Why Is Digital Engagement So Elusive and What We Can Do About It?

June 18, 2021

Rich Gibbons

Rich Gibbons joined SpeakInc in 1991 and now serves as the company’s president. He has an extensive client following in both the corporate and trade association realms, advising them on speakers and platform talent that aligns with their event goals.

While creating true digital engagement has become critical to our success, we find ourselves in 2021 facing real digital fatigue. We see it reflected in our audiences’ faces and in our attendance stats: registrations and dwell times are down and no-shows are up. 

I recently hosted a CEMA webinar with Jay Acunzo and Shane Snow, two of my favorite speakers who shared insights and practical, innovative approaches to making virtual presentations, roundtables and webinars more meaningful, engaging and valuable.  

The idea of High Fidelity seems an appropriate way to capture the essence of Jay and Shane’s ideas. High Fidelity equipment and recordings had the best original sound reproduction. And that’s what we are aiming for: to deliver the best version of our live event experiences via a digital platform.

We begin our journey to High Fidelity with two key insights: 

  • Virtual is different, but different should not mean worse
  • Virtual events can be Hi-Fi

Transitional dynamics such as low/no energy, lack of audience cues, random eye contact and ongoing distraction undermine our biggest event assets – our speaker and our audiences – that make our digital events clunky, dull and dissatisfying. So, what do we do about these Lo-Fi experience problems? According to Jay and Shane, we start by following the “Virtual Event Golden Rules”

  • Create experiences for an audience of one. Creating a Hi-Fi experience online is about translating experiences geared to an audience of many to a single online viewer, because that is who is actually experiencing the event.
  • Don’t just grab attention, hold it. As experience creators, we must imagine and craft something utterly immersive. Starting with a compelling idea or theme, we can add virtual specific production value to our content that holds attention by replacing the physical presence, energy and social norms that live presentations create.  
  • Get them to the end. We must craft an end-to-end experience using a gifted storyteller and a variety of story augmentation elements such as quotes from multiple experts, music and sound effects.

Strategies for Delivering a Hi-Fi Engaging Virtual Experience

  • Treat your event like a variety show. Successful event marketers and speakers treat their events like a performance that needs to stay continuously captivating. 
  • Create a high-level run-of-show that includes interactions, music and multimedia. The entire end-to-end experience should have an underlying framework broken into “blocks,” large sections with specific purposes and “beats,” smaller moments that make up each block.  
  • Create a script for each presenter that is annotated with notes to the speaker on delivery techniques and to post-production on – blocking instructions and multimedia enhancements.
  • Rehearse, rehearse and rehearse some more. Knowing what you are going to say allows you to perform better and sound more conversational. 
  • Pre-record as much as possible. You can re-insert the warmth, dynamism and energy that most virtual event platforms disallow when you are presenting live. 

Moving into production, here are key tips to bring Hi-Fi production value to your show:

  • Simu-live events: Television news, talk, variety and game shows have proven that events that are pre-recorded and edited to maximize a virtual medium far surpass those that are delivered live. These “simu-live” events mimic the powerful feeling of an in-person keynote while reshaping it to fit a virtual experience. 
  • Novel, non-linear moments: A virtual event should be a mini vacation for your audience – where they can relax, have fun and learn something fascinating. Introducing novel elements into the show can create this sense of respite from daily pressures. 
  • Curiosity gaps: The gap between what people know and what they want to know makes them more likely to engage. 
  • Sustained movement and frequent change: The best “virtual” presenters change segments, cadence, graphics and camera angles – and more frequently than you’d guess.

On the tech and tools side, Jay and Shane stressed that we should use each tool purposefully and in the fashion that best creates the Hi-Fi experience for stronger digital engagement. For example:

  • Webcams are great for talking to an audience in a more intimate way and telling compelling stories, while having a B-camera for a wider shot is great for delivering a more animated performance.
  • Slides and graphics are great for punching up those stories, but not for reading. 
  • Music and video help keep your run-of-show moving.
  • Reaction buttons, polls and chat features work for keeping your audience leaning in and creating a shared experience for them. 
  • Attendee smartphones are great for participating in mini games like Kahoot. 
  • Breakout rooms (with good prompts) are great for creating connection and removing hierarchy. 
  • Pre-recorded clips of yourself to air “simu-live” are great for when you need ultra-high production value (and, potentially, a break to catch your breath!).

We need to fix Lo-Fi virtual events because we’re asking people to spend valuable time and money with us. To borrow one last piece of wisdom from Jay and Shane: “One thing is not going to change is the power of great storytelling. “

I believe we can achieve digital engagement, in spite of our growing Zoom fatigue and webinar weariness. We developed a detailed white paper on this subject if you’d like a deeper dive – download it here.

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