Capturing Your Audience’s Attention in a Digital World
With the shift to digital events, it’s much harder to keep attendees’ attention. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Capturing Your Audience’s Attention in a Digital World

As event planners adjust to virtual events, strategy is key.

No, you aren’t dreaming: For events professionals, the world really did turn upside down. The guidance to be safe took away the thing you are great at: gathering. And with the greatest sense of urgency ever experienced, you were told pivot and take your live events online. In midst of this confusing revolution, I’d like to share three tips to consider when making the shift from live events to virtual events.

Content needs a strategy

In the digital space, content is king of the event experience. Whether your event is about selling something, communicating a message or celebrating a life occasion, the job of the event professional now is to think like a TV producer: how do we craft our content to be compelling and consumed on a screen? Guests today want content that’s entertaining and inspiring. The Covid-19 crisis has fostered virtual exploration and play creating rich cultural content to draw upon.

But, of course, that’s also the challenge: There is an abundance of really great content – how do you make yours stand out? With in-person meetings and events, there are cultural norms that can assist in keeping guest’s attention captured, but in the digital experience, it’s so very easy to not be present or pay attention, to multitask, or to opt out. All rules (and some folks’ pants) are off.

That is why you must set a strategy for your event’s content. Understand: It’s not just about putting a camera in the back of the room to broadcast your 90-minute general session over the internet. Not all content that works in the live event space works in the digital space. Attention spans are about seven minutes, so present in less-than15-minute chunks with about 15-minutes for Q&A sessions. Intersperse entertainment and engagement tools (mini-concerts, games, polls, pop quizzes). And partner with professionals who can help you architect an experience that leverages the best research on human learning and engagement. Doing so will enable you to increase the captured attention of your event.

Technology needs expertise (and time)

If you’re like me, you’ve been bombarded with announcements, e-blasts and webinars touting technology platforms perfect for your event online. We are in a digital revolution in the event space. It’s moving fast and the speed is exciting, but we are in the early days. A good analogy I heard recently: it’s like we’re back in the first days of websites: you can pay a few people a lot of money for something really robust, or you can have something pretty simple and probably lackluster to look at. There is not a one-stop, easy do-it-yourself option on the market (yet). Zoom and Teams may suffice for the weekly team meeting, but folks are already bored sitting for hours staring at galleries of co-workers. The reality is this: The best events in the near future will either modify existing products, combine several technologies, or build their own custom platform to achieve their objectives.

Therein lies the secret: Set your strategy, then explore the marketplace of solutions.

And don’t forget, you still need most of the audio-visual support you did during your live event. This is an often-overlooked assumption on the part of the meeting planner. The technology platform is only how you broadcast the content; that content still needs to be produced. To be done well, it still takes cameras, lights, microphones, editors, and producers to make the content that you want to share with your guests, your team, or the world.

Experience needs design

As head of an event design firm, I have fielded this question a lot lately: If we can’t decorate our experiences anymore what are you going to do? I find the question misplaced. Now, more than ever, design is required service. Events exist to change behavior; they sell things, communicate messages, educate and inform audiences, and celebrate life occasions. And whether that happens in a physical space, in a digital space, or a hybrid combination of the two, it is design that separates the remarkable events from the ordinary. Design drives the strategic plan that aligns your business or event objectives to the delivered experience. Design is the insight that informs the experience your guests want to have. Design enables you to organize content in captivating ways, empowering your guests to gravitate to the content that interests them—be it streaming multiple channels, posting on-demand recordings, blogs, white papers, and making room for user-generated collaborations and contributions. Design determines the look and feel of the platform from which and in which that content is experienced, and design creatively facilitates the human connection moments so critical for a successful event.

The real challenge in front of us all is the part we took for granted just three months ago when we could meet as we had before: Events are about human connection. In our new digital reality, how do we continue to embrace that human part? How do we rally communities around causes and brands and build culture through meaningful moments of shared storytelling? How do brands embrace their fans when the experience is televised? Can one-on-one, spontaneous networking connections occur over the coffee break when we aren’t in the same in the same (physical) room? Here lies the opportunity to reconsider the future of events.

A note in close: Though I believe very strongly in the power of gathering humans together in-person and look forward with fondness to the opportunity to do that again, virtual events are not going to go away. A decade ago, I remember engaging with virtual technologies as we explored digital and hybrid events. Much research was done and discoveries made about what worked and what didn’t by early adapters in the #eventprof community. But the market wasn’t ready yet. It took a global pandemic to force the radical change and need to embrace the new possibilities. Now we will move fast. Technology will adapt very quickly. As will guest expectation. For a whole industry of live event professionals who are right now stuck on the sidelines, it’s time to adapt.

About the Author

For 18 years, Ryan Hanson has been creatively rebelling in the experiential space. As founder and creative director for BeEvents, he partners with corporate marketers, event teams and foundations to design and deliver experiences that build culture, rally communities, and deliver happiness. He has survived Covid by very slowly moving into a new home in south Minneapolis, one item at a time.

About ILEA

The International Live Events Association (ILEA) represents and supports more than 5,000 members globallyevent professionals who do business together, share knowledge, nurture talent and progress the live events industry. For more information on how an ILEA professional can help you with your event, please contact