7 Standards of Modern Event Engagement

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It’s hard to think of something that hasn’t changed drastically in the past two years. We’ve adopted new habits, new technology, new social norms, and new ways of engaging with one another.

This holds true for events, too. Whether you’re an event pro thinking about how to up your engagement game or you’re new to the scene, there’s a revised engagement paradigm to adapt to in 2022.

Attention spans are waning and new types of media and content are forever joining an already oversaturated landscape. That means event professionals need to stay on top of engagement trends to compete with the likes of a mesmerizing social media scroll or an eight-hour Netflix binge. 

Creating events that fit this bill is no easy feat. But we’ve pulled together the seven golden rules of engineering authentic engagement at modern experiences. 

Read on to discover the new standards we all have to meet if we hope to drive genuine engagement with today’s audiences.

1. Mix it up. 

When you think about events you’ve felt truly immersed in, how did that feeling show up? Was it in any of the following ways?

  • Active listening
  • Two-way communication
  • Emotional resonance
  • Motivation to act or react
  • Participation
  • Creativity

The reality is engagement is a many layered thing –– and there are no shortcuts to doing it right. Organizers need to think holistically and create opportunities for different types of engagement to fully serve today’s audiences. 

Scott Gould, engagement consultant and author of “The Shape of Engagement,” describes the three different psychological states of engagement:

  • Head engagement, or cognitive engagement, when someone is connected with you mentally. This happens when event content and communication is highly compelling. 
  • Hands engagement, or behavioral engagement, when someone is physically involved and creating things they’ll actually use. This requires opportunities for participation.
  • Heart engagement, or affective engagement, when someone feels a sense of bonding and inclusion. This requires organizers to create a real community around their events — and get people excited to be part of that community.

The best events hit all three states of engagement. TED is known for striking this balance. Their events typically feature compelling presentations, hands-on workshops, and space to talk and share meals. 

“In particular, they excel at head engagement,” Scott says. “They recognize people are happy to sit and listen when you’ve got world-class speakers on stage.” 

The bottom line? Sticking to participatory elements alone won’t cut it. 

2. Focus on stand-out content. 

Think about the last time you binged 10 episodes of a TV show.

You take action to start the show — to navigate to the show page and hit play. Then, once that autoplay feature kicks in, you’re in a passive state of watching. But you’re still intensely engaged.

That’s because the content itself is engaging. And the folks who produced that show put a lot of thought into how to make it so. 

From there, you might even feel compelled to go talk about the show on social media or write some fan fiction. See how active engagement can naturally stem from passive engagement and deepen the overall experience? 

“Events could do well to be like living museums,” Scott says. “Living moments in time that give people space to reflect. There’s meaningful participation, but there’s also the ability to chill. And that means, as always, just good content.” 

So, don’t settle for mediocre, because without great content –– including getting speakers who are going to deliver –– it’s nearly impossible to build a deeply engaging experience. 

“We’re doing a lot of participatory Hail Mary,” Scott says. “If people aren’t already engaged attentively, they’re going to be less engaged with participation.”

In fact, according to Scott, passive engagement is as much –– if not more –– a part of overall engagement as active, participatory moments. 

So if you’re not designing for passive engagement, you’re likely ignoring a large group of people who are happy to attend events and just watch. Consider, for example, all the people who read social media posts without liking or commenting on them. 

“Participation is often done tokenistically,” Scott adds. “And we do it because we’re desperate to show that people are participating: ‘We’re now going to do a poll! Oh look, we can see everyone’s joining in! Everyone is really engaged!’ It has some utility but it’s actually very shallow; it’s a click.”

3. Hire the right people. 

According to Scott, the great events of today feature three types of people: 

  • People who engage the head: Speakers who are theatrical and well polished. They capture your mind and you’re engrossed. You might not remember exactly what they said, but you remember thinking, “WOW.” 
  • ‍People who engage the hands: People who are downright great at making things –– people who can command a workshop. They’re experts in creating the end product they’re putting together and they know how to help other people make that end product.‍ 
  • People who engage the heart: These are the social butterflies –– the party people whose job it is to help others mingle and connect. They help drive the narrative at your event. Your cup never runs dry at their house and when the experience is over, everyone says, “They made this a great time for me.”

People are at the heart of every experience, so don’t just think of them as functional. Pick people who are at the top of their game and excellent at their craft. 

“When we’re booking event hosts, we generally book a comedian,” Scott notes. “It’s essentially saying the person we have to glue all this together doesn’t actually know about the content. They’re just a little bit funny. It makes no sense. The message is: ‘This content is so dry we need a comedian to be the butter.’ Get someone who knows the content but also has the charisma to hold an audience. They’re harder to find but they do exist.” 

Have people in the mix who aren’t trained speakers but need to deliver during things like sales pitches or sponsor slots? Don’t give them a keynote –– instead, give them an interview conducted by that great host.

4. Don’t let things get stale. 

When you’re organizing an event, you’re putting on a show. With that in mind, seek to create a sense of theater. Stimulate the senses. Make it social. And ideally, leave a little something to the imagination.

For example, at his in-person events Scott places random objects around the room, stacks books as decorations, and puts odd things on stage. “They’re talking points,” he says. “People wonder: ‘Why is that there?’ They stoke curiosity. You don’t see this very often. You often arrive and you know what everything is for; there’s no mystery.” 

So, what are dry events missing? Scott says they don’t lead people into flow and they’ve lost their sense of dramatic arc.

