The Conference E-Word As Important As Pinball Wizard, Mafia Wars & World of Warcraft


When you read that word, what does it mean to you?

I was talking with BeEvents’ Ray Hanson, Event Solutions Publisher Meredith McIlmoyle, Pink, Inc.’s, Deb Roth, and Conference Content Strategist and Emcee Glenn Thayer at Event Solutions Conference this past week. During our conversation, someone dropped the “e-bomb: engagement.” There it was resting on our ears and brains as if we each understood its depth and meaning. The all allusive, slippery 21st Century e-word. Engagement had announced its arrival once again.

I asked the $64 billion question. What does engaging a conference attendee actually mean? What does engagement look and feel like?

During our time together, several others joined and left the conversation. Our discussion was fluid and always changing directions as we deconstructed attendee engagement and others added their input.

To some, it meant that a presenter was engaging. The presenter had good eye contact with the audience, proper presenter body language and adequate inflection in their voice that appealed to the listener and viewer.

To others, it meant the obvious: a promise to marriage and the period of time between proposal and marriage. Ironically, Elizabeth Beskin was in Vegas at the same time at the Wedding Photographers Conference and joined the conversation as well, thus her spin on engagement.

Some said it meant that the presenter had a high energy and so much stage presence that it captured the attendee’s attention and became engaging.

Still to others, it meant that the presentation was hands-on, interactive allowing the attendees to talk with each other, discuss the presentation and maybe even do something. It was more than a panel allowing audience question and answer.

Before “engagement” becomes another overused business cliché done to death, how can conference and event organizers create engaging attendee experiences in a 21st Century digital world?

I believe that the future of conferences and events is about engaging attendees more than corralling them into general sessions and commanding them to sit, be quiet, listen and learn. People want to be engaged in conferences that help them work with a purpose. They want insight into how their conference attendance is linked to their work and ultimately to larger organizational and societal goals. Attendees want to know where they fit into the industry and how to continue to succeed. They want to connect with each other on a higher level than just a passive conversation held in the hallway or tradeshow booth. Engagement requires a level of participation rarely experienced by attendees at most conferences and events. Engagement means active involvement and not passive contributions.

I’ve been reading Stanford Professor Byron Reeves and physician J. Leighton Read’s Total Engagement: Using Games and Virtual Worlds to Change the Way People Work and Businesses Compete. It’s about how massively multiplayer online games (MMOG) like Halo, Mafia Wars and World of Warcraft will change careers, companies and competitions…and I believe conferences, events and face-to-face meetings. (If you don’t have any idea what I’m talking about when I mention those games and are more familiar with Pinball Wizard, Pacman and Space Invaders, go ask your kids what multiplayer online games they play.)

More than one hundred million Americans and many more around the world played a computer or video game last week with levels of engagement and focus rarely seen at face-to-face meetings and events. (Online Gaming Report 2008) The hours flew by for people immersed in sophisticated online interactions.

These new MMOGs represent a high level of interactivity and continued refinement. Digital play is already engaging and will continue to improve. Great MMOGs have light-speed pacing, constant feedback, transparent levels and reputations, compelling narratives and interesting methods for self-representation in action.

So why do people play these online games? Why are people willing to spend so much time in these games? Nick Yee’s 2006 study the Demographics, Motivations and Derived Experiences and two subsequent studies by Richard Bartle and Thomas Malone categorized two types of reasons: personal and social. Personal motivations include achievement, immersion and exploration. Social motivations include competition and socialization.

These reasons sound very similar to the reasons people attend conferences, events and face-to-face meetings. Yet these MMOGs have found a way to get people involved in cooperative explorations that afford an opportunity to begin a social relationship.

I think the key to successful future conferences, events and tradeshows are designing experiences that include elements of successful online games: achievement, competition, exploration, immersion and socialization.

What do you think? What experiences have you had with online games that you wish conferences and face-to-face events provided? What lessons can conference and event organizers learn from online games to provide more attendee engagement?

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  1. Niesa Silzer says:

    I would agree that engagement involves active participation. I personallly don’t play the games you are talking about but I’ve watched my older brother play them (for the record he’s 40).

    They work together as a team – a group of complete strangers who come and go as the game may progress. They can talk to each other, or not, and they can schedule it for a time that suits them – or just show up and play with whoever else is online.

    It is completely flexible. From even a scheduling perspective – how many groups allow their attendees to drop in at their convenience? We do have a lot we can take from these video games.

    Great post Jeff!

  2. Jeff I really like this post. It speaks to a phenomenon that I don’t think enough people are talking about.

    I was hooked on both World of Warcraft and Mafia Wars. World of Warcraft in particular was fun because it rewarded creative thinking and allowed you to collaborate with others online.

    When I started using Twitter as a marketing tool, it fulfilled those same desires, and offered much more in the way of rewards, so I gave up my online games. Online communities such as Twitter and LinkedIn allow me to better create and cultivate online relationships turning them into partnerships that can benefit me beyond the internet.

    The same can be said for events. But it’s important to note that both online communities and MMOGS offer information and networking opportunities that can be accessed at the users discretion and they demand two-way engagement. I believe that’s what makes them so satisfying/addicting.

    If event professionals are to tap into this, they need to continually seek ways to provide that two way engagement. Your suggestion of making events more like games including the elements of achievement, competition, immersion, exploration and socialization is a simple way to move in that direction.

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  4. Steve Drake says:


    Another thoughtful post!

    My sense is that the association and meeting world is in the process of turning upside down. Not sure any of us knows where it is headed … just that it won’t be the same.

    At last weeks ASAE Great Ideas Conference, I sat it on a session by Jon called Using eLearning Games to Recruit, Engage and Educate Members.” A good resource for those looking at gaming.

    One of our clients used an “advergame” to “engage” potential customers. It was played about 3 million times. Got lots of media attention. Helped increase sales.

    Now, you have me intriqueed about at least using the key elements of gaming to create a more “engaging” conference!

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


  5. […] Hurt writes about online games as a clue to what makes engaging conferences. At TEDx we heard about online games also being incubators for leadership and collaboration skills. […]

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  7. Howard Keele says:

    Fantastic article and in my mind should be on the agenda for every meeting or conference. For everyone to agree on what it means to engage is the beginning of a robust meeting and or conference dialogue.

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