Breaking down the psychology of event engagement
Experience builders obsessed with the attendee journey know that in the last few hours of an event, attendee attrition—people leaving early—can make the difference between an event that falls a little flat or one that wraps leaving everyone with all the feels. Nobody wants to be in a half-empty room at the end of the day with suitcases in reach, right?
Over the years, event marketers have relied on traditional tactics to sustain event engagement, like wrapping the event with a concert by a Grammy Award-winning artist or offering major incentives like free travel. The approach has typically involved a reward of some kind. But brands like Cisco, Samsung and Univision Communications are experimenting with the notion that event marketers can trigger changes in attendee behavior by making small tweaks throughout the show schedule, by masterminding footprints that require attendees to navigate them fully to exit, and by establishing a trust with attendees who grow to know the best is yet to come.
Here, we break down the psychology of event engagement with five fresh ideas for keeping the momentum going… and going, and going.
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1. Build in pockets of escape.
Event marketers often operate under the assumption that attendees need more to see value. That has resulted in jam-packed schedules that can be taxing and result in people leaving early simply because they’ve run out of physical, social or mental energy.
“The thing that has been very much a part of our process is, as we design experiences, we create pockets of time for people to breathe and time for people to absorb learning and absorb what they are getting out of the event,” says Alex Sapiz, vp-global events at Cisco. “Over time, that could mean you’re extending that energy level a little bit longer. Think about where you can create time for attendees to go to a lounge, grab a cup of coffee, sit in a chair, and kind of hide for a moment.”
Another way to create an escape is to weave in cultural moments happening outside the event itself, something that Samsung did for attendees at its developer conferences.
“A few years ago, the home team made it into the World Series and game one was during our opening reception,” says Lori Fraleigh, senior director-customer relations, Samsung Developer Program. “We ensured there were TVs scattered around the show floor so people could check in and watch a few minutes of the game.”
2. Hide schedule weaknesses.
Whether you realize it or not, your agenda could be sending signals that it’s time to go. You could be funneling content into just a few buckets in the last few hours or, perhaps, you don’t offer enough options for attendees in the close-out of a show.
For Cisco, it’s not about creating one closing moment—it’s about creating closing moments. Since social events are not for everybody, the brand creates a number of activations to engage its global attendees around the closing concert, which always features big-name entertainment.
“It’s no longer about what’s the big payoff, it’s how do you sprinkle those elements throughout the experience that, over time, create a sense of ‘What are these guys going to do for us this year?’” Sapiz says. “That’s exactly what we want—that sense of anticipation to be built from the moment we ask them to register and formalize their participation.”
Another clear signal: Ignoring travel considerations like flight patterns. This is especially important for attendees flying back to Asia from the West Coast, where if they miss a flight after the event they may have to stay another day to catch another flight. It’s something the team on Cisco Impact, an event that attracts 18,000 sellers globally, tracks carefully.
“I really think people are paying more attention to a balanced approach. And if being on-site an extra day or a few more hours means that you’re going to miss that basketball game for your 12-year-old daughter or son or that soccer match or back-to-school night, people are going to choose family—as they should,” Sapiz says. “I’m OK competing with that and losing, because I think they gave us a ton of time, they prioritized the experience, and then it’s time for some balance.”
3. Create a physical journey.
A few years ago, Univision Communications created an UpFront experience that was “free-form” and encouraged attendees to explore at their own pace. Last year, the brand experimented with creating a linear path through the event so the brand could control the attendee journey. In other words, after the opening presentation, attendees exited out a different way than they came in, a design that required they navigate the event fully, but one that also offered surprises at every turn to keep it interesting.
“During the UpFront season, every brand participates and there’s a lot of noise from all these different brands that participate,” says Jitter Garcia, director-event marketing at Univision Communications. “So we tried to challenge ourselves and find a way to cut through that noise and disrupt the space by creating an experiential UpFront that allowed us to really build this attendees journey from start to finish, and that doesn’t only include a formal presentation.”
Another tip? Flip the food and beverage hour. Univision also surprised attendees with a sangria wall and small bites at the end of the experience, rather than kicking the event off with a traditional cocktail hour.
4. Content is king, as they say.
A smart content strategy today involves a mix of formats that keep attendees on their toes, whether it be a series of TED-style sessions or a mix of fireside chats and multi-person panels. Another idea: Mix up the stage and the backdrop between sessions. And if you’re going to offer an activation or immersive element, make sure there is a valuable message tied to it.
“With all of our events, we ensure that our content is compelling to the end,” Garcia says. “The key is finding content and insights that wouldn’t be readily available somewhere else, so they have to come to our event to get it and they feel like they get that payoff at the end.”
Fraleigh suggests you think of your attendees as being on a “mission.” They’re coming to the event for a specific purpose, whether that is to network or to see a particular exhibit or speaker. Once they’ve completed that mission, they may feel compelled to leave.
“For local attendees that don’t need to travel to the event, it may actually be harder to spend multiple days out of the office at an event than if they had traveled to a different city,” she says. “The key is to focus on your most important attendees and ensure there is sufficient content to engage them throughout the entire event.”
5. Host a parallel activity.
The Samsung Developer Conference gives attendees an opportunity to escape from sessions and earn rewards for doing it. The Code Labs program takes place in a separate space during the event and invites developers to complete learning activities to win raffle entries. The space provides another option for attendees who may have a goal of simply getting hands-on experience with new hardware or software (they can earn certifications, too). The raffle winners are announced at the end of the show, of course. As they say, good things come to those who wait.
*This article was originally published in 2020 and is updated periodically