Meeting Participation Technology
Interactivity has been a buzz word in the meetings industry since at least on decade. Sleeping participant must have been the flashing red light for meeting organisers and meeting planners. Even though napping has proven to be healthy, tiredness after lunch is normal and power naps are a rage from Tokyo to New York, nobody likes it during their own meeting or conference.
Keeping the audience awake during presentations is one thing, but making the audience participate is a whole different ball game. Turning an audience into participants is key since it creates value for the participant and for the conference. Simply put: it increases the ROI.
Where does participation fit?
Today, any meeting planner has potentially hundreds of options to do just that. This is very different form 10 years ago and technology plays a major part. Based on Meeting Architecture and the IDEA methodology we start by Identifying our objectives, than we Design the meeting than we Execute and finally we Asses the results.
Participation on its own is not a very clear or precise objective. What is it precisely we want to accomplish? What objectives do we have that will result in a change of participants behaviour after the conference that has an (business) effect that generates a (financial) value? These are level 2, 3, 4 and 5 in measuring ROI (European Event ROI Institute).
Participation is something you can push, but your participants will also pull.
The generation of nineteen and younger (in 2008) are born with Facbook, You-Tube, my-space and other web applications where participation drives success. These kids are used to collaborate, share and co-create. The youngsters born with laptops, GPS on a phone, and even more friends on-line that in the reel world are called the digital natives. They will probably refuse to sit in a room and listen to experts all day. They will expect to be part of a community rather than a silent number in a gray audience. Soon we will have these kids in our meeting rooms and conference centres and we better start preparing for them now!
On the push side: you want participants to learn more, make them successful in networking and give them higher levels of energy. This all leads to more impact and more ROI.
Participate in what?
The 3 groups of objectives as defined in the Meeting Objective Matrix (Meeting Architecture, MSI, 2008) are Learning, Networking and Motivation. Audience participation plays a major role in all three. Defining your objectives within this framework, and writing down the desired measurable outcomes, is your first task.
Once we have them on paper, created in consensus by the organising team, the hardest part is done: the ‘I’ in IDEA; identifying objectives.
This article will only address the Learning partition.
How to drive participation
We now enter phase two: Designing the meeting.
Like an architect designing a house, you have a large choice of materials to choose from in order to create the right building. In the design of a house, you choose from wood, bricks, concrete and steel for your construction. For the windows again different materials and glass and colours are possible. Same thing for doors, fixtures, plumbing, tiles, carpet, switches, etc.
Thousands of choices, and the design phase is when these choice are made. As a meeting architect, we too have choices to make. Preferably from a large toolbox with hundreds of tools that each have specific use and each support a specific objective.
In Meeting Architecture (MSI, 2008) the 5 categories of tools are classified as CHATTY tools. Conceptual, Human, Art, Technical and Technology tools and this article focuses on technology.
There are many different technologies that can be used at meetings and conferences to increase participation:
The best know are voting keypads or Audience Response Systems (ARS)
Electronic badges and other special devices
Mobile Phone using SMS and/or web connections
Collaboration technology based on computers in a network
Software connected to the registration and event management software
Online applications for learning before, during and after the meeting
participation in Learning, Networking and Motivation.
When we look at learning (our first group of objectives), the concept of the learning meetings as seen in ‘Learning Meetings and Conferences in Practice’, (People's Press 2006) explains the value of participation for learning. When people collaborate discuss, reflect etc. the learning improves dramatically.
Participants also learn from each other (horizontal learning) and the organization can learn from participants (bottom up learning). This cannot happen with an “audience”; people that sit in rows in an Auditorium. The first thing we need to do is create an environment in which we can do this: A large room and a set-up with round tables so participants can discuss in small circles of peers. If you want to create participation, make sure you don’t book an auditorium.
Obviously the expert on stage teaches the participants (top down learning) the most important bit but that should never be the only learning direction. It should be the primer that shares novelties, introduces knowledge, creates discussion.
