DIGIEDUHACK-101: Ways to engage with your participants
Reduce your dropout rate and activate your participants
This is your final stretch, your moment of truth. Participants have been signing up en masse for your DigiEdiHack online event. It all looks great. But how many people will actually show up on the 12th of November and take part in your event? Although there are very little data on the issue, we can estimate that the dropout rate in online hackathons revolves around 55 to 60%, while it stays at 25 to 30% for offline hackathons. Why such a disparity? It's hard to point to one single cause, but the notion of "commitment" might be a key here.
When a participant signs up for a physical event, there is a strong sense of commitment, independent from the event itself. A kind of "if I don't show up, there will be an empty chair" feeling that acts as a driving force and pushes the participant to at least show up and (hopefully actively) take part. But in online events, there are no chairs: "If I don't show up, nobody will ever notice nor care". Well at DigiEduHack, we do care and we have a solution to lower this online dropout rate: engagement. More precisely: "personal engagement".
In a DigiEduHack context, "engagement" encompasses all the pre-event actions that the host of an online DigiEduHack event will initiate in order to transform the potentialities of a registered participant into the reality of an activated participant: the one that will eventually show up and take part in the online event. Successful engagement, as you might have guessed, is hard to achieve. In this article we are going to go through different engagement methods, starting from a meta-level to more functional and adaptable working paths.
Engagement is not motivation: cause vs money-prize
In the last ten years, organisers of online and offline hackathons have used a quite obvious string to ensure that participants would commit, show up and take part: money prizes have been reaching skyrocketing extremes, driving participation levels up and instigating a very competitive spirit among the teams. This means that the hosts of such hackathons need to deploy few-to-no engagement tactics to ensure participants' motivation and commitment.
DigiEduHack is a different kind of hackathon. We don't rely on money prizes as a form of motivation: the 5000€ promised for each winning solution are meant to be used by the teams to develop their solutions further. So what is the primary driving force that will make participants actually take part in DigiEduHack? It's impacting people lives and, literally, in a very concrete way, contributing to change the future of education. As a host, this has a direct incidence on how you will engage with your participants, on your choice of words when you address them and on the content of your messages. When they join DigiEduHack, your participants embark on a positive mission: they want to make change happen, now. And this is priceless. Now let's get off the meta-level considerations to focus on more down-to-earth approaches.
Plan and tell the plan
Layout the next steps, the places where to meet and send reminders
One of the reasons for a high dropout rate in online hackathons is that once a participant is registered, some organisers consider the job done until the event day. Participants are left lingering, at best with one email giving a vague list of dates, at worse with a "Thank you we'll keep in touch" message. Participants have busy lives and that no matter how much enticing your DigiEduHack event is, it's most likely not the centre of their universe.
Just after they enrol, engage with your participants by sending them a very short welcome package by email (you can send this manually, or use an email client that will batch-process the sending). In this welcome package, go straight to the point, and clearly layout:
- the list of all the virtual meeting places/platforms/tools you'll be using during your event (chat board, your Twitter, the DigiEduHack main Twitter, an email address for all the requests, but also all the apps/tools you plan to use and an explanation of their purpose)
- the list of all the pre-event next steps with a date, time and (virtual) place to meet (remember to always use the same timezone in all your communication)
These two lists are your participant's lifeline. Send simple, direct, single-point reminders 24h before an event happens on all your communication platforms: there's never too much info. Important note: don't post any direct link to your Zoom (or equivalent) events at that stage!
Maintain the contact
Meet and greet
If the previous step sounds a bit obvious, this one is a bit more off-the-path: why would you take time to meet and greet ALL your participants? Because meeting the participants before your online event is the most efficient way to engage with them and create a bond. You can start by meeting your participants on your chat board, in order to debunk and answer the most practical questions they may have and start building engagement there. Ask questions, don't be too formal in your answers, and use and abuse the @-command: targeted communication is better than generic messages, especially on a chat board. Try also to make an inter-participant dialogue happen on your chat board: this is part of the collaboration, co-creation and participant empowerment process. Finally, in parallel you can also organise informally, 1-hour long small-group sessions on your favourite online visual meeting tool (Zoom, Webex, Meet, Jitsi, ...).
Because they are casual, these visual meeting sessions work magically as get-togethers for both participants and hosts. There again, the aim of these sessions is to directly engage with your participants by actually meeting them, reinforcing their commitment and building a sense of togetherness. This is crucial for online hackathons: even if they are connected, ultimately your participants are physically alone when they take part in your event. And the more you manage to create a sense of togetherness through engagement with your participants, the more they will commit to your event. And as a bonus, these sessions will make your team-building process much easier.
Build and connect
Build the teams
Building the teams that will take part in your event is also a major way to engage with your participants. This process has a huge impact on your participants' commitment. For a DigiEduHack online event, you can choose to build teams at two moments: before your event or on the day of your event. We strongly recommend the first option. First because on the event day, time is scarce: your participants want to focus on your challenge, not on building teams. Second because the earliest you start this process, the stronger the alchemy and the collaboration between team members will be. As a host, you should give time for the members of a team to discover each other, decide on their roles, and connect.
The ideal timing would be to have two team building sessions: one held two weeks prior to your event, and one held a week prior to your event. When joining your event, some participants might come with a complete team, some might come with a team that is looking for new members and some participants might join alone. You can use your chat board to initiate the team-building process: set up a channel #looking_for_a_team and a channel #teams_looking_for_members. Interact with your participants try to corral them. All teams are full but you still have participants alone? No problem: at that stage, you probably have already identified the most active profiles among your participants. Ask them if they want to be captains and create their won team. Try to make some matches happen, talk and engage. And don't worry: in reality, the process is much more fluid than it seems when you read these lines! one last thing: the ideal size for a team is around 4 people. 7 is too much, 2 is too few.
Reinforce the bond with your participants
Connect with the mentors
Teams are done? Great, time to connect them with their mentors. This last step is not mandatory nor crucial but it's a bit the cherry on the cake when it comes to engagement. Meeting their mentor is important for your participants: it means creating trust and strengthening the sense of togetherness. Ideally, the connection of a team with their mentor would happen via an online meeting tool: it's a 30 minutes/ one-hour long introduction session that takes place before your event. Why before? Because if a team and its mentor have met prior to your event, they will have that "in this together" feeling on the event day: the bond will already be built and everyone can focus on what matters: co-create a solution to your challenge.
Empowering participants with new digital skills is part of your mission as a host
The tool session
The week before your event, you can organise one or several specific visual session(s) where you would present all the apps/tools that you plan to use or put at the teams' disposal during the event. Don't have a huge list and don't go too technical: 4 apps for a 1-hour session are more than enough. The aim here is again to engage with the participants by giving them an overview of the tech they can use to achieve their goals during your DigiEduHack event.
When preparing this session, try to put yourself in your participants' shoes: find tools that answer needs corresponding to the different steps of your event. Record and share your session so that participants that cannot attend get the info. And keep the discussion open on your chat board using channels like #AMA_Zoom or #AMA_Miro for example (AMA stands for Ask Me Anything).