The Science of Audience Engagement

You know that engaging audiences is everything.  The decisions you make to engage people are subjective but informed, honed over years of experience.  You might even call it an art form.  But what’s less obvious – and critical – is the science of engagement.

Scientifically speaking, what makes people pay attention?  What happens in the brain when people are focused and tuned in?  In order to build our audience engagement tool, it was imperative for me to know these things.  To get some answers, I interviewed psychologists, neurologists AND event professionals. Here’s some of what I learned…. 

People can only keep their attention for short periods of time because our brains are wired that way.  Why?  When people try to concentrate the frontal lobe of the brain – responsible for executive functioning – is activated.  But that competes with the unconscious part of our brain which is always “on”— scanning and processing the world around us. This is why we get distracted.

What’s a marketer or planner to do?  The trick is to “restore” the brain from its constant wavering so it can refocus.  This is done by giving people new stimuli, giving them activities to perform and getting them to interact.  It’s all about ENGAGING THE SENSES.

Visuals matter.  The brain likes, even craves, visual images.  Why is picture worth a thousand words?  It’s because our brains process images much faster than words, in 13 milliseconds.  That’s 30 times faster than people can blink their eyes.  The implication:  don’t say it, show it. The imagery you use at events goes way beyond mere eye candy.  It helps people focus, gets them to process your message instantly, and creates a mental placeholder for your brand and product.

Another interesting find:  the same brain regions are stimulated when we visualize an action as when we actually perform that same action.  Athletes do this all the time.  They visualize themselves winning the race.  The implication for you: get people to IMAGINE. Ask people to use their imagination, and prompt them with visual stimuli.

Colors matter.  Marketers learn that red packaging stimulates the brain and creates excitement.  According to researchers at the University of British Columbia, red can help with focus while blue can spur creativity.  Again, you need to stay on-brand, but it’s worthwhile to think through how colors can set the tone and mood (since on some level it can trigger real emotions).

What about sound?  Some neuroscientists think that music has the same fingerprints as human movement.  Music stimulates the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, responsible for higher level functioning and social behavior. It’s tied to emotions and memory too. Want people to feel great about your company?  Play some great music.  Or try a “Name That Tune” game.

Activities that involve the sense of touch or movement can re-energize attendees.  Tactile information is processed by the posterior parietal cortex, a small part in back of the brain. But new research from Lund University in Sweden shows that a much larger part of the brain is activated by touch. Touch-screen and other technologies are not only great ways of capturing data and generating leads, they can help people focus on key messages.

In creating Lively, we incorporated sensory input into the product (an audience participation with multimedia).  Users can use the sense of  “touch” on their own devices…by sending text messages to play a trivia game shown on a big screen, viewed by all attendees (with quiz game sounds) and participate in contests.  Or their responses – sent via text – can be projected to the screen and shown flying through outer space with animation, video and branding. (And it doesn’t hurt that it generates leads too).

Bottom line, it’s about creating an experience.  That was the theme of MPI’s World Education Congress last year. And when you understand how the brain works you can use more tools in your arsenal, and really create a “wow” experience that makes a big impact.

Want to give Lively a spin?  Sign up for a FREE account.

How Get More Business from Your Speaking Engagements

If you have a speaking engagement coming up, congrats. Now is the time to start thinking about making the most of it.  It’s one thing to give a great presentation.  It’s something else entirely to turn it into marketing and sales opportunities.  Whether you’re on a panel or giving a solo talk, here are some tips on getting more exposure and more business from speaking engagements. Note to marketing leaders:  even if you’re not speaking, you have a vested interest in maximizing the impact when your colleagues speak on behalf of your company.  Speaking engagements are another form of content marketing.  The thought leadership conveyed reflects on a company overall and the brand(s) represented.

