How to Run an Online Event using Behavioural Science – Part Three


Part three – Experiment and evolve

Like so many people, last year I found myself in the position of moving a large event – The Association for Business Psychology Annual Conference – online. For those who haven’t seen our previous blogs in this series, you can find our first (on keeping it simple) here, and our second (on making things bite-sized) here.

Last time, we talked about breaking the event down into bite-sized pieces. An unexpected benefit of moving things online was our access to a broader audience – we had delegates from the US, South Africa, and many European countries. This is something we’ll keep in mind for the future and is the benefit of experimentation; the ability to discover improvements and avoid falling into sub-optimal patterns of behaviour just because ‘it worked before’.

‘Experimental’ – aka when no one knows what to do.

When facing a new challenge like this, there are plenty of unknowns. Experience is a helpful guide, but we can’t rely on what worked before when the context is different. After agreeing on a two-week conference, we had to answer two key questions: how much do we charge and what time of the day should we have the sessions? Unfortunately, we couldn’t reach an agreement. That’s when we remembered that experimentation is vital.

How much are we charging?
Basic intuition tells you that running an online event is cheaper. It’s even tempting to keep the price of a face-to-face event and benefit from the savings. However, that would be unfair to delegates who are struggling financially. Therefore, we looked at similar conferences to establish a reference point. We saw everything from ‘free’ to ‘£400’, with our closest competitor going for £80. We were still unsure what to choose within such a price range, so we decided to do them all!

How? By allowing members to “pay what you want”. We clearly laid out the conference’s benefits before showing the option to buy a ticket. Delegates saw a price slider “anchored” at £95, which we felt was the right price. By moving the slider, members could choose to pay £1 – rather than nothing, since it encourages “engagement” – up to £150, or even enter a custom price.

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We also aimed to attract non-members in the hopes they would join The ABP. Our conference is a fantastic opportunity to meet the community, so we decided to bundle the membership costs within the ticket price. Non-members would access what we considered to be a great package – an opportunity to access all the content plus a year-long membership for free! 

To drive this point home, we used a combination of two behavioural principles. First, we relied on “framing”. In the image below, you can see the standard ticket on the left. In the middle, we introduced a second ticket for the same £125, which included the free year-long membership. This choice architecture encourages visitors to choose the option that gives them the highest value for money.

The second behavioural principle used was “salience”. To make the middle option more noticeable, we chose a larger box size and a different colour. Comparing these two options might seem like a no-brainer, but keeping both preserves the delegates’ choice to join The ABP or only attend the conference.

The results: we doubled our revenue expectations and had the most significant number of delegates in our conferences so far (300+). We had an average of £54.34 per ticket when promoting it under “Pay what you want”, which changed to £37.15 after using the subject line “just £1 to register!”. And even better – we attracted 56 new members compared to 16 in 2019.

What time of the day should we have sessions?
Given most are working remotely, putting ourselves in our audience’s shoes was crucial to identify when to broadcast live sessions. Mornings might be easier for some, as they can start their day with the conference and then resume work. However, international delegates might struggle if time zones don’t align. Afternoons can give you a solid morning of work, so you can be at ease when watching speakers. Evenings should be work-free for most, but anyone with children would have to sacrifice family time. What to do? Try them all! Week one had morning sessions, week two had afternoon sessions, and we had reruns during the evenings.

The results: more delegates participated in the morning sessions – an average of 70 for each. Afternoon sessions showed a reduction of 20 people on average compared to ‘week one morning sessions’. Testimonials reinforced this, which has given us excellent data for future conferences. One delegate wrote: “I couldn’t access talks and conferences before given their location and cost. For me, it’s like someone has turned the tap to opportunity on”.

Reruns only once – that same evening.
A somewhat divisive decision was to play back the recordings only once, during the evening of the session. Two behavioural science principles supported this: ‘we are social’ (aka “Norms”) and ‘scarcity as a motivator’. When Netflix started releasing whole shows in one sitting, it was revolutionary. 

This shift should have been the end of the ‘one episode per week’ approach, especially for streaming. However, we now have top-rated shows like The Mandalorian, WandaVision, and Better Call Saul, once again releasing one episode per week. If you have binge-watched a show, you probably have blurry memories of it. One episode per week lets you anticipate it, savour it, think about it and share that with others. It’s a communal experience. We aimed to tap into this while providing flexibility; you could watch the session’s rerun with others and comment on content live.

I also mentioned scarcity, a bias we include under our “Loss aversion” Driver of Influence. If you only have two chances to access something you care about, you are more likely to set aside time. Though the word ‘paternalistic’ might come to mind, we know how hard it is to set aside time to do something when there are no deadlines. 

‘Learn at your own pace’ websites promote this stridently. But how many of you have paid for a subscription and still aren’t a ‘data science/coding/photoshop master’? A deadline makes it easier to plan and execute. Eventually, we uploaded all recordings we had permission for onto our website and learned that next time, we could do this at the end of each week rather than once the whole conference ends.

The results: We only expected a few people to join the reruns. But we were surprised; evening recordings fluctuated between 30 – 50 delegates, with the 18:00 to 20:00 slot doing much better than 19:00 to 21:00. Even on Friday nights at 8 pm, we had 30 delegates watching! There’s nothing more humbling than being someone’s Friday night plan.

These are not all the things we did; there were optimised communications, reminders, easy to follow instructions, and more. There are also plenty of things we could have done better. But the bottom line is this – behavioural science principles can quickly help you make the right choices when facing uncertainty, and luckily, they apply to everything we do.

If you’d like to learn more about how you can impact the behaviour of delegates, customers or employees for the better, you can learn more from our blogs, check out our podcast, or get in touch directly if you have any questions. I’d love to hear your thoughts.