The Complete Guide to Audience Engagement

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For many event managers, audience engagement is the number one goal.

It’s no surprise, because an event with no engagement probably doesn’t have a healthy future.

But audience engagement is a complex topic, and you quickly realise it means a lot of different things to a lot of different people.

Does it mean how many questions were asked at a conference? Or how many Instagram pics were posted during a festival? Or how many stalls were visited at a consumer show? Or business cards exchanged at a networking evening?

To help clear things up, we’ve worked with 8 widely recognised experts in technology, event planning and experiential marketing to create a complete guide to audience engagement.

In this post we’ll answer:

  • What is audience engagement?
  • Why does audience engagement matter?
  • How do you measure audience engagement?
  • How can organisers increase audience engagement?
  • What are some of the popular audience engagement tools?

Ready to get a complete guide to audience engagement in less than 10 minutes? Then read on!

Defining audience engagement

You know you’re in trouble when you type a phrase like ‘audience engagement’ into Google and don’t immediately see a Wikipedia definition at the top of the search results. If Wikipedia can’t define it, then who can?!

Jason Allan Scott, Author of the best selling ‘Eventreprenuer Series’ of books, and Host of The Guestlist Podcast, recognises this subjectivity of audience engagement, saying “The definition would be different for everyone you ask.

“But to me it is two fold, engagement is the attendee of the event doing the thing you want them to do. A piece of engaging content at an event, therefore, is something that successfully inspires the action it was designed to instigate; but secondly it is also about what the attendee wants and what they walk away with after the event is over.”

The idea of engagement being defined by a desired outcome is shared by Adam Azor, the Senior Vice President of Integrated and Digital Marketing at Jack Morton Worldwide, commenting that, “To me audience engagement is creating an interactive narrative with your attendees to create a desired outcome. This can be via a practical experience, a two way dialogue or increasing via technology.”

For Mike Piddock, Founder and CEO at event engagement technology providers Glisser, he believes that “Audience engagement is providing an outlet for audiences to interact with, be it through an empowered presenter or a physical stimulus. It is making sure you don’t presume the attention of your attendees for the duration of your event – they’re only human and their concentration will waver without a reason to focus.”

Corbin Ball, a meetings technology speaker, consultant and writer – and regularly cited as a major industry influencer – keeps it succinct: “I define it as an emotional involvement or commitment by an audience.”

Similarly succinct in her definition of audience engagement is Sarah Michel, the VP of Professional Connexity at Velvet Chainsaw Consulting, and a regular thought leader in this space, “It’s when there is an intentional focus on moving the audience member from spectator to participant by creating opportunities for connection.”

Juraj Hulab, Marketing and Content Manager at event engagement technology startup Sli.do, reminds us there should also be a focus on peer-to-peer engagement, “When we apply the concept to the context of an event, we can view audience engagement as the interaction between the subject, our attendees, and the object, our speakers and their content. Then there is, of course, the interaction between the attendees themselves that should be ideally facilitated by speakers too.”

Summing up all these takes on audience engagement, a good working definition could be:

“Audience engagement is the deliberate strategy of turning event attendees into active participants, in order to achieve the goals of both organiser and attendee.”

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So now we can define it, let’s look at why it matters so much to event organisers.

Why audience engagement matters

Why is there so much fuss about audience engagement anyway?

As you can see from Google Trends, the interest in the topic has steadily increased over the past few years.

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Lisa Vecchio, the Head of Marketing for fundraising technology firm Givergy, sums up the important of audience engagement – and why it matters – pithily in one sentence, “If they’re not engaged then what’s the point?”

Juraj expands on this idea that engagement is the whole point of an event, saying “It matters for 3 reasons:

  1. Engagement as the foundation:

I see audience engagement not as a nice-to-have add-on, but more like the indispensable foundation on which you can build attendees learning. Simply put, if attendees are not engaged, they will not learn.

  1. Improved learning:

Benjamin Franklin said: “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I may remember. Involve me and I learn.” Swap involve for engage and we’ve got the perfect answer as to why audience engagement matters.

  1. Competitive advantage:

Luke Stallard, one of our panellists from our recent Slido Insights seminar, said: “If you want to stay competitive, you need to make your events interactive.” People are tired of one-way presentations without having a chance to participate. If we want people to choose our event or get them to come back next time, a line-up is not enough. Interaction needs to be at the heart of how we organise events.”

