The virtual events industry is booming, and organizers’ eagerness to raise awareness of their brand and bring together a diverse group of people is fundamental. Virtual events can attract larger audiences because concerns such as travel expenses and lack of time are automatically off the table. However, virtual events run the danger of being dull and draining experiences for audiences due to passive content consumption. The key element of a successful virtual event is engagement. The good news is that audience engagement is something that can be improved and excelled. The more effort you make to connect with your audience, the more long-term and trustworthy relationships you will develop with it.

The same as physical events, virtual events are prone to audience distraction that is out of your control, but motivating your audience and keeping their attention span alive has never been that fun before. This article offers ten tips that will help you solve the problem of one-way communication and disengagement once and for all. Apply these tips to your next virtual event, and audiences will forget where the mute and leave buttons are.

1. Have a Passionate Speaker

An influential speaker — or even better, many influential speakers — is the staple of an engaging virtual event. You want your audience to follow your speaker’s line of thought and grasp their passion from beginning to end. For a speaker to have leverage in your virtual event, they must convey warmth. Emotional connection, vulnerability, and storytelling create the synergy between your audience and the speaker, and consequently, between your event and stakeholders. A speaker should believe in the value of the topic they are talking about and how it can benefit the audience. So, a passionate speaker doesn’t merely communicate their expertise and knowledge, but also their personal journey and character.

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If you are looking for passionate speakers for your virtual event, choose someone who is not only knowledgeable but feels comfortable in their skin. It’s not easy to be yourself, especially when you are exposed to strangers. To inspire and connect with your audience, your speakers must be real people, not some know-it-all models. Authenticity stems from spoken language and gestures; often, the latter speak faster and more sincerely than processed words. So, it would be best if you were considering speakers who are willing to show emotion and act naturally, and are in tune with the audience's incentives.  

On a virtual event’s platform, both speakers and the audience must expect technical challenges at some point, no matter how professional everyone is. Patient and funny speakers score big in inconvenient incidents of minor or significant glitches. As an event organizer, the best way to stay on track is to ensure clear communication among all stakeholders before and during the event. Also, coordinate rehearsals and confirm that everyone is familiar with the technology they will use to bring the event to life. At Balloon, our Help Center team has put together useful articles to share with your attendees to avoid time-consuming back-and-forth and repetitive communication and prevent setbacks.  

2. Plan an Interactive Program for Virtual Events

Keeping a remote audience engaged is no mean feat, but with advanced virtual event planning and interactive conference ideas in mind, you can shake active participation up. It is crucial for attendees to feel that the event helps them grow professionally and personally. So, make the most of your virtual event platform’s tools and encourage participants to connect with each other, exchange ideas and tips. For example, networking on Balloon can be on a one-on-one basis or at a cocktail table (group networking).

Give voice to your audience by asking questions, giving short assignments, or asking for possible solutions to a problem. Besides, allow them to ask you questions. To gain the attention of your audience upfront, ask registrants to submit their questions early on. Most likely, they will stick around in anticipation of receiving their answers. Bear in mind that a virtual event is capable of generating bigger engagement. Attending from the safety of their physical space, even introverted audience members may conquer their anxiety and speak out.  

3. Consider your Event Date and Time Carefully

Before maneuvering audience engagement activities, make sure that there will be an audience. It may sound obvious, but think of how many times you couldn’t attend a virtual event because it didn’t align with your schedule or awakening hours. Do not rush to send out a “save the date” note unless you have studied your target audience’s habits. What time does it finish work? On which day of the week is your audience feeling more productive? When is the busiest time of the year for your industry? Of course, if you are organizing a big virtual event with thousands of attendees, you will also have to consider high-profile speakers’ availability, public holidays, and competing events.

Time zone is paramount and even more so, thinking outside of your time zone. Virtual events mean that people from all over the world and across different time zones can attend. If going global is your vision for your event, pick a time when most of your target audience is active and not sound asleep. Given that there will always be genuinely interested people who couldn’t make it, you can record parts or all of the event and make content accessible for a certain amount of time or indefinitely. Also, for smaller size events, you can create multiple events for different time zones.

4. Create Hashtags for Your Virtual Event

A hashtag strategy is a cornerstone of an effective and complete social media campaign for your virtual event. While hashtags are more of an Instagram and Twitter tool, you should not shy away from applying them across all your social media accounts, including LinkedIn, Facebook, and Pinterest. It doesn’t stop there. Push your event’s hashtags on your website, newsletters, promotional emails, and digital brochures. Your event hashtags are like keys that you put into your audience’s hands to open the right doors.

Source: Twitter

But what are the elements of an outstanding hashtag? It has to be unique for your event (i.e. contain the name of event, year, and location) and relevant to your event’s theme. For example, there may be many Business Shows worldwide, but only yours is specific to the UK and Irish markets (e.g. #BizShowUKandIRL). Abbreviations are acceptable as long as they are pronounceable, easy to remember, and not already associated with unrelated topics. There are several online free tools to search hashtags and find the ones for your event. Hashtags are not case sensitive, but capitalizing each word may prevent misreading and misunderstanding and enhance clarity.

Bring hashtags into play well in advance before the date of your virtual event to create promotional teasers about your event’s themes, guest speakers, partners, and prizes. The more enthusiasm you instill in followers and broader audiences, the more registrations and audience engagement you will get. During the event, use, and encourage speakers and your audience to use the hashtags when posting photos from the event, live videos, recorded sessions, and other related content. Don’t let your hashtags fade after the event. Use them to extend conversations with attendees through comments, feedback, and follow-ups. Remember to monitor your hashtags and respond to posts you have been hashtagged.

