Keeping 10, 20, 30 people engaged during a virtual meeting can be challenging with all the distractions at home, so how the heck do you keep hundreds or even thousands of online attendees tuned in all day during a hybrid event or conference? To find out, we asked a couple of our experts – Alison Squillacioti and Morgan Webb, a senior program manager and meeting planner, respectively, with American Express Meetings & Events – to share their top tips.

1. Mind the time zone

When planning a hybrid event, you have to be sensitive to the different time zones attendees are in since they may be spread across the country or globe – which is not an issue when meeting in person.

Case in point: Alison, a certified meeting professional, was recently helping to plan a three-day sales event with 400 attendees across the United States and said they couldn’t have an 8 am EST kickoff since that would mean a 5 am start for those on the West Coast.

“We had to think of how we were going to break down the agenda each day to accommodate everyone’s schedules,” Alison said. That meant a later start time than usual.

Since it’s not always possible to accommodate everyone’s schedules, especially if it’s a global event, be sure to offer attendees on-demand options so they can access recordings of the sessions after the event when it’s convenient for them.

2. Break things up

Morgan pointed out that people have extremely short attention spans, so one way to combat an audience’s lack of concentration is to keep sessions on the shorter side.

As Alison explained, with in-person events, you may have sessions that go on for two or three hours, but that format doesn’t work well with virtual attendees, especially if they have kids crying, dogs barking, and doorbells ringing in the background.

“You can’t have somebody sitting online at home from 10:30 am to 5:30 pm,” she said. “So, I would suggest a short break every couple of hours to keep everyone engaged. If the event is a six-hour virtual day, then four breaks would be ideal.”

3. Choose the right facilitator(s)

To capture an online audience’s attention, it’s crucial to have a dynamic emcee or facilitator who serves as a link between the live attendees and virtual participants. Choose one that knows how to work the crowd – even when they can’t see the crowd.

To make sure they weren’t losing virtual attendees for the recent hybrid event they were planning, Alison and the team took this idea a step further. “We thought it would be better to have two people who could engage the online audience, so we had two facilitators: one who was a virtual emcee keeping an eye on the online audience and then a traditional conference chair who was welcoming everybody.”

Another reason to have a strong facilitator steering the event: to help keep things moving and make sure things go according to schedule – which is crucial for hybrid events.

As Alison explains, “Presenters have to keep with the agenda because some people are only attending specific sessions and aren’t logging on for the whole day. If they log on thinking that the session starts at two o’clock and things are running behind, they’re going to log out and you’re not going to capture them. So it’s very critical to keep to that schedule.”

4. Introduce the tech beforehand

Morgan said she has seen different platforms and technology used for virtual/hybrid events, which means attendees may need to download and learn how to use new software.

“So it’s important both attendees and exhibitors alike are familiar with the platform before the conference is live,” she said.

After all, you can’t engage virtual attendees if half of them are struggling to enter the event.

Morgan recommends giving attendees access to the platform ahead of time, along with a how-to guide or FAQ so they have a chance to download the software, see how it works, and play around with it.

To create a better user experience, she also suggests a webpage where users who are experiencing issues or who have questions can go for support before and during the event.

It’s also recommended to have all the links to the general sessions and individual breakouts in a central location so attendees don’t struggle finding where they need to go.

5. Create customized content

Morgan said one of the most important aspects of organizing an event is to have relatable content targeted to your audience. While this is true for attendees at in-person events, it’s even more applicable for virtual participants who don’t have to climb over people’s laps and sneak out the back door of an auditorium if they’re bored and want to duck out of a presentation.

To help capture your online audience’s attention, consider customizing the content to resonate with the different types of attendees or “personas” who will be present. This will require some research to learn more about the participants. You can do this through a pre-event questionnaire or survey, then use their responses to analyze your attendee base and personalize the experience. It also might be helpful to use our “Virtual Attendee Persona” white paper as a guide as you identify and develop the key participants of your event.

One other way to customize content and make it more personal is to invite attendees of a multi-day hybrid event to post pictures to a photo webpage, which can be interesting for the virtual attendees to browse. “It kind of keeps the camaraderie going while many participants are sitting at home for days,” Alison said.

6. Foster interaction among in-person and virtual attendees

One of the challenges of hybrid events is making your in-person and virtual attendees feel connected, so you’ll need to work on finding opportunities to encourage interaction between the two groups. One of the best ways to do so is through activities that encourage audience participation.

“That may be a wellness activity, like a 30-minute yoga class or a meditation. I’ve also seen virtual cooking classes, wine tastings, and comedic acts, so there are some fun little spins you can put on a hybrid event,” Morgan said.

These activities can help break up the monotony and the ice among online attendees who may feel out of the loop at home.

Another way to connect both groups is through a live Q&A. You may have virtual attendees post questions via a chat and then have a moderator present them to the speaker(s). But for attendees who aren’t camera shy, it can be more engaging if online participants can directly ask their questions themselves.

Alison also recommends uniting the two audiences through smaller breakout sessions, which can help both sides connect on a deeper level. For breaks between larger sessions, you also may want to set up a space where in-person and online attendees can “hang out.”

7. Let them have a chance to win

In the end, one of the best ways to engage online audiences is to reward them for their participation.

As Morgan said, “Incentives are huge. They give attendees a reason to visit the exhibit hall and attend the various events.” She noted that incentives are especially effective for trade shows and getting online attendees to visit the exhibitors’ virtual booths.

Gamification also works well with virtual attendees. She said a popular version is a passport game where attendees need to visit all the booths to collect virtual stamps.

“I’ve also seen this same type of game set up as a virtual scavenger hunt. Sometimes the production companies will hide a word or an animal at the virtual booths for the attendees to find and whoever finds all the animals or words first gets a prize,” she said. “There’s usually a leaderboard that’s visible to all the attendees to stimulate competition.”

Want to learn more tips for planning a hybrid event? Check out this other Atlas article.