Events are not simply about delivering valuable content and giving people some time to speak to each other. No – the magic of events lies in the overall experience your audience has. Today’s Event Tech Podcast guest knows this even though he’s not an event prof. But he’s been to many conferences both as an attendee as well as a keynote speaker that he knows all about engagement and networking at events.
Our guest is Mark Herschberg, an MIT instructor, the author of The Career Toolkit, speaker, and CTO. While he is not in the events industry bubble, he nonetheless knows a lot about events and conferences. And what he’s noticed is a serious lack of audience engagement. In his blog post, Creating Engaging Conferences Your Attendees Will Love, he explains that content alone is not enough to make an event a success. Instead, event planners should focus on creating the right experience for the attendees.
But how? Tune in to today’s Event Tech Podcast episode and find out! Will, Brandt, and Mark will be talking about networking at events and audience engagement tactics that truly go a long way when creating engaging event experiences.
What’s The Value Of Events?
Mark started out as a software engineer and later became a CTO. After a quick summary of his career path, he explains his experience in the events industry. “I’ve been at events primarily in two ways: as a CTO, I’ve often gone to conferences. I’ve spoken and keynoted at many of them on very technical issues. But have done keynotes, workshops, and other types of events at companies and on stage.”
He says that he’s never been that excited by conferences. “If I go to a three-day event and I walk away with one innovative idea, that’s a win. But if you think about three days of my time plus the hotel and registration, that’s a high cost to gain an idea that I might get from a great podcast or from an article. Is it really worth the three days?”
“As we’re coming out of COVID, I’ve been ramping up the speaking relaying to the book. But when I ask these organizations to tell me more about the event, the attendees, and what they want to achieve, they say: ‘They listen to talks, they pay us money’. And I’m thinking – this is terrible.”
As the rest of the world is changing, events are staying the same. “Our offices are waking up. It’s no longer nine to five, five days a week. But I’m hearing the same old thing from event planners. But you have to change what you’re doing! So, here are the specific things you can do to make your event one that people will want to do in the next few decades.”
So, how do we make our talks more interesting? “It starts with understanding the value that I deliver as a speaker. You shouldn’t be looking to fill an hour. You are looking to create an experience. There should be a feel to the conference, not just some content to fill it,” Mark says.
So, what can we do to create better event experiences? “One huge advantage that physical events have is better networking,” Mark says. “Virtual networking just does not work as well. When I ask people how important is networking to their event, they say it’s very important. Well, what are they doing to promote it? They have a coffee break and a cocktail reception the first night. They’re operating at a two, but how do we take it from a two to at least a seven, if not a 10?”
“Well, as someone who speaks about networking, there are things we can do. We can create certain types of events or I can promote and foster networking as a part of my talk. This can be done with little nudges. You don’t have to restructure your event. That doesn’t mean you can’t do the coffee breaks. But if we just tweak how you get into them, we can make that so much more effective for your customers, for the people who are attending. Now, they value your experience more and you create more value for them,” he explains.
The Role Of Technology In Networking
Will wants to know what Mark thinks of the role technology plays in networking at events. “I think technology has unfortunately gotten in the way of networking. We add someone on LinkedIn and think that we’re networked. But that’s like saying you’re married after swiping right on a girl on Tinder. We think that adding someone on LinkedIn and sending an email means we have a relationship. At this point, we actually have to build that relationship, which means going on dates, to use the dating analogy.”
“What technology lets us do is create some new channels for that engagement,” he adds. “In fact, one of the best things that we could have done during COVID was to go for a virtual coffee. Before COVID, that wasn’t a thing. Whereas meeting for coffee in person, I was limited to a 50-mile radius from where I lived. I couldn’t meet someone on the other side of the country. Now, it’s normal. And so I can continue to develop the relationship with you using technologies like Zoom. That wasn’t available years ago. So we can use technologies not to replace that connection, but to, in some cases, help encourage it or make it easy.”
Speed Dating At Events
As far as networking at events goes, Mark is a fan of speed dating, one of the most popular networking games. “Speed dating is actually a great activity for your conference. For example, I was at a conference where we had telecom providers and then companies like mine who were looking to partner with telecoms. We set up a bunch of meetings. You could choose who you’re interested in meeting ahead of time because people had their profiles up. They saw my company’s profile ahead of time. Then, there was a series of 10-minute conversations. You can do a very quick pitch and everyone gives you their focus for 10 minutes. And then from there, you follow up with other types of conversations.”
“For all of these different types of networking, there are different expectations,” adds Brandt. “Having people on the same page is important. That translates through LinkedIn, too. What I use LinkedIn for is different from what other people use LinkedIn for. I’m looking for a connection, not just a transaction.”
Creating Engaging Experiences
The conversation then moves beyond networking at events. Will asks: “What other ways can you create more engaging events?”
“Let’s talk about things you can do at the conference. And then, let’s address what you can do after the conference,” Mark replies. Let’s get to it!
At The Conference: Give People What They Need
First, Mark mentions swag. “Most of us don’t need more water bottles with logos. But we all need something. One of the best things I ever got was a free headshot. And I’ve seen this at several conferences: they hire a local photographer. It will cost you maybe $1,000 to hire someone for two days. Every time your attendees look at that photo, which they might use for LinkedIn or on their corporate website, they remember your event with a positive memory,” he says.
“It could also be little things like a 10-minute security review of your website or a quick review of your lead gen funnel. I’m guessing there are a number of come companies who not only would be willing to do it for free. They might even pay to be at your conference because if you get 200 companies doing a free security review, you just got 200 companies added to your target list for sales.”
After The Conference: Do Follow-Up Virtual Events
Mark then speaks more about all the ways to create engagement after the event. And unknowingly, he describes the community model! “Event planners think about events 365 days a year. But as an attendee, I think about it for five days: the day I register and then three days at the event, plus a day of travel. That’s it. Planners would love to engage with your customers more than just during that brief period each year now. They’ve sent out the follow-up email but we all ignore it because we get too much email.”
“Now that we’ve experienced virtual events, you can take your in-person or hybrid event and do virtual follow-ups. During the keynote, especially if it is a hybrid event, I have people in chat discussing things that I can’t always get to. Well, let’s take those comments and topics. A month later, I can do a live Q&A where I address those topics plus others. The keynote person can also do a series of small workshops or small mastermind groups with certain people from the conference. It’s not a lot of extra effort for the speaker, but it creates so much more value for your members. And it creates a much deeper experience, not just during that one week, but helps keep you top of mind at other times.”
“Even consider pre-events,” Mark adds. “You want early registrations. Encourage attendees to sign up early by offering them a special webinar or an interactive session with your keynote speaker. That’s going to help encourage registration, help get you top of mind earlier. And not just when they’re at the conference.”
“What we’re seeing is a redistribution,” agrees Brandt. “There may be fewer in-person events, but there’ll be a few more online events. These follow-up events, these drips that happen in between your big in-person events will help drive traffic and interest.”
Networking At Events: Meet People Beyond Your Industry
In conclusion, Mark believes that people should speak to professionals in different industries and roles. “That way, we get a diversity of thought. We get all these ideas. I’m not in the events industry, but how did I recognize these things? Because I understand the mechanics of how people engage. I’ve seen this work in other places. I’m not seeing it happen here. And so by looking at different areas, looking outside our bubbles, we can become so much more effective.”
Brandt and Will were thrilled to have Mark on the podcast, and hopefully, you were too. Stay tuned for more content about event technology!