Meeting Professionals International (MPI)

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