From passive to active: flip the switch and make your event more engaging

July, 19 2018

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A 2016 report by the Event Marketing Institute claims that the biggest spenders on events - companies who budget $50-100 million per year - expect a 5:1 return on their investment in live and experiential marketing.

The same report tells us 80% of event attendees say live demonstrations define their purchasing decision, and 65% say that live events help them understand a product or service. The conversion rate from experiential events is impressive too - seven out of ten visitors to an experiential marketing event become regular customers.

Put these ideas together and a simple truth emerges. If you want to see more ROI from your events, you need to provide a better experience. Something with demonstrations, something that helps visitors understand what you’re bringing to the table. Something more than “turn up and be sold to” - something they can do that makes them want to buy. Something that flips the switch from passive to active.


The keynote speech feels like the most passive aspect of any event - sit down and listen to the thought leader - but that doesn’t mean it should be written off. Far from it.

Access to the right keynote speaker is still a must, but can we shake up what the keynote actually involves?

Event MB claim 53% of event professionals say their attendees want greater interaction with speakers, so why not create an interactive experience? Practical how-to sessions with seasoned practitioners allow direct access to the keynote speaker’s skills and expertise, and it’s not often that visitors get to engage directly with the best people in their field. It’s an amazing CPD opportunity - and an experience waiting to happen.

Even if you stick with the tried and tested keynote format, technology can still drive engagement - think live polls, digital walls featuring tweets and comments with the event hashtag that the speaker can refer to in their presentation, sending live questions from delegates to speakers.

Innovative tech

Everyone and their dog seems to be using virtual reality at the moment - but only 20% of marketers actually believe it’ll be the biggest thing in the rest of 2018, let alone in the future. VR, AR and AI have to be used in ways that are interesting and relevant. What’s the tech doing for you? Is it actually on-message? Is it revealing something about your brand or your product that couldn’t come out in any other way?

Assuming it is, the trick to using tech well is to start with user experience. How does it feel to interact with content - is it realistic, functional, of high quality, and easy to interact with? Is it doing something that a video or presentation couldn’t - and if not, why not? VR can explore impossible spaces in ways that feel real - like going inside a car engine or a human body to show how automotive and pharma products make a difference.

Refreshment that refreshes

Food and drink stalls don’t have to be passive. If you have a bar on site, offer free cocktail making sessions. Could food stalls do something similar, pushing the build-your-own idea out to burgers, canapes or desserts?

It’s important to give people space for downtime - some people just want to step outside the hustle and bustle of the event for a while, and don’t want an interactive sandwich experience. But offering people the option helps to make the event feel less routine for attendees who are expecting just another conference. Little touches that can become something unusual will keep their energy up when they return to the event proper.


Everyone loves a competition - but not all competitions are created equal. “Enter a prize draw to win a hamper” isn’t all that exciting and it’s not a happening that takes place on the day itself. Even if you hold the draw at the event, sooner or later you’ll arrive at that moment when the first two names you draw have both gone home early and your competition has become a holdup for the remaining attendees.

Position your competitions so that they resolve themselves, without intruding on the day. Scavenger hunts - “take a selfie with our hidden mascot and tweet it with this hashtag” - create shareable content for you and experiences on the event floor for your visitors. If you’ve gamified your event, make sure you’re collecting and sharing high scores - and if your visitors are using a bespoke app, be sure to ping them if someone beats their score.

Make them fun, make them on brand, make them interesting and immediate, and competitions add a delightful extra layer to events.

Social media takeovers

Social is a great way to engage an audience anyway, but giving visitors the opportunity to take over the event feed is a way to get them excited. Prime them before the day - “we love livetweeting, here’s the hashtag, we’ll be saving a Moment at the end of the day”. Integrating user-generated content like this is instantly engaging - it’s one thing to show off a keynote and another to curate the responses. It creates a buzz, it gets people talking, and it’s so easy to set up.

Consider in your calculations that app-powered events generate 42% more social media impressions. While impressions by themselves are a vanity metric, they convert into brand awareness and marketing material down the line.

On-site actors

Think of things like Secret Cinema - which goes beyond screening a film and invites you to a theatrical experience, with actors working around the film and the location, immersing you in the story around a specific movie and a real time, interactive happening.

In these types of experiences, the prepared content is delivered by actors playing parts, creating another layer of story as they go. This works well for repeated or multi-day events - building a story throughout the duration, and creating reasons for visitors to come back and see what happens next.


Your event doesn’t begin and end at the front door. Think about the evening entertainment. Can people let their hair down? Can you link evening entertainment with the daytime? The goal is to create a cohesive experience from start to finish, making sure that attendees stay in the zone and are reminded of the event even when they’re not in the room.

Keep it subtle, though: remember that your Millennial audience want to explore the locale, not  attend a corporate party every night. Host your event downtown, highlight things they can do in the host city, and negotiate some discounts or preferential treatment for anyone who flashes an event pass. That’ll create a sense of advantage for attending the event, without compromising that vital ‘this is downtime’ feeling.


Pure networking events are often a failure - despite 95% of executives wanting to meet new people, the comfort zones of people in similar roles and their existing contacts exert a powerful pull. Sociologist and network scientist Brian Uzzi claims interactivity is the solution - “networks are not forged through casual actions,” he says, “but through relatively high stakes activities that connect you with diverse others.”

Think about the spaces you’ve set up for networking - are they just “mingle or fail” zones, or is there something for people to do together? Something that requires them to interact with each other and co-operate? Something with a meaningful reward at the end?

Whether it’s shaking up the keynote speech into a workshop, sending your attendees on a social scavenger hunt, or bringing the downtime to life with a lesson or demo, activating your events pays off.

Remember, seven out of ten visitors to an experiential marketing event become customers. That’s an impressively high conversion rate - and it explains why 91% of high performing businesses invest in active, experiential event marketing.

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