If anyone can be described as impassioned about attendee engagement, it’s Greg Fuson. For nearly two decades, Fuson was vice president for content development for PCBC, the Pacific Coast Builders Conference, where he founded The Vine, a smaller, PCBC-sponsored conference dedicated to exploring the nature of community. Now principal of a company called Artful Engagement, Fuson presented a session last month at PCMA Convening Leaders in Orlando called “The Art of Engagement: Making Your Conferences Extraordinary, Not Extra Ordinary.” So when I interviewed Fuson by phone at his home in Sacramento, Calif., I took a deep breath before I asked him this question: Has the term “engagement” become so commonplace in the meetings industry that its meaning has become diluted?
“Absolutely,” Fuson said. “Engagement is a term that is very much in danger of becoming a cliché. It is so overused and, in a lot of cases, so misused that within the meetings community I think that it’s this sort of nice, warm, and fuzzy term that we like to use because people want to hear it.” The problem is that the term “is ultimately hollow unless we can define and illustrate it in ways that are practical, actionable, and that you can actually do something with.”
But that can be a double-edged sword. “Engagement is this phenomenon that’s sort of like love,” Fuson said. “You know it when you feel it, but it’s something that defies formulization. We all try to create meetings that have engagement baked into them. The temptation is that we try to overprescribe it, and we end up doing things that can be counter to engagement, that don’t engage people.”
Like love, “when you try to force yourself upon someone, it’s not attractive. It’s kind of weird and awkward. It drives them away instead of making them wanting to come closer to you.” Instead, Fuson said, “think of yourself as a gardener or something organic, because that’s what interaction is.”
We decided to follow Fuson’s advice and offer not a step-by-step guide to attendee engagement, but something more: an invitation to listen in on conversations about engagement with industry experts. Along with Fuson, we talked to speaker, consultant, and conference designer Kare Anderson, a columnist for Forbes.com and The Huffington Post, who has worked with Marriott International, Yahoo!, and state and national political candidates; and Dave Serino, strategist and educator for Think! Social Media and founder of the fast-growing Symposium on the Use of Social Media in the Tourism Industry (SoMeT), which is held in the United States and Australia.
Here are some of the things Fuson, Anderson, and Serino had to say about engaging meeting attendees that most engaged us:
Begin Before the Beginning
Greg Fuson The first and most essential step towards creating an engaging conference is that it doesn’t begin when people arrive. It starts well in advance. It needs to be an ongoing community that occasionally meets in person, not the other way around. It’s not an in-person meeting that’s trying to layer on a year-round community through social media. You have to be a community first.
Direct Attendee Experience
Kare Anderson The goal, in my view, is this: to increase the number of meaningful, memorable, positive moments, and to decrease the number of boring, irritating, or embarrassing ones. You don’t know [in advance] which moments will matter to people. But just as directors “storyboard” a movie, TV show, advertisement, or photo op for their candidate, leverage your opportunity to optimize an experience by making every moment count. And, again like creating a memorable movie, manage the sequence of moments your guests or customers will experience, from the climactic opening scene through [to] the end.
Dave Serino Our first [SoMeT] event was in 2010. We did very little to market it or do any advertising. When we originally started, we had a core group of online influencers that we knew were very passionate about travel, tours and hospitality, social media, and digital marketing. I used technology and my relationships within the industry to find those people. I personally made contact with them through phone calls and Skype. We engaged, and I asked them questions and told them about my idea for the event. I asked, “What would it take to get people here? How should we develop [the conference]? What do you think is important?” And from that core, all of their comments and feedback is what I used for the foundation of the event.
Say Hello Like You Mean It
KA At what point are they stepping into the experience where they feel like they’re going to the conference? Frankly, it’s when they’re getting on the airplane. So if there’s something that I get on my smartphone if I have one, or just before I go, that’s either a tidbit of a tip from one of the speakers, because you asked for it ahead of time, or a tantalizing question because we know you’re moving into the conference experience — it’s recognizing that moment. Because if it’s a regional or national meeting, we’re probably getting on a plane.
