Studio Session #5: Using chat to improve conference audience engagement

Candice Evans

Audience engagement is a top priority for every meeting host.

For webinar hosts, it can feel elusive and challenging, with no body language or facial expressions to read. Webinar hosts, then, often rely on polls/surveys to encourage participation and gather feedback. But sometimes the simplest tools are the best; let’s consider the humble chat feature.

If you’ve ever watched a live stream on Twitch or Youtube, you’ve seen how active most audiences are during the broadcast. Messages quickly scroll across the chat window, some directly addressing the streamer, others holding brief conversations with other attendees.

Rather than being a distraction, chat keeps these viewers fully engaged in the stream. They react to what they are hearing or seeing, respond to other comments, and are often prompted for their direct feedback on what the streamer should do next. In most streams, people enter ready to participate.

Obviously, a webinar or business conference isn’t a live stream. But chat is still a great and simple way to keep your audience engaged and make them active participants in your meeting.

The key to making the best use of chat, as with all virtual meeting tools, is preparation. Plan what questions you’ll be asking, and how you’ll follow the responses. Decide whether attendees will be able to see each other’s messages or if they will be sent to the panelists only. Consider planting a question or comment with a fellow panelist or friendly attendee to spark dialogue.

During formal presentations, especially those where a lot of information is being given, it’s a great idea to use chat for regular “footnotes”: extra clarifying information, links or contact information directly related to what is being presented. These should be planned in advance and posted at appropriate times during the presentation.

This is directly connected to another important aspect of chat management: moderation. It can be difficult for the speaker to also keep a close eye on chat throughout a meeting. And ignoring chat until the end of a presentation limits attendee engagement.

Having a moderator helps to keep the audience connected to the presentation. This person can help with technical problems, respond to simple questions and read select messages aloud, lending a conversational tone to Q&A.

If you need to retain a formal report of responses, polls are likely going to be the preferred option. But chat is a great way to periodically check in with attendees and encourage participation without stopping the flow of the meeting. With a little bit of planning, you can create vibrant interactions in your chat windows, and the chat logs can become another great source of post-meeting content. This staple of online meetings should not be overlooked.

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