Are your conference attendees comfortably swaddled or actually engaged..?
Updated: May 4
I've worked on numerous conferences over the years and there are some things that don't change. Whilst there's comfort in sticking to what we know, 'the way we do things here' and sometimes that's OK- a lot of the time same-old is boring and we're desperate for someone to do something different for a change.
I don't know about you but I struggle to sit through a conference without glazed eyes and mental lists of everywhere else I'd rather be. That could clearly be either the fault of my attention span, or mean that the content and format might be somewhat stale and need switching up. Think of it like infants in a way: we're swaddled as babies and get so used to the norm of wrapping up that even as adults, sticking our leg out of the duvet feels like a call to every horror movie murderer.
We know theatre style seating means conference, drinks reception means poseur tables & canapes and gala dinner means prawn cocktail, corn-fed chicken and chocolate brownies- give or take. Throw in some ice breaker challenges, a wooden spoon and gold sequin jacket ad you've covered 2019 in corporate conference world. But does any of that really excite any of us?
So maybe we need to think about sticking our legs out of the cover a bit when it comes to conferences and corporate events. Not sleeping all-the-way-out of course (we're not crazy....)- baby steps. Little changes that will positively influence your attendees and hold their engagement past the coffee and pastries- maybe even stop them from scrawling their last Will and Testament on the back of the programme.
These are 3 things I've seen at conferences that helped boost interaction and engagement- it actually seemed like they weren't all there as either hostages or on a promise to stay: Result!
Build your own breakfast- with visible votes
The norm: sausage, egg or bacon sandwich with either tea, coffee or orange juice
The leg out: Set up your breakfast station with an A or B option to choose from- A being a build-your-own breakfast bowl (think porridge/ muesli with toppings including fresh fruit), B being your usual bacon/sausage/egg. Hand out a single colour voting button at registration and have clear boxes at each station for them to drop in their selection as they plate up and see which fills up faster.
All-The-Way: Send out a pre-event communication with an easy click vote that get's their attention and asks them what they'd like for breakfast at your event: A or B (maybe throw in a C of continental breakfast). They don't have to choose then and there, but it will give you an indicator of numbers and also an opportunity to blow your own trumpet on the day by saying/showing that 'you voted, we listened.. so here's your breakfast selection!'.
I know it sounds like I've just spent your entire event budget on catering, but this is a quick and easy win which just takes some communication with your venue beforehand. Initially it might take some guesswork on numbers but hone in on your feedback to get this right- they'll appreciate that you've taken the time to give them options, that they're being well-fed and that you gave them a welcome distraction to think about food during their day.
The norm: 8am registration for a full day conference with circa 18 coffee breaks
The leg out: Be realistic with your attendees and let them know your real-time schedule which allows them to decide what parts are most valuable to them rather than feeling as if they've wasted an entire day that could have been done within a few hours. If you say registration from 8am for a 9am start your attendees will interpret that however best suits them- so you'll always get your 7:45am arrivals along with your 8:59am rushes. Clearly stating that your first presentation will begin promptly at 9:15am and asking them to ensure arrival before then makes it sound a little more flexible and (hopefully) means they will show up less frazzled and ready to dive straight into the agenda.
All-The-Way: Split your conference day into parts and allow your attendees the flexibility to either register for or only turn up to those that they will find valuable. They may do that anyway in some essence, but giving them the option is clever targeting: 'Here's our full day programme split into parts 1,2,3. Register for the fully day/ Register for Part 1/ Register for Part 2/ Register for Part 3 will give you an indicator which topics/ speakers are actually more appealing to your audience.
Whilst 'give an inch, take a mile' is probably ringing in your ears, we've all been there wishing we'd used our time more wisely whilst sitting through presentations that have no relevance to us. Offering them a simple way to be a part of all or some of your event shows that you understand how busy they are and that you're willing to only take up part of their day without them feeling bad about not being there for the whole party. If they get used to this format you might see an increase in registrations as they'll suddenly start looking out for your mini-events and scheduling them in amongst their normal work day.
Throw in some Brain-Breaks
The norm: The printed out presentation along with standard feedback forms
The leg out: Repeat: you don't need to print out the presentation. Think about replacing these with little puzzles or brainteasers on seats. Minds will wander at various points so why not give them something relevant to do with that time- think 'Conference Bingo' sheets between pairs for expected or unexpected phrases and things throughout the day or stick to shorter presentations followed by a few minutes of interaction- minus the awkward Q&A.
All-The-Way: In an ideal world you would ask your attendees to leave their phones at the door (in a secure location) allowing them to sit through your session without the distraction and dependency on that little centre of their universe. Whilst this might make them initially anxious, it's important that this is scheduled in in advance to reduce this anxiety so that the novel idea of being away from their phone for just 45 minutes/ one session is welcomed. Follow this with a brain break or chance to check in and make sure that the world hasn't ended during that time then keep the programme moving.
MeetingsNet suggests that a good balance is '45 minutes of interactive, engaging discussion followed by 5-10 minutes of recharging activity' or brain break- so if you've asked them to separate from phones, this is the perfect opportunity to be reunited before the next segment. If a split conference was 3 hours long, this would be 3 x 45 minute presentations with brain breaks in between which feels easily manageable!
Sometimes it really is just a little change that makes all the difference- but we have to start somewhere! Every business is different as is every event- but they'd be nothing without those that show up so it's important that we keep thinking of new ways to hold our attendees attention whilst giving them value for money and preferably not boring them to tears.
How do you think your conferences do in terms of attendance and engagement?