Setting it up in the beginning is important. It’s usually boring, the waiting in line to go to check in [once you’re on site] — there’s never enough people to do the registration for the meeting, and the signage [in the registration area] doesn’t have any kind of slogan on it; it just says speakers, attendees, A, B, C.
So, what can you do there? You might have an improv group acting out a scene in costume, complimenting people, and asking, “Wow, what do you want to get out of this thing?” Something with a bit of drama and interaction.
There might be one of those rear-projection backdrops on a side wall, which has iconic scenes from the destination. There are these big, beautiful, full-color scenes, and you say, “Go over there and have a friend take a picture of you in front of that scene.” Do things that are low-tech, high-impact, and that are shareable. Shareable is the key, because then I’m sending it off to my husband, or to somebody else back at the office. You want to multiply these positive moments where possible — have three multisensory cues happening simultaneously. For example, stepping on a cushy red carpet, while a smiling volunteer hands you a scented card with speakers’ tips.
DS One of the things that we do for all of our VIPs and presenters — something technology-based but personalized — is that when they arrive there will be a welcome-card QR code. You scan the QR code and it pops a brief video that personally welcomes you to the event and is totally customized. We will look at your bio and your Twitter stream and your blog — say that you are a runner or you’re a foodie or you enjoy wine. Our event was in El Paso [last] year — we’ll say, “Hey, hope you have some time to enjoy the warm weather. If you have some time, we know you would like to probably get out and get a run in. We recommend this little route, and if you get a chance, you might want to try such-and-such Texas wine.” People are flattered. They really enjoy it. I think it is something that we have really hit a home run on.
Change the Scenery
GF When you put people in a standard hotel ballroom, you’re triggering the memories of every meeting they’ve ever attended, and they’ll behave according to script. But getting them into a unique, unconventional setting — like a theater, concert hall, or museum — cues a completely different response. It preps them for something new. If a hotel or conference center works best for your event, look for ones that have great outdoor and interstitial spaces — especially gardens — and use them. Nature stimulates creativity, so make it a feature of your program.
Help Them Find Each Other
KA I believe one of the most important reasons to have a meeting is for people to be together in meaningful ways. But as you walk down the hall [at a conference], sometimes you are with people, but more often than not, you’re not walking with anybody or you’re walking with a person you already know. So it’s actually more like you’re alone together. The more ways a meeting is designed so I find relevant people who are going to be helpful to me in my work, who I enjoy, [the better].
GF One of our beliefs very early on was that we weren’t going to accomplish a whole lot [at The Vine] if what we had was a room full of real-estate developers talking to themselves. This needed to be a discussion about community in the sense of physical community, which is what they build, but also the social community, which is kind of the human fabric underneath it.
So we went out and we had to actively recruit people to come in and participate who were teachers, artists, activists, anthropologists, and scientists. We really went out of our way to recruit the first blend of people there in the room. A lot of that was through the speakers that we brought in, but we also had to go out and, through our own connections and network of speakers that we were working with, reach out to a lot of these people and to come up with their [comped] registration in the interest of having them there. So there was this social element of, you’re going to walk into a room and be surrounded by a very different cast of characters than you’re used to.
Let Them ‘Drive the Bus’
DS Part of driving social media is a lot about driving the bus. Our attendees get there and they want to be part of the event and they want to drive the bus as much as ride on it. So part of driving the bus for attendees is doing live tweeting, blogging, and doing posts on Facebook. They are sharing information with people who are not at the event through Instagram or other applications.
Through a hashtag at the event in El Paso, we had 702 photos tagged on Instagram. The coolest thing about that was there were a lot of photos of things that were happening at the event, but there were also photos that were taken throughout the entire city. The great benefit for El Paso was they had an incredible photo library to draw from, but it also gave them, the city, a perspective of what the attendees do when they are not in the meeting room. Where are the restaurants they go to? What they eat. What they are drinking. Cowboy boots were a big deal. I think there were more than 30 people who bought a pair of cowboy boots while they were there.
