How to engage and captivate virtual event attendees

Derse | February 8, 2021

How many virtual experiences have you participated in (or conducted yourself) over the past several months that were extraordinary?

Have you participated in any virtual events that you would even consider interesting? Or are you like most people, a victim of hundreds of virtual online experiences that were basically, well – meh. If so, then that’s a problem.

Experienced event planners should never settle for meh. Although the pivot to virtual events came suddenly, the full return to face-to-face marketing at in-person events is not likely to happen any time soon. Our challenge as event planners will be to organize successful virtual events that surprise, delight, and engage attendees at the same level as the in-person trade shows and live events they replaced.

Admittedly, it won’t be easy, but it can be done. Here’s our four-part recipe to successfully captivate your virtual event audience:

PART ONE: Start with the takeaway

What do you want your audience to take with them to their next meeting or project? What ideas can you share that are exciting enough to make your event attendees tell their colleagues what they learned? A good takeaway doesn’t happen by accident. As Chip and Dan Heath say, “Excellence is expected. And mostly forgettable.” Your job as an event marketer is not merely to be excellent, but to be memorable. That happens in part two...

PART TWO: Apply the interest curve

There’s a nearly universal recipe for creating memorable, extraordinary experiences - known as the interest curve. This principle comes from game design, but can be applied to presentations, performances, and experiences of all kinds. There are three aspects to building an engaging experience using the interest curve.

Start with a hook. Your virtual event must start with a hook that makes attendees forget about whatever was on their mind when they arrived in your virtual space and makes them want to lean into your experience to see what happens next. Attendees at a traditional trade show or event were fortunate to have a lot of ceremony around attendance. Packing a suitcase, boarding a flight, stepping into a new space, and being removed from their normal work environment helped attendees develop and maintain the right mindset for event participation. Unfortunately, your virtual event attendees might be working from home, helping kids with homework in between sessions, or using down time to check email. They don’t have the same opportunity to focus and will need your help developing the right mindset.
Think: how can you start strong?

Follow with peaks and valleys. Nobody is capable of continuous, sustained interest for the duration of your virtual event. Interest valleys aren’t bad; they provide intentional opportunities for your audience to catch their breath so they are ready for the next peak. Plan for them, but at the same time find ways to keep the audience involved so you mitigate their multitasking.
Think: what opportunities do you have to create excitement during your virtual experience?

Culminate with a climactic moment. The part of your brain that “keeps score” and leaves your attendees with an overall impression of the event disproportionately weights how they felt during the peaks of your experience and at the end of the event. As an event planner, you can take advantage of attendees’ “Peak-End Rule” line of thinking and plan to enhance the information and experiences you most want the audience to take with them.
Think: what is the one thing you want your event attendees to remember? 

PART THREE: Stay true to your brand

The uniqueness of a virtual event is the same as an in-person, face-to-face event. It comes from knowing what makes you, your content, your brand, your solution your culture, your people, and your company unique and special. Don’t abandon your branding or your brand’s personality because of a change in venue.

PART FOUR: Give your audience a virtual gift

Humans naturally want to reciprocate when we are treated well. By giving your virtual attendees access to information not available to a more general audience, demonstrating a high level of preparation for an event through superior production value, or telling impactful stories, you can help make your audience feel important. When your audience knows they are important to you, your efforts will be more important to them.

As social distancing continues to flip the script on live events, we have the opportunity to learn to be better communicators in a virtual world. Even as we look forward to the eventual return to true face-to-face marketing and in-person trade shows, what we’ve learned in today’s alternate and virtual reality will impact the look and feel of live events going forward. Understanding how to grab and maintain an event attendee’s interest and leave them with a positive impression of your brand will never lose its value, no matter where your event is held.

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