Please don’t sell at me: The importance of attendee empathy for engagement

As an exhibition manager, you are used to appeasing two crowds: the attendee and the exhibitor. If you don’t have a good record of engaged attendees for your shows, nobody is going to want to exhibit. If there aren’t exhibitors at your show your target audience values, they’re not going to attend. However, I’m of the mind that once you’ve learned how to think like an attendee, you can attract and retain exhibitors.

To start the attendee engagement process, you have to figure out what your attendees want. How do you really know? Easy: ask them. You can conduct a pre-event survey, or if you use registration software that enables you to do so, you have a distinct opportunity during the registration process to secure answers.

Proceed with caution

Think it through before you survey attendees, though. You want to be mindful of the types of questions you’re asking. You might think that matchmaking can be facilitated simply by asking attendees to fill out a profile that indicates how much money they have to spend and what exhibitors they’d like to see at the event. Then, align results with exhibitor profiles, and – voila! – the matches practically make themselves.

However, this method has been proven ineffective to ensuring attendee engagement. Why? Because people are naturally reluctant to give up too much information because they don’t want to risk being marketed at.

“Just looking.”

Think about this scenario: It’s the night before Thanksgiving, and your oven goes out. As the Thanksgiving host specifically responsible for the turkey – the precious centerpiece of the entire holiday – this is a critical matter. So, you set out for Sears, and within seconds of setting foot in the store, you’re approached by a young sales representative who wants to know if he can help you find what you are looking for.

Instinctively, without hesitation, you reply: “No thanks. Just looking.”

Why would you do that? Because, regardless of the level of urgency around making a purchase, people do not want to be sold at. They want to conduct a little research, gather their thoughts, ask a few questions, and make an educated purchase. If you gave up too much information to this guy, you would be concerned he would try to manipulate you into purchasing something that serves his interests more than yours.

Attendee engagement is about more than matching profiles

If you ask questions constructively and find out what attendees want in a non-threatening manner, you can plan your show around that data. And, you can tell exhibitors what attendees are saying so they can be prepared to tailor their booths for effective engagement as well.

If you have an event app or registration website, you might use that technology to obtain answers to these questions as part of the attendee profile. In ideal cases, your event app or registration technology can even make suggestions based on how registrants respond.

A few examples of less obtrusive attendee questions include:

  • What products or services are you interested in?
  • How do you justify coming to this event to your manager(s)?
  • Would you be more interested in track X or track Y?

Remember, attendees are people, too

If you want to engage attendees, you must empathize with them. Understand them. If you know what your attendees are interested in you can make certain you have exhibitors there who can deliver. It’s not just about using matchmaking technology to align one interest with another. You have to ensure that what you are showcasing is something your attendees are truly interested in.

Find out what their driving factors are. What goals they are trying to achieve. What value they are seeking. People want to know that their attendance is worthwhile, so make sure are giving them the sense that your goal is to help them get value, not get sold at.

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