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How To Stop The Bait And Switch Of Online Engagement

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  • Post published:October 28, 2020
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Have you ever been tricked into attending a webinar or an online presentation because it promised to be interactive and engaging? Rather than delivering on these buzzwords, it ended up being basically the same old boring online presentation that one has unfortunately come to expect.

Undoubtedly some of this misrepresentation is just that. People claim that an online presentation will be engaging in order to drive attendance, even when it’s clear that it’s just going to be a mediocre presenter narrating a slide deck. It’s bait and switch. However, there are also cases where people seem genuinely unaware of the gulf between the online engagement and interactivity that they’re promising and the reality of what they’re delivering.

Polls Do Not Unleash Interactivity

A good first example is polls. It’s not uncommon for someone to rave about the interactivity of a presentation; then, when asked what makes it interactive, the reply is that there’s a poll. In fact, maybe there are two or three online polls. People seem to speak about including polls as if they’ve discovered the Holy Grail of Online Engagement. But including a single poll that takes one minute over the course of an hour does not automatically make for an interactive and engaging online presentation. Unfortunately, it’s not the case that adding many polls means much more online engagement, and thus a much better presentation. Presentations with lots of polls can quickly become more annoying than they are engaging. It feels like somebody overusing a cheap hack. Using polls may indeed improve an online presentation’s engagement, but, on their own, they are not a silver bullet.

Hand Raising Is Not Special Online

Like polls, simply offering the audience a way to raise a virtual hand or click a virtual voting button doesn’t qualify a presentation for interactive status. One would never have the chutzpah to suggest that an in-person presentation would be interactive if people were given a chance to raise their hands in a conference room. Certainly, using virtual tools like hand raising to signal interest or agreement is an improvement on the status quo, but that alone doesn’t make an hour-long presentation interactive.

Audience Questions Are Expected

Another popular culprit in the misattribution of online engagement is allowing the audience to ask questions. First of all, an audience will almost always expect that this is part of the experience. It’s like a restaurant trying to get patrons excited about being served water for free! Again, just allowing the audience to ask questions in the usual way that audiences are allowed to ask questions doesn’t make for a particularly interactive or engaging online presentation or webinar. A pretty typical presentation format is to consume the vast majority of an hour with an introduction, announcements, logistics, and self-promotion, then a relatively long presentation, followed by a few afterthought moments of questions from the audience. If one assumes that everyone who’s attending a presentation has some interest or some question about the topic, then this usual degree of interaction falls quite short. If there are 50 attendees and almost all have some question that brought them there, is it successful if only three people got to ask their questions?

Also, anyone who has ever attended any sort of presentation knows that if there’s going to be a portion that’s cut for time, it’s almost always going to be the segment for questions at the end. It’s not uncommon for a presentation to start late, run long, or have to make up time because of tech differences; then the presentation simply ends with an apology that there’s no time for questions. At that point, attendees can’t ask for a refund of their time because the minimal interactivity they were promised wasn’t delivered.

Chat Boxes And Online Engagement

Similarly, offering a chat box doesn’t necessarily make an online presentation interactive or engaging. There are certainly times when a lot of engagement comes from the text chat. This is especially true as audiences get bigger and bigger; then the engagement may almost be a victim of its own success as the chat moves so quickly with so many participants that it’s almost impossible to follow its different thoughts and threads. Still, it’s likely that only a portion of the audience is participating in the chat so even robust chats are not necessarily engaging everyone. And what’s happening in the chat is often almost a separate reality from what’s happening in the presentation. In other words, offering a group of people with similar interests and concerns a starting place to chat has value; whether that interactivity is really attributable to the presentation is questionable.

Panels Are Engaging—For The Panelists

Another common mistake is to miscast online engagement as something will involve the whole audience as opposed to what a few speakers will experience. A panel discussion may indeed be quite interactive for its three or four star speakers. But, for the audience, it’s still just 45 minutes of watching people talk. That may be better than a single presenter doing a presentation, but the audience isn’t really being engaged; they are passive viewers.

Networking That Isn’t Engaging

Finally, as with in-person events, online events will often overpromise the interactivity and connection-building of a networking segment. Often, this is just a few minutes before the official kickoff when everyone is basically staring at a screen and a few brave people try to have a conversation while everyone else watches. Watching a few people talk to each other won’t fool attendees into thinking they’re experiencing real online engagement.

Whether one knowingly mischaracterizes an online presentation or webinar as being engaging when it’s not, it has the same effect on attendees. In the short term, they feel disappointed and misled. They came in with high hopes only to have them dashed. However, it’s the longer term effect of all the cumulative promises of interactivity that don’t pan out that are especially worrying. Eventually, people learn to distrust an online session that is advertised as being interactive or engaging. They’ve been burned before and there are only so many times they’ll respond to someone crying wolf. Unfortunately, what this means is that even webinars, presentations and conferences that are truly designed to be interactive and engaging are mistrusted. So, for the sake of everyone doing webinars and presentations, either deliver on the interactivity and online engagement you’re promising, or just be upfront with people that what they’re signing up for is going to be static and passive.

This article was originally published in Forbes.