You plan it and they come, but if attendees don’t feel welcome or want to participate, your event is a failure. As events become more sophisticated, planners need to be more savvy about creating entrance points for people to interact with each other and feel like they’re being heard. Luckily, there are several tech tools that can help.

Surveys, polls and chatter

Rule No. 1 is to “Know your audience.” If you don’t know what people want, you can’t create an experience that truly engages them. If they’re not engaged or invested in the event, there’s no good reason for them to show up. Surveymonkey is a popular online tool that’s free to use and gives you a lot of customization options; for a few dollars more, you can export the results and make fancy graphs out of the data. Google Docs also has survey templates to customize and use.

During face-to-face and virtual events like webinars, polling the audience is a great way to make sessions interactive. The high-end live event option is to use an audience response system that lets attendees type or text in answers. The results are instantly displayed as a graph, and comments are easily moderated by the in-house A/V staff. On the do-it-yourself-side, there’s PollEverywhere, a free online platform that accepts audience responses via text message, Twitter or e-mail; there also is an option to respond online on a designated webpage. Please note that you can only moderate comments on this platform after they post, so if you’ve got a rowdy group, it might be worth paying for a system with true administrator controls.

It seems like there are a million virtual platforms available for webinars and streaming live video. They come in a variety of flavors and price points for all sorts of tastes. But whatever platform you choose, make sure it enables the speaker to poll the virtual audience at the start of the meeting. You’ve now moved from a static broadcast to a two-way conversation that welcomes the input of the virtual audience. A chat function also is key so that virtual participants can talk with each other, interact with the face-to-face audience, and submit questions to the speakers. It is worth noting that SlideShare is now offering a free webinar/online meeting portal via Zipcast; once you log in, you can promote the live streaming event to Facebook and Twitter. Users are given a customized channel that accommodates unlimited participants and has group chat functionality.

Getting social

Speaking of Facebook and Twitter, they remain two of the most effective ways to build and communicate with an online community. Since it costs nothing to start a fan page or develop a hashtag that allows people on Twitter to follow the conversation about your event (i.e., #insertyourcustomtaghere), you should do so if your target audience uses those networks. Twitter also has some fun applications like Twitcasting and Twitpic, which allow you to share photos and stream live video from your mobile phone. If you have a corporate group that’s more traditional, LinkedIn might be a better channel for communications. Yammer offers a private Twitter-style communication network that only co-workers can access.

If you have the resources to invest in creating a conference community, you should because they are a phenomenal way for attendees to network, get the most out of the meeting and find out real-time information about your event. Some online registration systems like CrowdVine and Pathable gives people the option to link personal social media accounts to their attendee profile, find friends who will be attending, and schedule conference activities and appointments. Another option is Presdo Match, which creates an invitation-only social network for your attendees, sponsors and exhibitors.

Companies such as QuickMobile have developed a number of mobile applications for meetings and events that allow attendees to network with each other. A side benefit of these apps is that they can be loaded with conference materials, session information and other items that normally would be printed, creating a truly interactive, paperless meeting. Developing an app from scratch can cost upwards of $20,000, but it doesn’t have to. Post your job requirements on a techie freelance board like Elance or Vworker and see if any project bids come in that will work within your budget.

A fun way to connect your audience with speakers, company leadership or event VIPs is through Vyou, a free online platform that lets you film short video responses to questions submitted by attendees. All you need to get started is an e-mail account (so they can notify you when a question’s been asked) and a webcam (so you can film your responses). You also can submit questions to your account, if you need to “seed” the content or want to create an interactive alternative to the “frequently asked questions” page. Vyou accounts can be linked to Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr accounts, and embedded on webpages, like a YouTube video.

Speaking of YouTube, it’s the easiest platform to host event clips, highlight reels, testimonials, interviews with speakers or any other videos you want to use to promote your event;  it’s free, your videos will pop up when people do a search for related keywords, and the videos are easy to share and embed on websites. At the very least, you need to secure a YouTube channel to protect your brand.

Game on!

