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Engaging the Invisible Attendee: How to communicate key messages—even when you’re not meeting face-to-face

Woman holding a toothbrush

Engaging meeting attendees—live and in person—is challenging enough. Engaging participants we can’t even see—the virtual attendee—may appear even harder. And given how distracted meeting goers are these days, you’d think everyone is “invisible,” with heads buried in their phones and tablet screens rather than engaged in content on the large screen at the front of the room!

Know this: the better we are as meeting professionals at connecting with “invisible” attendees, the more our meetings engage everyone, whether they participate in person or virtually.

A surprising inspiration for “winning over” the invisible attendee? Television. With smart phones and tablets becoming as common as TVs, we’ve entered the era of “social television.” And I am not referring here to reruns of “Friends.” In fact, you have socialized with your TV if you’ve ever watched a favorite show, sporting event, video game or political event while Tweeting, Facebooking or texting to share the experience with others. This shift demands that meeting designers pay close attention to how we engage now with broadcasted content.

Moreover, since high-quality meetings offer TV-caliber storylines as well as suspenseful, you-gotta-be-there experiences, the best company events must also be as compelling as anything offered on HBO, at your local cinema or in the latest release of Angry Birds.

So rather than curse your meeting goers for multitasking and “socializing” with their second screens during events, give them multiple opportunities to engage with and expand on meeting content via these screens. Participants gain more control of their own learning, become more vested in the experience, are more likely to contribute thoughtful ideas and generate more positive results for your organization.

Whether you plan in-person, all-virtual or “hybrid” events (with both in-person and virtual components), here’s your “BEFORE” tip sheet for “capturing the second screen” and engaging virtual attendees—before, during and after meetings.

BEFORE:      

  • A common error, according to event host Glenn Thayer: deciding how the material will be delivered (your online “platform”) before choosing content and format—and then getting fenced in. Instead, think first about the content you want to communicate, and then choose your platform. Again, TV is an apt metaphor: if you were writing a sitcom, you’d first develop the script (content), and then design the set (platform).
  • Once technology is set, let online attendees experience a trial run: send a test link to the exact format, software and platform to which they’ll link during the meeting itself.
  • For the trial, consider producing a video that showcases an influential person who shares compelling reasons to attend. This step serves a dual purpose, says Erica St. Angel, vice president of marketing for Sonic Foundry: Attendees can check their settings and optimize their devices before the live event. This type of video is also a more buzz-worthy way to promote your meeting.
  • While you design the onsite agenda, decide what the online attendees will do, too, St. Angel recommends. Distinct groups needn’t always be involved in the same activities.
  • With so many electronic tools available for meetings, it’s tempting to use them all: Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Google+/Docs/Hangouts, Skype, Instagram, PiratePad and the ol’ “raise your hand” button (an embarrassment of riches!). Instead, survey where most attendees are naturally gathering and go to them, so messaging and the event vibe are more cohesive.
  • If any part of your event is broadcasted, design event elements for broadcast and live, face-to-face experiences. This includes getting releases from audience members who grant permission to be recorded (get these during online registration), as well as using professional lighting, sound and staging.
  • Consider both an onsite emcee and an online emcee. Each has its own skill sets and demands.

Watch this space for what to do DURING and AFTER your events to engage invisible attendees.