GF Going to TED for the first time in 2005 was like the road-to-Damascus experience for me, in terms of totally altering how I think about my own work and how I think about the potential of what a conference could be. One of the things that they did that I absolutely loved was, as we were leaving the auditorium, they had us group up with six people who were immediately around us. And instead of herding us into a ballroom for lunch at a round table, they gave us picnic baskets. Every picnic basket had enough food for six people. They gave us an assortment of drinks and they gave us blankets. They had us go out into a grassy area and flop down your blanket to have a picnic lunch with these people. The thing that immediately struck me about this experience was it was so much easier to fall into this fun, natural conversation with people I didn’t know while we were sitting on a blanket sharing a picnic together than if we had been in a banquet hall at a round table.
And that’s where the thing about the challenge of engagement is — that it can never be formulated. You can’t just pick up what works somewhere else and say, “Do this here.” What if your event is very formal and the dress code is business suits? It would completely backfire to give people blankets, picnic baskets, and for women trying to sit there in their skirts. You have to apply it in ways that work for your audience and for your situation.
Give the People What They Like
DS We always try to invite the top three speakers based on the attendee evaluations back the following year. We like to do that because we feel that if [the speakers] hit it, we pretty much let the people decide — two years in a row and then we kind of rotate them out.
Don’t Trap Them
GF When you’re going to have interaction for the sake of interaction, you’re forcing it and doing it in a way that makes people feel a little bit trapped. Interaction can be a really good thing, and it should be a part of the meeting. It’s a part of what makes a conference engaging and a part of what makes people feel [they’ve] bought into it when they have that opportunity. The problem is when we try to make people do it on our terms instead of their terms.
You might have a phenomenal lineup of speakers that I really want to learn from. And more than anything, all I want to do is to sit down and listen to them, to learn from them. In the midst of all of that, you start to plug in these interactive exercises that are not smoothly handled. They are not done in a way that makes it feel natural.
My pet peeve of the conference industry is this prescribed approach where interaction amounts to putting you at a table of people, and then asking them to go around and give introductions to see what your favorite brand of cereal is. That’s not interactive. That’s weird. The problem is that there’s no opt-in for something like that, and there’s no opt-out. All I can do is to sit at the table and have this weird conversation with people. When what I would really like to be doing is learning from those amazing speakers that you have.
So don’t automatically go to interaction and say, “This is going to happen, because we’re not going to have speakers who just stand up and lecture at you the whole time.” That’s fine, but what if I would have gotten so much more out of the speakers, and I got absolutely nothing out of sitting at a table telling people my favorite cereal?
Respect Their Sense of Time
DS We are seeing a trend towards shorter sessions. You know, in the old days it was an hour and a half, and if you could not carry an hour and a half with a group you were not considered a good presenter or a good speaker. Now, we have kept some of our sessions to about an hour or less. We also, [last] year, did 20-minute sessions. Those were very popular.
I think it is just part of our culture and society now as we are all becoming ADD-ish, if you will. And I think that the 20-minute, the 30-minute presentation is going to be the presentation that is really the future. As a presenter myself — I have presented at more than 100 different conferences over the years — I see the timeline changing. I still feel to set up a really good presentation and to carry people through on communicating a good, solid message you need an hour sometimes — to take them through some trends, some case studies, make a few friends, and tell a few stories.
Our goal is, once you attend our event, if you do not have a pile of notes that you can go back home with and start implementing immediately, we did not do our job.
Tell Stories — but Make Them Work
KA There are the speakers who think they know how to speak on the stage, and are often good, right? The goal would be for conference managers to tell them, “We want your tips to be actionable. You can storytell, but they have to relate to actionable tips.” That’s my perception of the future of meetings, no matter what topic you’re on.