Don’t underestimate the power games have to engage attendees and boost interaction. After all, how often do people get to have fun at work? A hot new trend in the meetings industry is giving teams of attendees a task to achieve or awarding people points and the chance to win prizes for doing mundane conference activities like visiting trade show booths. Games also can reinforce educational objectives. At the 2011 GMIC Sustainable Meetings conference, QuickMobile developed an app that contained comprehensive case studies for fictional companies. Teams of attendees then had to use that information to select a meeting destination and develop a sustainability strategy that helped their fictional client achieve its business objectives, giving attendees an opportunity to apply what they’d just learned in the sessions to real-world scenarios.

If you don’t have the money to develop a mobile game with all the bells and whistles, there are a few mobile apps already out there that can be customized for your event. Foursquare and Gowalla are immensely popular location-based games that award participants points and gives them the chance to leave photos, notes and tips about places they’ve visited. And what’s even better is that most of those users broadcast their activity to Facebook and Twitter, which gives your event a little more publicity. It’s pretty easy to create a “check-in” point or series of points people can check into at your event, offering a prize for the person who’s the “mayor” or on top of the leader board by the end of the conference. All you need to do is stand in the location you want people to check into, do a search within the app for what you would call that location (e.g., PYM LIVE Chicago), and when it doesn’t show up, add the location. Everyone near that place who does a search from then on will see your event location as a check-in option and be able to read what other people have had to say about it. The new gaming platform Scvngr goes one step further, allowing you to create location-specific, task-driven scavenger hunts.

A quick and easy way to incorporate a gaming element into your event is by using QR codes. The square black and white images contain encoded information that can be “read” by smartphones using a QR reader application (several are free to download). You can fabricate a series of QR codes that, when decoded, reveals a secret message, takes them to a website, sends a text message or gives them a phone number to call. Just type in the information you want to encode into a QR-code generator, download the image and print it out or embed it into presentations. Ways in which planners have used the code include: Driving attendees to online surveys; using them as scavenger hunt clues; giving sponsors extra exposure in print ads; notifying attendees they’ve won a door prize; and driving traffic to certain booths on the trade show floor.

Continuing the conversation

Just because the event has to end doesn’t mean the conversation has to. Most virtual event platforms, like Inxpo, will archive conference content and create an on-demand educational portal post-event.

You also can do it yourself on a free platform like SlideShare. If you decide to go that route, make sure you get a good audio recording of the session and upload it to Internet Archive. Then, upload the slides to SlideShare, select the option to add an audio track (using the link to your Internet Archive file), and synch the audio to the slides. Ta-daa! Instant on-demand webinar — one that people can download, share on social networks or embed on a website (you also can control privacy settings). Even if you don’t have an audio track, you can upload presenters’ slides so attendees can download the ones they want.

If you recorded video but it’s longer than YouTube’s 10-minute limit, create a “TV” channel on Blip to host the materials. Like YouTube, Blip allows users to send video links and embed the videos on other sites. If you allow them to show advertisements, you also will earn money every time someone watches your clip.

People love seeing themselves in photos. Upload shots of the event to free photo-sharing platforms like Picasa or Flickr, and embed the slideshows on the event’s website. You can add photos to Facebook fan pages, too.

A couple of free, online tools can assist you in creating short, animated movies. With Animoto, a few still photographs or short video clips are all you need to create a professional-looking slideshow or video. If you can type, you can make a movie on Xtranormal, a storyboard-oriented program that uses your script and produces an animated short film based on your selections of cast, setting, camera angles and facial expressions. It’s a hoot to watch and a fun way to broadcast the “highlights” of the meeting, conference or event. Both programs generate links and embed codes so the shorts can be shared on multiple social networking platforms. The beta site Storify allows you to take the images, tweets, video and other information people have shared about your event and aggregate them into a “story” you can embed anywhere.

Don’t forget the basics: Sending thank-you notes, collecting and sharing testimonials, asking people what worked and what didn’t, and incorporating feedback and lessons learned so you can keep improving.

And don’t try to do everything, or force something on your attendees because you think it’s cool. Figure out what will work for your group, what they will enjoy, what might wow them, and discard the rest. Or, just tuck that idea away for a rainy day. You never know when an event might come along that needs a little something extra.

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This is third installment of the Meeting Technology 101 series. To read about tools that save time, click here. To read about tools that save money, click here. The next installment will be about tools that facilitate communication.