Focussing on the benefits to both organiser and attendee, Sarah Michel explains “We are in an experience economy and today’s premium attendee expects to co-participate and engage with the speaker/facilitator/guide to make the learning relevant and sticky.

“They collect experiences and when they have a positive and engaging one they can’t wait to share it with their friends and bring them back to your event/meeting.

“If you want to attract next-generation attendees to your meeting, you better have a focus on audience engagement or they won’t stick around. A talking head is a complete waste of their time.”

Mike Piddock also highlights the importance of engagement for delivering free promotion, “Audience engagement matters because it’s a way of enriching the experience of your paying customers, and without it, you risk leaving your attendees disappointed.

“Consequently, an engaging event is an opportunity for audiences to share their experiences through online content. This valuable form of free advertising allows you to create a buzz that will outlast the event itself.”

Jason Allan Scott is even more explicit on the benefits of audience engagement for an organiser: “In short, audience engagement matters because it often means profit. And there is no better metric of success in business then profit.

“You sold tickets to the event = you had great content. You got feedback on your product or service at launch that you can use to better or pivot = successful engagement. Successful engagement means referrals and recommendations and later that will lead to profit.“

Focussing more on the benefits for attendees, Corbin Ball says “People in an audience who are emotionally involved/committed get more out of the event.  They learn and retain more. They are more interactive. They bring out more in others. They will like rate the event higher and will be more likely to return in future years and encourage others to do so as well.”

Ok, so now we know why audience engagement matters – it’s the foundation of a successful event for both organisers and attendees – let’s take a look at how you can measure it.

How to measure audience engagement

If defining audience engagement is tricky, then you can imagine the difficulty there is in measuring it.

Adam summarises the complexity and solution nicely, “Unfortunately there is not one set way to measure, as it depends on your event and also if there is any technology involved.

“Where technology should only be brought into an event or experience if it’s relevant, if you do have technology, the benefit is you will receive all types of engagement statistics and data. For example at Jack we’ve recently created a bio-metric system for a Google event that gave real time data on audience engagement.”

Corbin offers a great range of measures that organisers might be interested in tracking, “There are many ways: surveys, mobile polling, social media activity (number of tweets, posts, pictures, etc), social media sentiment analysis, percentage of people actively participating, gamification statistics, mobile event app analytics (% of people downloading, number of interactions), number/percentage of attendees downloading information, activity band analytics, etc., etc.”

Jason offers even more measurement options to add to that mix, including a vital one for many companies – sales – listing off, “Attendance, blogging/tweeting/snapchatting, referring, clicking on the site after/during the event, friending on Facebook, following your social media, subscribing to your site and buying are all engagement measures at an event or after an event.”

Mike then offers some great practical advice for how organisers can make a start with measuring audience engagement, saying “Measuring engagement is about getting a mix of qualitative and quantitative data, and the best way to approach it is to make it easy.

“You can do this by asking for feedback little and often, and offer your audience prizes. Feedback forms work ok in principle, but people are far less likely to provide information when they’ve left the event. Event technology on the other hand provides a simple solution to the task of gathering data quickly from your audience.”

Reiterating the importance and utility of technology to measuring event engagement, Juraj comments “The key here is to define what you would like to measure and take into consideration the functionality of the event tech tool you have used.

“Audience response systems, like Slido, can effectively gauge the number of active participants, submitted questions and participation rate in polls as well as key topics that were discussed. Some of our clients then analyse this data and build a program for their next event based on their findings.”

Stressing the role measurement plays in being able to determine the overall success of an event – and learning how to make it better – Lisa says “Measuring event engagement is crucial to determining an event’s success and ROI. It can be as simple as visual clues such as the number of guests who arrived, participated in an activity, or shared content on social media.

“There are endless tools on the market; and lately more organisers are turning to online feedback forms and apps to capture feedback both in real time and post event. All of this fuels research to continuously improve for future events.

“At Givergy, we measure engagement on the number of silent auction bids that take place in our system and the amount a charities raises. We then use the data to provide insight to educate the event organiser on how they can adapt their event in real time.”

So now you’re armed with a number of ways you could measure audience engagement, let’s tackle the biggest question of all: how do you actually increase audience engagement at your events?

