Probing the Science of Human Behavior for Better Event Engagement

Skift Take

Unusual, salient, sometimes provocative — this is what catches our attention, especially in the time of Zoom fatigue and information overload. The psychology of human behavior could be the key to more compelling events. 

Event professionals have a lot to cope with in the Covid era. Those who are fortunate enough to be working have to contend with new formats, increased competition, and a generally uncertain future about whether (and for how long) in-person event planning windows will be open.

Of course, these challenges compound more traditional challenges — event engagement being chief among them. Now, the general displeasure at hour-long ‘talk-at-me’ sessions is folded into the digital disconnect of Zoom fatigue.

The upshot? Event professionals need new proficiencies in catering their content and connections to an increasingly online audience. When it comes to delivering experiences that resonate with audiences, it should not be left to intuition. It’s time to bone up on the science behind capturing and holding onto attention — that was the thinking behind EventMB’s 2019 report, and the logic still applies.

Think science is not relevant for events? Think again. If you’d like to know how you can get people to pay close attention to your event by using science insights, read on.

The following was authored by Victoria Matey, Event Psychology Consultant at Matey Events, inspired by a speaking engagement with Corey McCarthy, CMO of Unifocus — published here with their permission.


Events Are In The Behavior Business

Researcher and author Richard Chataway says, “If you are in business – you are in the business of behavior.” This statement is hard to disagree with; to be successful in what you do for and with other people, you need to understand what drives them to interact with your brand, buy your product or service, and care about what you offer.

Successful events consider the psychological mechanisms that influence human behaviour and decision-making, and then design processes and experiences around the data. More than likely, you are already intuitively using psychology when shaping your event experiences but haven’t put much thought into the science behind it.

It’s hard to imagine a business more focused on people and experiences than events, but the industry hasn’t embraced behavioral science on a mass scale. Even before the pandemic, event organizers have been trying to crack the code on how to create events that leave a long-lasting impact and make people come back. Now more than ever, it is time to recognize we are in the business of behavior and start applying science in events.


The Rise of Behavioral Science (BS)

Behavioral science is trending and carries fascinating insights from various fields including social and cognitive psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral economics. These observations and key principles are useful to keep in mind when creating experiences.

Human behavior is complex and nonlinear, conclusions from those observations are often counterintuitive, and thus more difficult to arrive at without solid knowledge of how it works.

Here’s a simple example: Remember the times when the average event session duration was over an hour? It literally took a pandemic for this default setting to start changing. Now an hour is not generally acceptable. People lose focus, get overwhelmed and tired.

Studying behavior is also essential for understanding how to cope with shifts in formats. In an online environment, it became obvious that such long sessions do no good. But these first-hand learnings gleaned from the transition to virtual are helping event organizers adjust and optimize the length for in-person event sessions as well. We could have done it (to our great benefit) long ago, but instead it was a much longer journey.

Why? Despite having tried it all, we haven’t quite explored the foundation everything else is based on: human behavior. If the pandemic has one silver lining, it’s that we better appreciate the need to understand the brain in order to design better experiences.


Create Psychological Value

Rory Sutherland, Vice Chairman of Ogilvy, argues that instead of addressing the behaviour, we usually apply other solutions – expanding the physical space for improving the check-in experience, for example – and in so doing, we “engage in changing reality rather than changing behaviour.”

In the event industry, we are guilty of this. We frantically search for the best event platform or app; we reinvent the wheel with event formats; we spend time and money on ‘infrastructure’ around the event but don’t invest enough in figuring out how to design experiences based on how people think and behave.

While it’s important to get these things right, it’s not why people come back. Attendee retention is down to creating value through memorable, transformative, and fun experiences shared among fellows — making them feel special, different, or part of something they care about.

Studying and addressing people’s cognitive abilities, behaviour, and emotions leads to creating psychological value. Psychological value is about addressing people’s inner motives and old, universal, fundamental desires – to belong, to be recognized, to be liked.


In-person or online?

We have been having heated discussions on the pros and cons of in-person and virtual event experiences. Rather than pitting them against each other, we have an opportunity to eradicate the limitations of each and enhance the event experience by blending the two.

One way to do that is to use senses. We use our senses (sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste) to intake and process information. Those distinct sensory stimuli are then linked together to create meaning and memory. Therefore, the more senses engaged, the stronger our ties with an object or moment and the more vivid and memorable the experience.

Now, within a virtual environment, the appeal to senses is innately limited, which naturally affects the attendee experience. By marrying elements of digital and live event design, we can overcome this virtual challenge. In practice, this means amplifying the virtual program by bringing other senses into play. For instance, you can send your attendees, speakers and partners a physical touchpoint using platforms like Postal.

This approach has multiple advantages. Touch is proven to be a powerful tool in a multisensory toolbox, which contributes to significantly better memory recall and influences decision-making:

“Psychologists distinguish between recalling something—a relatively weak form of memory—and knowing something, which implies a much stronger cognitive bond. When touch is part of an experience, it helps shift the brain into the deep level of engagement most conducive to building knowledge.” 

The Neuroscience of Touch, Lana Rigsby and Dr. David Eagleman 

A study by Bangor University on the role of direct mail showed that “greater emotional processing is facilitated by the physical material than the virtual.” Using fMRI scanning, researchers found that physical material is more ‘real’ for the brain and thus “involves more emotional processing, which is important for memory and brand associations.”

In times when people feel more isolated and disconnected, direct mail seems to be a good way to restore that connectivity — a fact supported by the recent USPS report. According to USPS Market Research and Insights 2020, 61 percent of respondents believed mail was “extra special during this time of social distancing,” and 54 percent said they felt “more connected to people through the mail.” In the event context, by nurturing such emotions, you indirectly support the development of your event community and get the event imprinted in people’s memory as something special, too.

Let’s consider the business impact this opens up for virtual events. With all of the noise in the virtual event world at the moment, people are struggling with where to spend their time. The gap between registration and live attendance rates are rising at an alarming rate as people suffer from Zoom fatigue. This makes it even more important to deliver event experiences that speak to the attendee’s inner-most desires and consider what more we can do to curate an impactful experience.

When you host an event that includes a tangible asset delivered to someone’s house, you’ve just taken a huge step toward creating a lasting brand impression. By delivering thoughtful moments, you also evoke a very powerful principle of persuasion: reciprocity. When people receive something that is unique and personalized, they are more likely to give back through a desired behavior, gift or service. This can significantly bolster the success of virtual events in achieving business objectives.

By adding one element based on behavioral science to your event design, pre-event engagement is completely transformed. Attendees are likely to post their event kits on social media channels, which boosts anticipation, additional registrations, and ultimately, live attendance.



The event industry has always been highly competitive. In addition, the current pandemic-induced crisis dramatically affects our business. In order to survive, grow and succeed, event planners need to adapt, upgrade their skill set and look for ways to improve event experiences and prove their value. Employing behavioral insights can make a huge difference toward that goal.