Engaging Online Audiences at Events: 3 Strategies

So, you’ve decided to host a virtual or hybrid event.

You’ve spent weeks pouring over the details, from lining up entertainment, to marketing the event far and wide, to creating a pain-free registration process. Your team has put significant time and energy into planning a stellar event… so, the last thing you want is for guests to mentally “check out” 15-minutes into it!

At Handbid, we’ve helped hundreds of nonprofits host charity auction events and raise over $250 million since 2010. We’ve watched firsthand as those events were pivoted to the virtual and hybrid sphere. And, while it can be a bit more challenging to keep a virtual audience engaged— after all, “Zoom Fatigue” after a few years of connecting via computer screens is real— we’ve also seen how organizations have developed new and innovative ways to catch and keep the attention of their online audiences.

We’re sharing a few of those tips today to help you keep your online audience engaged in your next event. Let’s get started!

Making the Event Easy to Join & Enjoy

Have you ever arrived at an event and been a little unsure about what you were supposed to do as an attendee? Perhaps you didn’t know which conference room to go to or where to sign-in and get your name tag. It’s a nerve-wracking feeling that you don’t want to replicate for virtual or hybrid guests!

The last thing you want is for guests to fumble with their technology while trying to join your event, and as a result, miss the start of the event itself. Your goal should be to make it as easy as possible to join and participate in the event.

For example, when hosting online charity auctions with nonprofits, we equip guests with the ability to share a direct link to their online auction. Then, event guests simply need to click the link to join! For your event, you could share a direct link— or, if the process will be a bit more complicated, consider creating a one-page resource or an invitation email that walks guests through the steps to join in plain language.

An organized process from start to finish allows guests to focus less on how to engage with your event, and more on the engagement itself.

Pulling Online Supporters Back Into the Event

Here’s the thing:

Even if you are watching something that aligns with your interests and is exciting from start to finish, it’s easy to “zone out” when you’re staring at a screen. If you’ve ever been binge-watching a new release and received a slightly-shaming “Are you still watching?” message (Netflix, we’re looking at you), you understand how easy it is to simply lose focus.

It’s inevitable that, through no fault of your event itself, you’re going to lose the attention of a few folks along the way. That’s fine! It just means you need to incorporate a few strategies to re-engage your supporters— your own “Are you still watching?” message, so to speak.

Here are a few ideas to keep in mind:

  • Text messages or push notifications. For example, for charity auctions, we’ve used texts and push notifications to let guests know when they’ve been outbid. Then, they can virtually “hop” back into the event and make their counterbid. Outside of the fundraising event context, you could use this idea to give guests a head’s up before event sessions or entertainment starts.
  • Polls and surveys. This idea not only re-engages guests but also lets you learn a bit about the individuals who are attending your event. You can ask guests to give their opinion on a specific topic discussed, answer trivia questions, or even answer general questions about themselves and why they’re attending your event.
  • Competitions. Few things are more engaging than a little healthy competition. There are a number of ways to use it throughout your event. For example, you could have a running trivia contest throughout the event, randomly posing trivia questions and keeping track of which guests answer the most correctly. The winner gets a prize! Or, you could split guests up into teams, and have them complete engagement-related tasks throughout the event. The team that completes the most tasks wins!

These ideas aren’t meant to be the backbone of your engagement strategy. Instead, these are the quick, eye-catching strategies that you sprinkle throughout the event— so, if a guest “zones out” and finds themself staring at a wall rather than paying attention to the event activities, they can quickly be wrangled back into the main event.

Driving the Event to the Finish Line

Have you ever attended an event that didn’t have a clear ending? Maybe the excitement slowly died down as it got later in the night and guests trickled out as the event lost steam.

We talked about making a positive first impression at your event. But you also want to make sure the event has a strong “pace” from start to finish, providing equally engaging moments from opening to the eventual ending.

Keep the following tips in mind to drive your event from the opening to the finish line, maintaining steady engagement along the way:

  • Provide updates throughout the event. For example, if it’s a fundraising event, you might project a fundraising thermometer to show guests how much has been raised and how much needs to be raised to reach your goal. If you used any of the competition ideas from the previous section, you could provide updates on who is “winning” the competition at different intervals.
  • Feature a live presenter when applicable. For nonprofits hosting charity auctions, this is where an auctioneer would step in to chant through auction items or perform an appeal. However, for other types of events, it’s still helpful to bring in a charismatic emcee to provide some entertainment between event sessions.
  • Consider making the event 4-dimensional. For example, you could mail a meal (or even just some snacks) to guests for them to enjoy throughout the event. Or, you could include a tutorial session in which guests make something alongside a presenter, again mailing the necessary items to guests in advance of the event itself. These ideas can draw guests into the event and make it seem more intimate and less like they’re connecting with your team via a computer screen.

When you livestream an event, it can feel like you’re speaking out into the void. With these ideas, you’ll not only keep up the pace of your event from start to finish, but you’ll decrease the virtual “space” between your team and event guests.

While it can be more challenging to engage online audiences during virtual and hybrid events, there are strategies that you can use to keep their attention from start to finish. From making the event easy to join, to using quick tactics to pull guests back into the event, to driving the excitement from beginning to end, these strategies are a great starting point for your next event. Good luck!

Jeff Porter, Founder & CEO of Handbid, has spent 18 years in the nonprofit industry. In 2004 he founded the Prader-Willi Syndrome Association of Colorado where he still resides as board chair. Jeff learned early on that nonprofits desperately needed better and more affordable fundraising solutions.  Leveraging his software background, he built most of the tools his charities used, and in 2011 he launched Handbid at his own fundraising event.  The goal was to improve the guest experience, reduce administration and increase revenue.  Handbid accomplished all of those goals, effectively doubling revenue in its debut. Nine years later, Handbid’s suite of tools has delighted over a half-million guests, generated millions of bids, and helped thousands of charities raise well over $100 million.