Used correctly, there’s no doubt social media can play a huge and positive role for conferences. But it can also have a derailing effect, with delegates lost in their feed, ignoring the carefully curated content being presented to them in the real world, according to personal development expert Ross McWilliam.
“For all the obvious components of a great conference, awareness of engagement is often overlooked, especially if everything else has run smoothly and feedback, at least superficially, has been very positive,” he says. “But if you scratch beneath the surface of some of this feedback, you might start to become aware of a lack of audience engagement.”
He says that constant access to the internet can result in a ‘heard it all before’ attitude, or result in delegates using Google to enhance or even question what is being said.
“You must also factor in the balance between information overload and too simplistic delivery, the length of audience attention spans and the anticipation of fun and excitement,” he adds.
“Dopamine is released into the body when we sense a reward and as a result learning is easier and is often perceived as enjoyable,” says McWilliam. “People are always looking consciously or subconsciously for rewards and sometimes, just the thought of a reward can trigger dopamine to be released.
“As a result, people can easily become distracted, even if they know it’s bad for them. Often these rewards are found on social media – the quick and easy access escape route located right in the palm of their hand.
“The problem is people think they are still engaged when they aren’t. How many times at home have you been ‘listening’ to your partner whilst cruising Facebook only to realise you haven’t heard a word they’ve said?”
So how do we solve the problem? According to McWilliam, it’s primarily about communication.
“Make delegates aware about media etiquette; i.e. not using mobile devices when conference speakers are engaging the audience. In fact, the anticipation of a social media reward when the speaker has finished will give them an even bigger dopamine rush.
“For many, social media is an addiction, just like smoking. So create social media stations, just like smoking stations, which allow them to feed their addiction.
“You might actually find that the act of leaving the conference hall to tweet underlines the fact that they are missing the presentation, as opposed to thinking they are listening, and they may not leave in the first place.
Once the group accept this is the format of the conference, peer power should take over. However, this is punitive and sanction-based, where really, if you want to change a behaviour, it should be reward-based, says McWilliam.
“Therefore, offer incentives such as designated social media breaks. These could also incorporate a simple and quick competition – with prizes!
“There is also a place for preventative strategies such as when they book the conference, delegates are made aware on the booking form next to payment. Equally, venue posters and an opening address to remind delegates is sensible. Once the group accept this is the format of the conference, peer power should take over.”
And if this fails, there’s the nuclear option – naming and shaming.
McWilliam says: “I have even known some conference organisers to award ‘booby prizes’ for inappropriate media use and often this stops potential users dead in their palms!”