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?