How to get a fully engaged audience at all stages of the hybrid event journey

Contributed by guest blogger Sina Bünte, CMP, DES, founder of

I recently participated in a webinar where they asked the audience about their pain points when organizing online or hybrid events. 80% of the respondents said engagement.

Audience engagement is the holy grail for the success of many online and hybrid events, so I’m not surprised that so many event planners are keen to focus on it and would like to learn more about it.

Drawing from my experience in organizing the ICCA Congress 2020, a hybrid event with eight hubs around the world which attracted 1500 delegates, featured 220 speakers, and over 100 hours of content, I will share relevant examples and tips on how to keep your participants engaged pre, during and post-hybrid events.

By the end of this article, you will feel more confident about creating both engaging and interesting events sure to have your delegates’ full attention at all stages of the event journey.

Before the event

Understand your audience

When creating your engagement strategy, I first suggest analyzing your audience to better understand their motivation for registering: How do they want to interact with one another as well as the speaker? What are their needs and expectations?

By asking these questions, you will gain insight as to their preferences and best design an optimal engagement experience for each participant.

Start the conversation early

Instead of limiting the ICCA Congress to its traditional three-day format in November, we officially kicked it off in September with a three-hour broadcast on the event platform available to all members, whether or not they were officially registered. By doing so, we brought the entire ICCA community together, created a buzz around the event, and gave everyone a sneak peek of what would await them, once they signed up.

Following this launch, only registered attendees had platform access. Over the course of six weeks, leading up to our November Congress, we hosted highly interactive and educational sessions based on different themes, such as storytelling. Each sector of ICCA’s membership had a dedicated day of the week to collectively deep dive into the subject matter.

We continuously added new content, published the most up-to-date participant list, provided a discussion forum, and released new platform features giving our community a reason to continue logging in, engaging, and connecting.

In addition to engaging with your community pre-event by hosting networking or education sessions, another idea is to send out swag boxes with items the participants can use during the events. For instance, items could be as simple as little signs that can be held up for interactive audience polling. This gives people a reason to switch on their camera or even post a selfie. It’s also a great sponsorship opportunity.

During the event

Two strategies—one event

For the actual event dates where there is both an in-person and online audience, I recommend creating two engagement strategies designed with intentional overlap, when appropriate, to connect both groups.

In some ways, you could compare hybrid events with TV shows like The Voice. There is a live audience in person and one watching the show on TV. They may share some common reasons to watch, but each persona also has their own unique motivations.

The people attending an in-person event are committed to it by traveling to the venue and by being surrounded by other attendees. The online attendees, however, can be more easily distracted as they may be watching from home or during their workday.

We shouldn’t create the same experience for both audiences but instead aim to design the best experience possible for each group.

High-quality content + a well-designed schedule = high levels of engagement

More important than finding ways to incentivize participation, be sure that you add value for the attendees by offering great and curated content. Relevant sessions and an agenda which includes networking time are key to keeping your audience’s attention. This also includes incorporating moments for them to explore the platform and meet fellow attendees. While the in-person delegates make serendipitous conversations at the coffee machine or dinner, the same can be facilitated online by offering 1-on-1 chat and video call options as well as roundtable discussions or group meetings.

Another aspect related to the agenda is to shorten the program for the online attendees to half a day, so that the participants fully focus on the event and can schedule meetings or work on emails during the other hours of the day. In-person attendees expect a full conference day, so how about offering them hands-on workshops or giving them the opportunity to leave the venue and attend sessions housed at local attractions?

Design the session for the digital audience first

Did you know the average attention span at online events is eight minutes? Keeping this in mind, sessions should include some sort of engagement, for example running a poll or Q&A fairly frequently to keep attendees focused on the session. The total session time should not exceed 45 minutes.

Taking into consideration the amount of online activities happening in general and the information overload, just because people have registered for your event doesn’t mean they will automatically attend. Hence, it’s necessary to offer them an incentive to join live. This could include a raffle to win a prize, gamification, workshops, and highly interactive sessions and discussions.

Additionally, it’s important to also base your speaker selection on their capabilities of engaging an online audience and performing well in front of a camera. Be sure to coach them on the ways to best keep viewers interested and listening.

The in-person moderators or speakers should target specific questions towards the online audience and reference them when commenting on them. Online attendees will appreciate this personal interaction.

If the setup allows, show some of the virtual attendees’ reactions and emotions on screen, similar to how it is done at Tony Robbins’ workshops or on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. Additionally, you can give them the option to ask their questions or say their comments live. This two-way interaction makes them feel part of the in-person event and I guarantee that you have their attention.

Connecting both audiences

A good way to connect both audiences is to collectively gather the Q&A online. That way the delegates see all questions, can upvote them, and it’s easier for the moderator to pick them.

Another tip is to offer specific content exclusively to online delegates. At the ICCA Congress, while the onsite attendees were arriving at the venue, enjoying a coffee, and taking their seats, we broadcasted a morning show with two moderators having a chat in the studio to our virtual attendees. This exclusive content could also be expert interviews or post-session Q&A opportunities with the speakers. I like to compare it to soccer matches, where only the TV viewers get to see interviews with players and the coach.

Surprise and delight

Other ideas to keep the audiences’ attention is to incorporate the marketing approach of “surprise and delight.” Including unexpected moments and rewards, such as a raffle giveaway of an exclusive 1-on-1 Q&A with a mainstage speaker, enhances participant interaction and makes your event even more memorable.

It also helps if you encourage certain people to be the first ones to engage in the chat, enter a roundtable discussion, or post on the internal selfie wall.

Create, don’t force networking opportunities between the two audiences

My experience organizing and attending hybrid events show that planners can facilitate connecting both audiences during the sessions via a community Q&A but in terms of networking, it’s better to focus on creating the best experience for them separately.

It’s possible to include designated times when both parties may meet for video calls, but at the ICCA Congress I noticed that the in-person delegates were more interested in networking with those physically around them.

Since those in person preferred to keep their phones in their pockets, we displayed the social media buzz during breaks and between sessions. Both audiences saw comments about each other’s experiences this way.

After the event

Once the event is over, the engagement doesn’t have to stop

Embracing digital tools gives you the opportunity to continue the dialogue with your community.

How do you make sure they log back on to the platform?

I recommend keeping the virtual event platform live for a couple of months to carry on the conversation and connection.

Resharing and promoting the content, adding new sessions, and hosting networking or microtribe meetups on the platform help to motivate the delegates to return.

Additionally, read the chat log and use the questions that weren’t answered during the sessions to create ongoing conversation in your community.

Community vs. audience

Hybrid events provide the opportunity for attendees to engage as part of your online community both before and after the event.

Please note, I say community instead of audience because when we view participants as a community it means they also drive the conversation and see themselves as a member of the collective group.

By broadening our overall event strategy to include more community engagement, we will extend a one-time event experience into a year-round conversation.

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