According to Victoria Matey, a world renowned expert in designing events, media owners should employ psychological principles in order to make experiences more memorable, productive, and ultimately profitable. The three central tenets? Belonging, safety and status. Cobus Heyl explains more…
At Media Makers Meet – Mx3, our focus is on connecting people within media and tech, with the aim of sharing insights, knowledge and expertise. This focus is continually on our minds as we develop our online presence and when planning our Media Makers Meet (Mx3) events and the FIPP World Media Congress (which we produce and host on license from the global media industry body).
With events playing a large part of our offering, we’ve witnessed at first hand the rapid developments in the sector (B2B in our case). We have seen several behavioural changes — even before the pandemic but marked since then — that continuously keep us on our toes and thinking hard about the next evolution of in-person events.
There are several variables and moving parts with each event, and you need to think of every component and how to stitch them together into a balanced, cohesive whole that delivers an excellent experience to attendees. It certainly makes for rich conversations when meeting other event designers.
One such recent, in-depth conversation was with Victoria Matey, an international event psychology advisor based in Seattle. Victoria advocates a ‘behaviour-first mindset’ to events and says, “Experiences first and foremost take place in people’s minds”.
Thinking of basic human needs, events should, for example, address “belonging, safety and status. They are some of the main psychological mechanisms that govern our behaviour. Your event will be the one they’ll return to if you make them feel like they belong, feel special, and feel safe.”
Apply a behavioural lens
Victoria says event designers must “understand how people ‘work’ to make experiences more memorable, productive, engaging, and ultimately profitable.”
Whether it’s creating effective learning in an event, designing a brain-friendly event space, or crafting a survey that people actually respond to, it must all be approached through a behavioural lens.
One example of adopting event psychology is the duration of event sessions. “Just a few years ago, 1.5-hour conference sessions were a standard. Then it started changing, and the pandemic helped too.”
Science shows that shorter sessions aid learning. More concise, sharper sessions help attendees engage without their minds drifting. The shorter sessions also mean that speakers must think more carefully about what they want to say in the allotted time. It’s a win-win.
Victoria also encourages event designers to add small breaks (over and above the regular networking breaks) to help attendees. She referred to research by Microsoft, which, using meetings, showed how back-to-back meetings over a prolonged period (e.g. 2 hours) increase beta waves – those associated with stress – activity in the brain. Building in short breaks helps our brains to “reset” and enter the next meeting in a more relaxed state.
“We could have had it right years ago if we embraced scientific insights!” says Victoria. “Overall [the application of psychology in events] is improving, but there are still many things to fix.”
The sooner you start implementing event psychology solutions, the easier your job will be, and the faster your business will grow.
Applying a lens to something static is easy, but human behaviour is fluid. Individuals may act differently from one day to the next based on external stimuli; groups may influence behaviour. We are notoriously irrational creatures.
The pandemic helps to explain how to think about this. “When the pandemic hit, everyone switched to online events, and event planners had difficulty marketing them. The reason was that they appealed to rationality. They’d say, ‘Hey, you just saved big on travel, so why not buy a ticket to our online event?’
“That didn’t go well because they did not consider human psychology. It’s not like people think in those rational, perfectly logical ways. They make decisions about buying an event ticket based on many factors, primarily purely behavioural and based on human biases and emotions.
“If they better knew how decision-making works, what influences people’s choices, and what tweaks to make for their communication to be more convincing, those promotions would be more successful.”
Time value is entirely different, so highlighting your event is free does not help as much anymore. Your event increasingly competes with considerations such as family time, vacation time, and mental downtime. It must offer real value to attract and retain attendees. As an industry, this is how our understanding of human behaviour helps us improve.
In-person, virtual and hybrid
The pivot to virtual during that time also brought hybrid events into focus. One lesson of virtual at the time was that it is excellent for content delivery, less so for networking. However, technologies improve rapidly, and mass adoption changes behaviours.
“It’s funny we talk about online networking because in-person networking isn’t much easier! But, the debate about in-person versus hybrid is more about how we react to change. Like any significant change, it takes time to get used to.
“On the one hand, we are inherently social creatures, and belonging is one of our critical psychological drivers. We do need to meet in person. On the other, we should remember that humans are very adaptable, and those sophisticated technologies that improve daily give us a unique chance to keep connecting online in different ways.
“The in-person versus virtual debates happen because people resist change (another reason to look at things through a behavioural lense). In the end, we will develop more tools to communicate efficiently in-person and online and new habits will form around those.”
Design for events large and small
B2B events can take many forms, from large trade fairs with thousands of attendees to intimate retreats with only a few. You can intuitively see how people would behave differently at these.
Victoria agrees. “Attendees at big shows and conferences often feel lost, uncomfortable, and confused because of the scale of the event. Some level of personalisation solves this. Personalisation helps address negative emotions and reinforce the feeling of safety — essential for a great experience — so it should be top of mind for event planners in this category.”
Event designers should keep the 80/20 principle in mind. “Another problem with large and medium events is that they overwhelm their attendees with options. We must remember that cognitive and sensory overload affects people’s satisfaction and decisions around an event, so adding an extra track or activation is rarely a good idea. It’s hard to do, but an intelligent way to improve the event experience is to subtract instead of add whenever possible.”
When it comes to small events, one of the most essential psychological considerations is fostering a sense of belonging. It’s vital for newcomers and regular attendees, and for maintaining engagement because of the nature and size of smaller events.
“Belonging is an essential part of who we are as humans. When you infuse that into your event design through peer-to-peer formats, creating an inclusive atmosphere, and actively seeking feedback, you’ll see a boost in attendee engagement.”
Our next Media Makers Meet (Mx3) event
Mx3 Barcelona takes place on 12-13 March. With an emphasis on specialist, niche and vertical media, it brings together independent creators and consumer and B2B media targeting well-defined communities of interest.
We place a limit of 200 participants to ensure an intimate, immersive experience designed for learning, connecting and being part of a community with a shared interest: innovation and the future of specialist media.
On-stage conversations are off-the-record, open and honest – even robust. Attendees are part of the conversations throughout. There are round tables or, weather permitting, walking meetings to dive deeper into select topics. We have multiple networking opportunities, including an informal social dinner at an off-site venue for all attendees on the middle night (12 March) of the event.
Learn more at mx3barcelona.com.
About Victoria Matey
Victoria studied linguistics and psychology, writing her final thesis on cognitive linguistics. She then studied for a Master’s degree in International Events Management and, after a few more years, set up a consultancy to share her expertise and international experience.
Victoria gives science-based advice on event design and marketing. In addition, she offers a variety of resources, including an on-demand Event Psychology Lab course. The course covers learning, networking and engagement at events from a behavioural perspective. People can also become members of her Event Psychology Club, which grants access to exclusive resources, examples, tips, recaps of Event Psychology podcasts, and more. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.