5. Make the Most of Live Social Streaming

Source: Unsplash, Casper Camille Rubin

The attendees who make it to a virtual event in real-time have a genuine interest in the theme and industry. It will raise engagement levels, to give a shout-out to those who are present here and now to say thank you and express appreciation. You will boost your audience’s confidence; what’s more, you will make them feel exclusive and motivate them to stick around. Balloon offers live streaming via its backstage solution, Balloon Studio, and supports simulcast (parallel live streaming) to social media such as Facebook and Instagram.

Live streaming doesn’t have to be the broadcasting of the whole event. You can live-stream special events such as Q&As, interviews with key speakers, short videos where an expert takes the time to answer questions from the audience. Such immediate action and reaction practices, without intermediates, will help you up your audience engagement game.

6. Allow Attendees to Ask Questions During the Virtual Event

Allowing attendees to ask questions during your virtual event is another excellent interactive conference idea. You can encourage your audience to ask questions using their camera and mic or through the chatbox and comments section at the end of or throughout a session. Either way, it is essential to let your audience know at the beginning of the session that you welcome questions, and when they can ask them. Have a moderator rifle through the questions and facilitate the panel discussion. Also, you can create a dedicated session to questions with some of your most sought-after experts.    

Source: Unsplash, Product School

To earn this type of audience engagement, first, you should be the inspiration for it. For example, an introductory presentation that doesn’t go into any detail is likely to leave the audience confused and silent. Similarly, a complicated session will create puzzlement and awkwardness among attendees and won’t advance discussion. To continue receiving questions, make sure participants are coherent and keep answers short — rambling is detrimental to event engagement.

7. Make Extensive Use of Breakout Sessions

Don’t fall into the trap to use breakout sessions for what they are — breaks between sessions within the event. During these void breaks, you risk losing part of your audience that is more prone to disengagement. So, use breakout sessions wisely, to your event’s advantage. Turn them in short and fun workshops, which are part of and link to the main event. Create different breakout sessions, and allocate some people in each session with facilitators to promote thinking and ensure equity.  

Source: Unsplash, Chris Montgomery

Let’s say you organize a global UX Conference. You can create several breakout sessions about UX applications in different industries. Another way to take advantage of breakout sessions is to schedule a speed networking where participants talk about their expertise and professional goals. You can also set up lighting talks, which are short presentations offering concentrated knowledge on a topic. Even debates make for an engaging breakout session. Two participants present their arguments for and against a statement, and the other participants vote for the most convincing speaker.

Overall, breakout sessions are made of small groups and usually, due to their workshop-like structure, lead to vivid conversations, meaningful mingling, and interactive problem-solving. Depending on its duration, one event can have many breakout sessions, some happening simultaneously.

8. Play Virtual Games with Participants

Audience engagement games during virtual events have become customary for a good reason. Put yourself in the shoes of your audience. A long day or few days of presentations, networking, and information absorption — all this while they are in front of a screen. Bring back your attendees’ attention and help them connect with each other (and why not disagree) through a quick game. Plus, competition can incite creativity, innovation, and goal-setting.

There are many ideas to choose from, such as virtual pub quizzes, pictionary, online bingo (you must have played this already with family and friends during the lockdown), or fun challenges that anyone can give it their best shot at home. Something more practical is to stir up excitement by awarding points to participants for specific steps during the virtual event. For example, an attendee can earn points for being on camera, asking a question, or presenting themselves. Whatever your strategy is, remember that audience engagement games are great for attendees to break out of the event’s routine and get into the flow again.

9. Award Prizes to Attendees

Attending a virtual event requires commitment and effort. It is common that after an event, attendees have to work till late or clear a backlog of work during the weekend. Therefore, at the end of the event, they deserve to be thanked for their presence and time. Don’t hesitate to show your appreciation to your audience and make them feel good with a gift. It can be a virtual swag bag with coupons, vouchers, free trials, an online course, or on-demand content. Invite your exhibitors and sponsors to get involved!

You can award prizes with the help of your unique hashtag (see above). Encourage participants to use the hashtag in their social media accounts under content relevant to the event, and give a prize to a randomly selected winner from the pool of participants who used the hashtag. It’s simple and economical but does wonders to your brand awareness and audience engagement.  

10. Incorporate Social Media Marketing Before and After The Event

You pulled out all the stops to create an engaging and memorable virtual event. Congratulations! Now it is time to start the conversation around your event on social media for promotion and engagement purposes. However, you don’t want your social media marketing to be salesy — instead, you want original thoughts and content that will add value. Don’t just throw what you have (e.g. information, jokes, know-how, announcements, quotes, etc.) on social media but be consistent in your story and the why behind what you do.

Before the event, announce the event across your social media accounts and remember to use your hashtag extensively. Give a gentle nudge to your sponsors, partners, and speakers to also promote the event on their accounts. There’s nothing to be shy about; cross-sharing is for mutual benefit. Some content ideas for social media marketing are posts that sift through the noise and draw attention to important information. To boost audience engagement, include graphics and/or short videos with your speakers or extracts from previous events if it’s an occurring event. The best part is that you don't need a dedicated team for that, thanks to free and easy-to-use design tools such as Canva. If you have a blog, write about your upcoming event and why people should attend, and share it on your social media accounts as part of a countdown to your event to build up anticipation. Make sure at every post, the registration page is clear to click on and easy to navigate. If your virtual event is part of an overall strategy to grow your audience, consider paid ads on social media to attract new followers.

The event may have finished, but not your opportunities to continue the conversation with your audience. Now is the best time to call for feedback; note down the lessons learned, and measure your event’s successes and audience engagement. Put the wealth of content (e.g. testimonies, presentation summaries, top questions asked and their answers, etc.) you have accumulated from the event in good use and continue to post on social media for long-term engagement.