Be Truly Social
DS We always believe in throwing good parties on both nights [of the conference,] and I think the whole social aspect also helps. It is called social media, but we like to be real social, in both. So we try to have [the parties] in locations where the entire group is together and they are there for a purpose for a few hours both nights.
[For an off-site party at McKelligon Canyon outside of El Paso,] when I got up there to do the site visit, cell service was a little shaky and there was no Internet, and I thought: “This is going to be a big plus for us.” Now of course we had complaints, because you cannot take Internet away from these people. It is like … well, you know. But the whole idea was, if they got there and they were on the top of a mountain with some cocktails and some food and they could not use their device, they would have to talk to each other.
KA There are three important themes in any in-person experience. If you think about a movie, it’s the opening scene, the closing scene, and the climactic moment in between. Ironically, the scene that’s most important in shaping how I feel about the meeting is the one that’s usually most neglected, and that is the closing scene.
As I’m leaving the scene, do you give me something? Do people shake hands? Do we see along the hallway, projected on the walls or on butcher paper along the walls or [on] banners, quotes that we heard? Does someone walk up to me with a video camera — it doesn’t have to be perfect or even professional, but there’s a squad of 30 of them — and they’re saying, “What is the specific tip that you found most helpful, just a sentence or two?” And it focuses the attendee on what they most enjoyed.
Don’t Be Afraid to Be Yourself
GF The most engaging events (or organizations, or people) stand for something that matters, articulate their values clearly and persuasively, and aren’t afraid of polarizing people who don’t stand with them. If you’re bland and inoffensive, nobody will hate you. But nobody will love you either.
You, the planner, also need to be willing to put your passion and personality out there. People aren’t drawn to things that feel corporate. They’re drawn to things that feel human. Laurie Coots, chief marketing officer of TBWAChiat Day, puts it this way: “A good product is not enough; consumers today are also looking for soul — and soul is one thing you cannot invent. It has to be authentic.”
Whatever organization you’re with, whatever industry you’re in, there’s something at the heart of it that gives your work meaning and purpose. Find that, ideate around it, and build upon it. You won’t create something engaging if you’re not engaged.
Tap the Collective Conscious
At this moment I knew it was not going to be a boring conference: It happened just before I was to go on stage to deliver a keynote. I was so moved to tears by the prior program that mascara dripped on my lavender blouse. And I didn’t care. I wasn’t alone. For the first time in the conference, many of the 3,000 nurse executives in the audience were up on their feet cheering and hugging each other.
The serious-looking nurse I’d sat down next to was now blowing kisses to the diminutive, elderly woman standing on stage who was being honored by the conference president. Our honoree looked like the proverbial deer caught in headlights.
What had happened? Two months before the conference, at my suggestion, every member received an email that read, “If you send us the name of the book that has most influenced your work as a nurse and the author by Sept. 30, you will get a peek preview, by email, of the Top 10 list from the collective submissions from you and your colleagues.”
It turns out that the woman on stage was the long-admired, surviving co-author of a required textbook for nurses training. Only when the members received their peek preview email of results did they realize how many of their peers felt as strongly as they did about the usefulness of that book in their career. Thus, they were primed to cheer when the author appeared on stage to be honored.
The conferences that best leverage shared learning and relationship-building will thrive, whilst others will wilt away or lose their attendees to competition. — Kare Anderson
Excerpted from “Make Your Conference the Centerpiece for a Tight-Knit Community,” at Forbes.com.
Earn Your CEU Hour
Here’s how to earn your CEU hour. Once you finish reading this CMP Series article, read these two blog posts by Kare Anderson:
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The Certified Meeting Professional (CMP) is a registered trademark of the Convention Industry Council.
For more information about Kare Anderson, visit sayitbetter.com.
Watch a presentation by Dave Serino that includes the SoMeT story.
Find Greg Fuson’s writing at thevinespeaks.com.