Tips to drive attendee engagement in a digital event

published on 14 January 2022

At Shake It, we've seen our fair share of virtual events in the past year. And there is nothing better than looking back on a finished event and realising that the engagement indicators are through the roof. So why is it that, in some events, people seem to be chatty, share pictures frequently and participate however they can, and in others, apparently in the same conditions, this does not happen in the same manner?

In this post, we'll talk a bit about why some events may have lower engagement than others and what you can do about it. We'll also share with you types of engagement we've seen work better than others for different kinds of events.

Let's dive in!

Not all events are created equally - know your audience

That's right. Like it or not, your type of audience will be the first driver of engagement. Ask yourself three questions:
1️⃣ How young is your audience? How do you imagine they behave on social networks?
2️⃣ How close is the community attending your event? Are they part of the same company or have they never met before?
3️⃣ What tone do you want to give your event? Is it an event mostly to share knowledge, or is it an event to bring people together and celebrate something? 

A younger, tech-savvy audience will participate more frequently, and will be more open to sharing content and thoughts. With a younger audience, you can leverage competition do drive engagement. 

On the other hand, an older, more conservative audience will value functional engagement over fun and games. Live-polling, asking questions, rating sessions, answering surveys, making comments, are all examples of engagement likely to be adequate for a more conservative audience. Medical Congresses and Academic Conferences are good examples of events likely to have this type of audience.

If your audience is part of a close community, they will be more prone to engage with each other. In this case, tools that allow for live interaction among participants shine  brighter. This means you should prioritise tools that allow people to interact, like an event feed, live-chat or video rooms.

Whatever the tools you use, be prepared to set the tone yourself. Many engagement tools, like an event feed, gamification badges, quizzes and live-chat, are used according to what the tone of the event is. Have your organising committee lead the way in the first few messages on the chat and posts to set a good tone for your event. In most cases, the rest of your audience will follow that tone. Simple things like writing "Good morning everyone" on the live-chat, or posting some pictures of the preparation of the event, will let people know that it's ok to share. Nobody likes to be the first one to break the ice! 🤷‍♂️

Notifications - use them wisely

Most virtual event platforms allow the organisation to send notifications - a message that is delivered to attendees at a specific time, catching their attention for a few seconds. This is a terrific weapon to drive engagement.

Does this mean you should send as many notifications as possible? Absolutely not! Too many notifications will be perceived as spam, and data shows engagement per notification goes down dramatically when you overwhelm attendees with messages. On the other hand, sending out a notification with a clear purpose and call to action will result in a spike of engagement. A few things to consider:
👉 Notifications with immediate action work best - "Visit this exhibition stand", "answer this poll", "add this session to your agenda", are good examples of notifications that usually have a good return. 
👉 Timing matters - Notifications usually are accompanied by a sound cue to drive attention. This is intencional and useful but may be distracting during a session. If you want people to visit an exhibition booth, then send that notification at the beginning of the break in which people should visit the booths. If you want people to rate a session, send out a notification at the end of that session. If you want to call attention to a functionality of the app, then send that notification at the beginning of the day, when people are first exploring the platform. As simple as that.
👉 There is such a thing as too many notifications. Sending out too many notifications informing that each session will begin in 5min is the best way to kill the relevance of this important tool. In most platforms, adding a session to your personal agenda triggers a personalised notification specific to that attendee. As a rule of thumb, limit your notifications to 1 notification per hour. 
👉 Treat your notifications like marketing. The numbers show that a plain notification like "Session 'Changes in Marketing' will start at 16h" has much lower engagement rate than a conversational notification, such as "🔔 Don't miss out on Dr. Obama, sharing his experience on 'Changes in Marketing'. 👉 Today at 4pm, Main Stage. See you there 👋". And yeah, emojis work too 🤷‍♂️. In some platforms, including Evento Virtual by Shake It, you will be allowed to send an image banner accompanying the notification. This is not only very engaging but also an opportunity to let sponsors convey their message on their own terms.

Image Notification - CPC 2021
Image Notification - CPC 2021

Requesting engagement

This is the secret weapon and the one I've seen have the most effect. In many ways, it's also the simplest and most obvious.

