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Interest in Virtual Events is Waning—Here's How to Fix It

This article originally appeared in the recent issue of PCMA.

Your next virtual event must overcome three major obstacles:

  1. Audiences are tiring of virtual events. First, we’ve all experienced Zoom fatigue, which is not just the result of a continual reliance on the platform to conduct business, but that, as founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab Jeremy Bailenson described in a Wall Street Journal article, “Why Zoom Meetings Can Exhaust Us,” videoconferencing — with so many faces on the screen so close to ours — causes us to experience nonverbal overload. Then we have to take into account that experiencing the trial and error of first-generation virtual events soured many participants on the online event format overall. Add the fact that there has been a massive under-investment in high-quality design and delivery, and it’s no surprise that getting people to register for our online events is more challenging than 10 months ago. A blockbuster movie costs more than $1,000,000 per minute to make. This is what we’re competing with.
  2. The view time or hours spent watching virtual events is declining — according to a SmartCompany study, 88 percent of survey respondents said they have left a virtual event early — up from 66 percent just a year ago. This is the equivalent of going to watch a movie and leaving the theater before the film is over. Again, we all have a lot to learn from the cinematic hooks, plot lines, dialogue, and story arcs that make us binge watch our favorite shows without leaving the couch for five straight hours.

The major funders of virtual events — industry sponsors and companies seeking access to your attendees to sell their products and services — are frustrated with the smaller audiences these events are attracting and the lack of engagement and participation they are experiencing. These sponsors will expect a much higher ROI from virtual events in 2021, or they just won’t participate.

​​​​​To address these issues and right the ship for virtual events in 2021, we must start to think like a neuroscientist.

In his book, The Distracted Mind, coauthor and neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley makes it clear that a major feature of the human mind is its susceptibility to distraction, interference, and interruptions. That’s a feature, not a bug. Our brains are evolutionarily hard wired to protect us from any immediate stimulus that could cause us harm, such an attacking predator, a sudden noise, or a flash of light.

Compound this brain functioning with our genetically programmed need for information. We are always seeking new data to inform our circumstances for protections and survival. Again, this was an essential feature our predecessor Homo sapiens relied upon for survival. The two basic questions of primitive humans were: “What can I eat and what can eat me?” Collecting and storing this information was essential for self-preservation.

Fast-forward 200,000 years and today we live in a world of continuously streaming information with one major or minor distraction after another. We are exposed to thousands of stimuli every day— pop-ups, tweets, texts, notifications, robo-calls, Slack updates, Zoom invite reminders, IMs, and the list goes on.

Social media has been weaponized to demand our attention. It has made us intolerant of being bored. Social media has turned on “tracker-beams” that not only know our interests and anticipate our future wants, but companies like Facebook, Pinterest, Google, and Amazon now sculpt our brains and direct what we want.

To deal with this overload, we fragment our attention, code switch, and parallel process in an attempt to access as much information as possible. And we constantly react to the never-ending stream of stimulus — reading every text, Tweet, email, ad, Facebook post, or Instagram pic gives us a dopamine reward. We all know this to be true.

We Have Less Control

So, back to you and your next virtual event. The most fundamental issue is that you no longer have a captive audience (if any of us ever did). We can’t influence the environment as we did with in-person events, where we were able to exercise control over the time and place, schedules, breaks, meals, entertainment, high-profile speakers, high-quality production, helps desks, etc. Not anymore. Alone at their computers or watching on their phones, attendees have way too many temptations to multitask.

This inability to hold your audience captive now has them making cost/benefit decisions about registering for your event against a backdrop of so many free and low-cost alternatives. And if they do choose your event, how do you keep their wandering monkey brains from swinging from branch to branch in a constant search for a dopamine rush?

Luckily, there are many things you can do, including techniques proven to work. Here are a few new approaches to getting and keeping the attention of a virtual audience.

  1. Give your audience a job to do and an opportunity to evaluate how well they are doing it throughout your event. For example, send these three questions during the registration process or email each attendee the day before the event: Why did you register for this event? Which three people would you like to meet? What is the one thing you’d like to share with others attending this event? Then send a follow-up text or email to ask attendees how they are doing on each of these three goals. The key to this is to have the right technology and to capture the right data.
  2. Make your content, programming, and information more attractive and compelling than what your audience can get anywhere else. Sounds tough, I know, but it’s the only antidote to capture and hold your audience’s attention over the duration of your event. To do this, you must break the mold of your curriculum’s design. More controversy, more provocation, more hot topics, adding speakers who will take a stand, quoting worthy ideas, and providing up-to-the-minute information, not yesterday’s news or insights.
  3. Establish a “Content Concierge.” Dedicate an 800 number for your audience to call and get advice on what aspects of your event are best for them. You’ll need resources to do this at a time when resources are scarce but if you want to make your next virtual event a success, you can’t rely on the self-service model of the past. This takes some planning and a few confident and competent team members, but isn’t this what your audience is looking for — advice, support, and guidance?

When Tony Hsieh, the former Zappos CEO and customer service guru, passed away in November, I was reminded of his legacy at the online shoe retailer: customer service representatives who listen, aren’t measured by how fast they end the call, and who are encouraged to recommend a competitor if they can’t meet your needs.

Sure, this can be expensive. But if you’re in it for the long run, you will set your event apart from all competitors and become more than just a transactional experience with your audience. You’ll build loyalty, increase retention, improve the lifetime value of your members, and become known as the innovator in your field.

Don Neal
Founder & CEO

360 Live Media

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