  • Choose your topic carefully. Your topic should relate to the organization’s overall value proposition OR at least tie-in to the brand or product communication strategy. No attendee wants to hear a commercial.  It’s about conveying expertise that connects to the way your organization wants to be perceived.
  • Pick an intriguing title. A well chosen title increases attendance. Be creative and bold.  I once gave a webinar called “Leveraging Data in Your Marketing Process.”  Not a great title.  The next time around I changed the name to “How to Build a Data-Driven Marketing Machine” and 2X more people signed up. Conference organizers often pick the title in advance and then book speakers.  But many times there is leeway. And since you’re the subject matter expert…you can choose what you call it publicly.  Even if the official name varies, when you promote your talk you can call it anything you want.  Use titles that are easy to understand and ones that convey practical learning. If you’re on a panel, consider lobbying other panelists to change the title to one that best suits everyone’s collective interests.
  • Promote it in advance. Coordinate with your marketing department and ensure that your talk is well promoted before the event.  Consider inviting customers, prospects or even the general public through social media (and other channels), with links to the event page.  Use the event hashtag on Twitter to tap into conversations about the event. After all, interested parties are self selecting audience.  Even if people don’t attend your talk, promotion will score you points for being seen as a thought leader.
  • Essentials during the event:
    • Be provocative. Try the “Hmmm” test.  If attendees are likely to think “Hmmm” after your talk then you’ve got them thinking.  The goal is not to be controversial for the sake if it, but to have a strong informed opinion and a real perspective that attendees will get attendees talking (and sharing).
    • Ensure your colleagues attend. Make sure they sit in different parts of the room, which creates more opportunities to strike up more conversations with fellow attendees before or after your talk.  They should be armed with business cards.
    • Amplify it. While the event is happening, your colleagues can tweet your key points using the event hashtag and/or with messaging in the event app.  This will reinforce your brand and topic among attendees who may not have attended your particular session (if it’s a large event).
  • Use the right tools for business development. A speaking engagement can be a great way for others in your company to connect with prospects and customers, with the right planning.  The right tools can help.
    • For example, Jifflenow is a platform for scheduling meetings at events.  Sales teams use it to arrange meetings at trade shows and conferences, which shortens sales cycles.  More info at
    • For presenters, Lively not only engages people but also builds connections (with no apps and a 20 second set up).  Speakers and marketers use it to create branded polls and quizzes, and/or field questions from attendees. Participants automatically receive a text message with links to your content, so you can generate leads.  Lively then provides reporting with the names, interests and social profiles of participants so you can keep in touch after the event.
  •  Repurpose your content after the event. Presentations are the gift that keep on giving in terms of marketing.  Your content can get more mileage if it is promoted online after your talk.  For example, sharing “The key takeaways from my talk on ‘How to Build a Killer Tech Stack” conveys thought leadership and is share worthy.   It is not nearly as compelling to simply say “I just got back from Orlando where I spoke at the XYZ Tech Conference.”  Post event marketing should be coordinated with your marketing colleagues in advance.  Think: emails, infographics, follow-up webinars etc

Bottom line:  Over 80% of companies find it challenging to show the ROI of events, according to Forrester Research. And CMOs are facing more pressure to do so.  Speaking engagements are the face of a company’s brand. Making the most of the opportunities takes planning and coordination, but is well worth it.

Use In-Person Events to Create Valuable Content

There are two interesting findings from the Content Marketing Institutes annual study:

  • The #1 top challenge of B2B marketers is producing enough high quality content
  • The #1 top marketing tactic of B2B marketers is in-person events

This begs the question:  If events are so widely used and there is not enough content, why don’t more marketers use events to generate more quality content?

As a former head of marketing, I have a hunch. It comes down to time and resources.

Here’s one solution:   engage your audience with live polling and collect valuable insights to create fodder for great content. One good poll can power content marketing for weeks, with insights that can be turned into infographics, used in social media, presentations, emails, blogs etc.

There are many audience participation tools available but Lively was uniquely built for marketers.  In seconds, you can use Lively to create fun trivia games, live audience polling and more— with a custom message/content pushed to attendees.  There’s high-impact branding opportunities and contests for participation.  It takes no more than 30 seconds to set up.

In addition to generating fodder for great content there are other marketing benefits:

  1. Drive more traffic to your trade show booth. Rent a charging station at a trade show, and use Lively to make it interactive…with messages automatically sent to the cell phones of attendees to stop by your booth.  (Or do the same with any other signage).
  2. Collect the interests and social media profiles of specific prospects, so you can discover the interests of leads and message them after the event.  Lively’s patented reporting provides it all.
  3. Gain insights into the minds and hearts of your audience. If you invest in-person events and getting in front of the right people, why not document what’s on their mind and use the insights in your product marketing and development?