When the event host or the session moderator requests the engagement on stage, people know they're supposed to do it. It sounds like cheating, but it's really not. Requesting it once will drive attendees to do it often when they're not asked to do it.

I'll give you a few examples:

The COTEC Innovation summit was a hybrid event, and had one of the best online hosts I've seen during the virtual event phase of 2020/2021. Although most of the audience was watching online, the host requested a round of applause for the upcoming panel. This may sound strange, but if your platform has live-reactions, something like this may happen:

Live-reactions: a round of applause - COTEC Innovation Summit 2021
Live-reactions: a round of applause - COTEC Innovation Summit 2021

Another example: the Q&A feature is one that exists in many event platforms for a few years now. In many events, the discussion part of the session is one of the most important, and having the attendees ask the questions digitally allows for the discussion to be more productive, with more relevant, straight to the point questions. However, oftentimes, the participant does not watch the session with that in mind. In most events we are involved with, we follow 2 strategies:
👉 Asking the moderator to remind people that they can pose a question using the app
👉 Creating a slide shown at the beginning of the session, showing how to participate Q&A.
The latter brings up a very important point: make it easy to engage. Great engagement numbers show up when you make it easy for the attendees to make their participation. If possible, make it a one click action. As you can see in this slide, we've not only put the "Ask a Question" in the homescreen of the mobile app, but we've also explained how to access the future and how to download the app.

Q&A Session Slide - QSP Summit 2021
Q&A Session Slide - QSP Summit 2021

Requesting engagement comes in many shapes and forms. These are just a few examples, that I've chosen to demonstrate with examples and that have proven to be effective. 

Recognising engagement

Let's rewind the clock back to June 2020. At that time, the path of complex virtual events was still being defined. All we had to learn from was TV shows and YouTube channels. But those are great references and, from a very early stage, I've seen a few event take the right inspiration from the online formats that have existed for many years. One of those examples is the way Abilways Portugal recognises and involves the audience. Back in June 2020, the host of ExpoRH already finished up each session not only asking the questions from the audience, but also reading out loud the comments that people left on the chat, complementing the speaker. "Maria says your slides looked beautiful. Thank you Maria for that comment". This results in a continuous flow of comments that bring the live-chat to life, and the notion that the contribute the attendee chose to give really served a purpose. This is only possible if your platform allows for the speaker to visualize the comments and reactions as they're coming in.

shakeit.pt_apps_session_module__lang=en&event_identifier=wht400S28094EAA8HoKvix(iPad Air) (2)-8g3a9

Another great form of recognising engagement is by giving it visibility. In the Portuguese Congress of Cardiology, we used an interface we call "the Share Wall" on monitors that were spread out in the event venue. This means that, even though participant may not access the event feed within the app, they'll still see other people's contributions and feel compelled to do the same and be "up there on the big screen". This was used in six 65" monitors all over the event venue, and included the Share wall that showed pictures and posts from the event feed, but also the "Opinion Board", which showed aggregated charts with attendees' answers to questions posed by the organisation through the app.  

Two of Evento Virtual by Shake It's Interaction points - Share Wall and Opinion Boards
Two of Evento Virtual by Shake It's Interaction points - Share Wall and Opinion Boards

This kind of engagement recognising is a way of making your event venue more dynamic and turning your event into an immersive digital experience. When people see one of these screens, they think "Ah, here's what the people around me are thinking". This type of engagement recognition is a snowball, we've seen it happen time and time again.

In sum

Books could be written about digital engagement in events (and indeed they have been), but I'll try to sum up a few important points of this discussion:

👉 Know your audience, and design the engagement experiences accordingly.
👉 Drive the engagement yourself. Break the ice, set the tone.
👉 Make it easy to engage: explain how and make it accessible.
👉 Let attendees know you want them to engage. Request their participation.
👉 Appreciate the attendee's engagement, recognise it and let others know your appreciation.

You, the event organiser, are the key to driving digital engagement. Design your event for it.

Miguel Carneiro is CEO @ Shake It and Product Owner @ Evento Virtual.
He's a father of two, crazy about dogs, a problem solver and passionate about events.
He holds a BSc in Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence, a MSc in Service Management and Engineering, and 8 years of experience with event technology.

Runs on Unicorn Platform