Ideas to increase audience engagement

Here we go, the crux of it: how can you increase audience engagement at your events?

Kicking off the ideas from our experts is Irina Trofimovskaya, Founder of The MICE Blog and #EventPlannersTalk, who says “To increase audience engagement online, organisers should play a greater role as moderators on social media. They should ask questions and participate in discussions.

“To increase engagement at live events, organisers can use event technology or have an engaging moderator or speaker. Hosts and speakers should be briefed on how to use event technology and encourage participants using it during the event.

“I see very often that organisers expect engagement to happen by itself but that’s rarely the case.”

The tactics you need to increase audience engagement at events will ultimately need to align with your goals and budget thinks Adam, “There are numerous tactics to increase engagement, ranging from having a brilliant presenter through to building technology for your audience to interact with.

“What is best will depend on the type of event, the budget you have and what you want to achieve. Sometime just having a great host or presenter is the best and most effective way to improve audience engagement. “

Mike recommends putting the focus on great speakers too, “First and foremost, understand that your event can be made or broken by your presenters. They are the glue that holds everything together and it is paramount to make sure they are well-prepared, confident and articulate.

“Combine that with an effective usage of some innovative event tech and you’re well on your way to keeping your audience hooked.”

Focusing in on the actual layout and design of the event, Sarah comments “There are many ways to impact it such as; intentionally setting the meeting room to encourage active participation and connection. How you set a room is the body language of your meeting.

“If you want audience engagement, than set the room to encourage and foster that behaviour. Here is a post I wrote last year about audience engagement that has three more strategies you’re welcome to use.”

This focus on meeting design + proactive facilitation + tech is echoed by Juraj, “It all starts with a great meeting design. You need to align your event objectives with a stimulating environment, effective session formats, a skilled facilitator and the right tools.

“Event technology is just a part of the whole picture but, when used effectively, it can drastically boost the interaction at your event. To make the use of technology successful, make sure to get the buy-in from your facilitator, commitment from the audience and actually integrate audience contributions into the sessions.”

Jason suggests taking the KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) approach to increasing audience engagement, starting with a list of the basics.

“To increase audience engagement, organisers need to:

  • Offer something: Value, content, education, wow factor, association.
  • Make sure your content/education provokes something, incites an emotion and creates a story your audience member can share with those that didn’t attend.
  • Offer a solution to a problem, a question, a theory, a need.
  • Do not over complicate.

The last point sounds obvious but is so often missed. The truth is that the easier you make it for people to engage at your event whether it be with the information, service or product the better.”

Corbin also offers a list of ways organisers can increase engagement levels at their events:

  • “Hire speakers who are good at this.
  • Train/encourage all speakers to use engagement techniques (mobile polling, small group breakout discussions, second screen technologies, social Q&A, etc.)
  • Promote and encourage social media usage before, during and after the event
  • Gamification
  • Meeting room sets that encourage interaction
  • Group activities that encourage interaction
  • Use mobile event apps that encourage networking, messaging, interactivity.”

That’s a lot of ideas to suggest!

To summarise all of these expert’s great advice, here is a simple matrix for increasing audience engagement at events:

  • Make sure you have great content and speakers
  • Proactive facilitation should be central to your event
  • Smart meeting design is essential
  • Use relevant event technology and educate people how to use it properly

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In Summary

Event engagement doesn’t just happen by accident, it has to be planned for and encouraged, and that responsibility is shouldered by you, the event organiser.

The stakes are high too, because an event without an engaged audience won’t be around for too long. It’s not a nice to have, it’s an essential ingredient to any event.

Hopefully you’ll take from this guide plenty of practical, actionable advice to increase engagement at your events, and enjoy the rewards that come with it.

But don’t stop there! Why not make sure you build a fully engaged community all year around, with our 52 week communication plan?

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Mark Walker

Hi, I'm the Head of Content for Eventbrite UK and Ireland.

I love writing (and reading) about events, marketing, technology and entrepreneurship.

I'm also a recovering #eventprof, having spent the first 7 years of my career running large scale international conferences and exhibitions. (Of course I relapse all the time and enjoy running content-led events for Eventbrite too.)

Thanks for reading and get in touch with any feedback you have at ukeditor@eventbrite.com.