How to Keep Attendees Engaged as Virtual Event Fatigue Sets in

Eight strategies for planning an online gathering that people won't want to leave.

Attendee engagement has long been a critical element to any event, whether live or online. But in a virtual environment, the stakes are even higher. There are more opportunities for attendees to "zone out," and distractions are only a click away unless planners prepare strategies to keep them engaged. Following are eight tips from meeting professionals on how to capture and maintain attendee attention.

1. Design for Shorter Attention Spans

Online attention spans are shorter. Planners should take note and limit session times to 25 minutes, or at least add interactive elements to longer sessions.

"When there are multiple presentations, keep them short and targeted," says meetings technology speaker and consultant Corbin Ball. "Mix things up with a combination of polls and fun breaks. Be sure to have a professional emcee and high-production value."

2. Give Attendees New Ways to Connect

Networking remains a big draw for attending any event. So, meeting organizers should consider offering a variety of networking opportunities and make it as easy as possible for participants to connect with one another.  

"Place a QR code — either from LinkedIn or any preferred social media program — on your virtual background so anyone can scan via their smartphones and get automagically connected," suggests Dahlia El Gazzar, tech evangelist for the Dahlia+ Agency, a Boston-based event company. "This simple strategy greatly extends your tribe and the event conversation." 

3. Be Strategic With the Agenda

Attendees will struggle to stay engaged if the typical in-person agenda is replicated in an online setting. Carolyn Clark, virtual event producer at Dahlia+ Agency, advises adding music to session transitions and speaker walk-ins to liven up the meeting. She also suggests scheduling your must-see speakers and topics towards the end of the event to make sure attendees don't drop off as the day goes on. 

4. Know Your Audience 

There is something to be said about knowing what motivates participants. As Sabrina Meyers, online event moderator and global meeting planner at Orchid Lily Events explains, "you can only engage the audience if you know how they 'tick.' So, do your research in terms of who is your audience, how do they usually engage at events and what's the closest you can come to facilitating that in a virtual environment." 

5. Call Them Out

A strategy that works well during in-person formats that is simple to replicate in virtual events and webinars is to call attendees out, notes Shawn Chang, project manager of the conference-planning company MCI Group

"If it's a live session, engage with the audience right away by asking them a question off the bat, like where are you watching from? Respond to what attendees share and continue that tactic throughout the session to build rapport and engagement," he says.

6. Offer Incentives

Another good way to guests fired up and motivated is with incentives. Michelle Bruno, publisher of the Event Tech Brief, says audiences react well to rewards — whether it be a gift card or a free trip.

"If you ask members to engage and stay for the entire length of the session in exchange for a reward many will do so," she says. Bruno also notes the importance of having engaging presenters and encouraging an open dialogue. "Audiences will interact if the presenter is engaging, so get good speakers (or coach your own team) and encourage conversation between speakers and audience members." 

7. Shift the Focus from Attendees to Participants

Conversational sessions are naturally more engaging. Rachel Stephan, founder of the event influencer marketing tool Snöball, suggests taking a three-dimensional approach to designing your sessions that brings in more voices.

"Focusing on delivering content with two to three speakers engaging in a conversation is far more captivating than one speaker and a slide deck," she says. In addition to panel discussions, event organizers can also bring the audience into the discussion and curate conversations between the speakers and participants, as well as among participants themselves. She advises planners to shift their mindset from thinking of the audience as passive attendees to active participants.

8. Get Them Moving

With many still working from home, attendees just aren't moving like they used to. Kerri Kelly, experience innovator with the Dahlia+ Agency, says music and dancing often provide a welcome break for virtual attendees and can help up the energy level of the event.

"I recently produced a wellness break for a 300-person meeting and taught everyone how to do the hustle," she says. "Once everyone had the steps down, we all 'danced' together, which was a way for us to reach beyond our video tiles and come together as a group." 

Ben Leikach is the vice president of strategic alliances at Evenium, an event tech company and developer of the ConnexMe platform. For the past 30 years, he has been focused on the implementation of innovative and often disruptive solutions addressing the live events, B2B communications and education industries.