Ib Ravn sais “Networking is too important to leave it to receptions and coffee breaks”. And there is a lot a meeting organisers can do to enhance the networking inside the meeting. Again round tables play a key role because in small group discussion each participant learns a lot about the others at their table. That increases the quality of connections because participants start conversation based on content. Technology like Crystal Interactive helps to make table discussions more focussed and takes the idea’s of individuals to a higher level.
Motivation of participants is the third crucial focus for meeting organisers, and what better than allow participants to influence. Influence a session, influence the ropics, influence even the destination for the next meeting. It empowers participants and mekes them feel part of the community that was brought together in this meeting.
What other participation technology can we use for improving all these directions of learning, the networking and the motivation of participants?
Most of us know voting systems or Audience Response systems. They consist of keypads that allow each meeting participant to push buttons from 1 to 10. This allows speakers or meeting organisers to ask questions with multiple choice answers. By being broad minded or creative, this allows for true participation. Rather than just ask questions about the topic or for speaker evaluation, we can also allow participants to really influence a session. How about a speaker that presents 5 topics in 3 minutes each and than allow the audience to vote for the one or two that they want to spend the rest of the session on. You can buy your own devices, but working with specialised companies like MSI members DMI and Option Finder will enhance the experience.
handheld devices like Spotme create a whole new range of applications and electronic badges like N-tag and Badge 2 Match combine the badge and networking technology. While RFID badges from Mercurius RFID don’t contain electronics, they allow for a whole range of applications. All these ‘portable’ technology systems aim at introducing participants and increase the networking quantity and quality. N-tag and Badge to Match also include a voting (ARS) system and many other functions like messaging, participants listing, etc.
Anyone has a mobile phone and LogOn turns them into devices that generate bi-directional use at meetings and events. Text messaging (SMS) can obviously be used before and after a meeting and on site functions for increased networking and finding information add real value for participants.
A computer on a table allows for a lot of participation that otherwise is simply not manageable. Crystal Interactive provides both a specialised system and professional facilitators. The participants can type in all valuable ideas during table discussion and other tables can see all ideas on the large screen. This get’s everyone inspired and a lot of idea’s are generated. The group than can create categories of ideas and drag their own ideas in the appropriate folders. In break out groups the work continues and taskforces with a list of objectives are created by the participants.
Event management software
An increasing number of event management systems realise their potential in improving the Learning, Networking and motivation of participants. They connect the whole community of participants, speakers, sponsors and organisers before during and after the conference. With some added modules they create participant profiling, leading to an appointment system or a networking enhancer some have an evaluation system, or a speaker management system that allows participants to influence the programme. Covr, specialising in large association conferences even has a messaging system that allows participants exchange messages or to make on site appointments. Many other ideas, literature and systems can be found on
Some online applications allow for participations even before the conference started. Synthetron lets a group of future participants gather on line before the conference for let’s say a one hour session to create a conference programme or part of it. The system lets ideas that are successful float to the top. Every individual can ad an idea, comment on an idea and score each idea. Every idea is presented to a small group first and only passes on to the larger group if the small group scores it high.
Whatever you choose to use, make sure you spend the right amount of time to prepare. The value of technology on top of concepts, techniques and human facilitation can only come out in its fullest if it is well prepared. Use professionals, work with meeting architects or designers, look for large group specialists etc. they can help and they know the sociology and psychology behind group processes.
Remember that the ultimate goal of each meeting is to influence it’s participants. Don’t use technology because it is spectacular or exciting or cool! Use it wisely, base on your objectives and make sure it is part of your long term strategy.
Maarten Vanneste, CMM
President meeting Support Institute.
September 25th 2008.
If you, after reading this article, have the feeling that Audience Participation Technology is interesting enough to write a book about, you should let us know. A book would go more into details, list all kinds of possibilities, tell you where to go for services and include cases. A few members of the Meeting Support Institute consider such an educational project and you can support it by letting them know at firstname.lastname@example.org