The Business Building Power of Good Questions

One of my favorite all time quotes is that “Ideas have consequences.”  The same can be said of questions.  Asking the right question can change the course of careers, relationships, and companies.  Imagine if Henry Ford had asked, “How can we build a better horse drawn carriage?”

Companies spend millions on asking the right question.  E.g. sales training to educate reps on which questions to ask customers and in which order.  And almost all market research is aimed at posing the right questions to respondents.

But at live events and large meetings, when you’ve spent tremendous resources on assembling people…. are you asking good questions and getting critical feedback to propel your company forward?  After all, insights lie in the heads of your audience. The challenge is engaging attendees so they actively participate.

It’s so important that I built a company that solves this issue: Lively.   It’s a tool that increases ROI of in-person events and large meetings. (Speaking engagements, internal and external meetings, event sponsorships, trade shows, conferences etc).  Lively increases audience participation by 5X with fun and informative live polling, branded trivia games, audience responses turned into imagery, contests for participation and more.  Beyond that, it 1) provides reporting on the interests and challenges of specific attendees (with their names and social media profiles), 2) distributes content & generates leads and 3) provides high-impact branding.

Whether or not you use Lively, it can be inspiring to see the “institutional curiosity” of many successful organizations. E.g. being thoughtful in what questions are asked and how they are asked (internally and externally). Here are some general thoughts about strategically framing questions:

  1. Frame strategic choices by asking “should we?” rather than “can we?”
  2. Reveal untapped strategic opportunities by asking: “If we only had _____, we’d be much better off at achieving _____.”
  3. For initiatives in uncharted territory ask “How will we know when we’ve succeeded and how will we measure success?”
  4. Challenge pivotal assumptions with constructive skepticism: “What makes us believe that _____ will occur now when it hasn’t before?”

Questions have consequences and impact.  Ask away….


Unseen Potential: Engaging Multiple Senses at Events

Sure, appealing to people’s senses sounds like a no-brainer method for improving a trade show or speaker series. But have you pondered how much neurological research tells us about ourselves when it comes to being engaged at one? According to the Sense of Smell Institute, people retain about half of the visual images they see after three months, but can remarkably remember more than 65% of what they smelled even after a year has passed! A closer look at the link between sight and taste reveals that people have reported identical desserts to taste up to 10% sweeter on white plates than black, for example. These statistics don’t limit how our senses can boost your brand; whether orchestrating a speaker series or designing a five-star cuisine, sensory cues can play a vital role in fostering the experience you’re aiming for.

Since it is holiday season, let’s check out how the outdoor-living retail chain Gander Mountain had integrated these ideas into their store model two winters ago. It began by blending its outdoorsy label with the holiday spirit by creating crafts with children (no, not just for parents needing to desperately find hiking presents), introducing a chirping “naughty or nice detector,” as well as propping up a green screen for family and pet photos. Would you be surprised to learn that foot traffic and online media mentions grew up to ten times at each store?

Other renowned companies have grappled with the idea of enhancing experiences by triggering new neurons—each in a characteristic way. Here are some examples:

  • Sight: New Zealand’s Auricle Sonic Arts Gallery introduced its signature dining experience thanks to Chef Alex Davies, wine writer Jo Burzynska, and visual artist Toshi Endo. Each of the seven courses was paired with specific compositions and live visuals throughout the evening, engaging guests in a whirl of aromas, flavors, colors, and sounds
  • Sound: The sound engineering giant Dolby staged a speaker series about the history of sound with pristine and carefully-selected audio samples that followed the chronology of the talk— murmuring mammals and grazing tectonic plates resonated throughout the hall
  • Smells: LinkedIn transformed London’s ExCel event center into a model city square for its annual flagship event last year. The 1,500 invited clients found themselves chatting among life-sized buildings, cabs, pubs, and shops. The aromas and ambience of city life could even be perceived throughout the day to immerse the international guest list in the character of the capital

Of course, becoming sensually successful doesn’t have to require hefty measures like these. Experiment and find out!