“When you arrive –– in person or virtually –– there’s nothing there that suggests this is going to be exciting,” he says of events that miss the mark. “Nothing to theatrically grab you. Instead, the organizers were thinking about transfer of knowledge, ticket sales, and promotion of the key sponsor.” 

This is where having a strong event brand and theme can help. Find ways to make attendees participants in the story of the event, and if the event is part of a series, tie the experiences together into a cohesive, compelling story. 

Consider the experience you get at any Disney theme park. All employees are considered cast members because they’re contributing to a broader story. Cast members are instructed never to utter the words, ‘I don’t know,’ but to instead come up with answers to questions that forward the magical story for park guests. 

“We used to say, ‘you don’t preach people full, you preach them hungry,’” Scott says. “You give them enough so they’re desperate to want to come back.”

5. Make something useful. 

Scott believes creative engagement will make or break events moving forward. 

“Events should be a place where attendees make something that they can actually go on and use the following day,” he says. “And where you, as the event host, are remembered — because you were the facilitator of that making.” 

He gives all his clients what he calls a “Monday-morning guarantee.” 

“If you can’t use what I’ve discussed come Monday morning, you get your money back or I do it all again,” he says. “I want everything we do together to be Monday-morning usable.” 

Organizers can check themselves with a few simple questions to attendees on post-event surveys: 

  • Did you learn what you were expecting to learn? 
  • Did you get actionable insights you could apply right away? 

And don’t forget to make good use of your event content by turning it into a collection of assets for attendees to access after the experience is over. After all, your event content is the gift that keeps on giving.

6. Give the people what they want.

Listening to your audience and actively responding to their needs is non-negotiable in 2022. Take, for example, the Oscars. 

According to The New York Times, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences made changes to the 2022 telecast in an effort to boost viewership and engagement, which have been waning in recent history

In a bid to stay relevant, the Oscars switched things up by: 

  • Cutting the announcement of several categories from the live show 
  • Including three hosts, after several years with no host 
  • Adding in two fan-favorite category awards 

But as it turned out, those changes were largely for naught, as the show’s live viewership was its second-lowest ever. 

Now, on the flip side, this edition of the Oscars was the most popular in history on social media (you can probably guess why). 

A simple hypothesis started circulating around why the live viewership tanked even post-facelift: None of the changes emerged from what viewers actually wanted. 

Seek to fully understand what your audience is looking for and how they want to be engaged. Then, turn up the dial on those elements. Don’t assume you know best.

7. Don’t take a one-size-fits-all-formats approach.

In-person, virtual, and hybrid experiences each require a different approach, so a blanket engagement strategy isn’t likely to yield success.

Respect each event format by understanding how physical location and event setup influence how and why people engage. Then, tailor your engagement strategy and tactics and design an experience that will facilitate authentic engagement.

For example, if someone is attending an in-person event, they’re physically present, so distractions will be limited to some degree. They’ve committed to being there.

Translocationism, or the idea that people behave slightly differently than they normally would outside their typical location, is also at play.

“There are some expectations they’ll bring with them,” Scott says. “Plus, you can create motion. A little walk from here to there is great for clearing the brain. It’s also great for keeping the body active so you can learn for longer. It’s why in-person events can be a whole day but whole-day virtual events are agony.”

Festivals like SXSW and Mardi Gras tap into opportunities to create motion, feature changing locations, and stimulate the senses as forms of engagement. “Your ability to create theater is pronounced in person,” he adds.

On the other hand, when it comes to virtual experiences, you’ve traveled nowhere, distractions abound, psychological cues are limited, and there’s no physical motion to stimulate your body and brain. In many ways, it’s often harder to facilitate deep engagement.

With that in mind, to truly be engaging, online experiences typically demand:

  • Incredible speakers and highly animated talks to fill the small screen: Think props and slides featuring strong visuals and motion. “If someone’s dry on stage, they’re even drier virtually,” Scott notes. “And people are going to take the nap in their bed.”‍
  • Strong facilitators: People who can see a dozen faces on a screen and have the ability to pick individuals out quickly.
  • ‍Half-day events and movement breaks: Avoid scheduling a full-day digital experience unless you’re hosting something attendees can jump in and out of periodically. 

Participatory elements and co-creation sessions can also present big opportunities in the virtual world.

“People have their tools right there –– email, files, work documents, props, Miro,” Scott says. “They’re also likely feeling safe in their home. So they’re probably willing to do some things they might not do if they were in a group of people physically. I try to make the making even more specific in virtual settings, which is counterintuitive because we try to nudge it down a bit thinking it won’t be as effective.”

Then, there are hybrid events. According to Scott, there are two core engagement considerations for this format:

  • Letting go of the obsession around getting the two audiences to connect with each other and instead just creating the most engaging experiences for the various audiences.
  • Trying to solve for FOMO.You will miss out on some things, but you’ll get to be in on others,” he says. “I think we need to just accept that and instead ask ourselves: ‘Where do we want to be?’”

Whether you have everyone in the room where it happened or the comfort of their own homes, meeting your audience where they are will help you determine how to engage them in meaningful ways.

Putting it all into practice

Now that you’ve done a deep dive on what it takes to drive genuine engagement across modern experiences, it’s time to apply these revised rules of the engagement road.

By incorporating all three psychological states of engagement, focusing on stand-out content, hiring the right team, never letting things get stale, giving attendees opportunities to make something useful, considering how your audience wants to be engaged, and avoiding a one-size-fits-all-formats approach, you can create truly meaningful experiences for your attendees.

Let us help you meet these new standards and secure event technology that will allow you to ace event engagement in today’s world. Contact a Hopin team member today to see how we can support you.

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