What your virtual event attendees wish you knew: Maslow’s hierarchy of virtual event attendee needs

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, in-person events ate up the biggest slice of B2B marketing budgets. But since everything changed, marketers have switched their attention to getting their money’s worth out of virtual events—taking full advantage of the advanced analytics and reporting capabilities many platforms now boast. 

Unfortunately, this hasn’t always translated into a great experience for participants. Many virtual events are bland, uninspiring, and do little to combat a growing sense of screen fatigue. The problem? Virtual events simply aren’t meeting attendees’ needs. Or worse, they put marketers’ needs for attribution and lead-scoring ahead of creating a great experience.

I don’t blame marketers. For many, virtual events are still relatively new (or newly prioritized). I think it comes down to a lack of understanding of what makes a compelling virtual experience—which is different, though related, to a great in-person event. 

So what do your guests need in order to have a meaningful and memorable virtual event experience? It all comes down to Maslow’s hierarchy of virtual event attendee needs.

Maslow’s hierarchy of virtual event attendee needs

A quick refresher: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a motivational theory, depicting human needs as a hierarchical framework (often illustrated as a pyramid). The theory goes that you have to satisfy baseline needs before attending to higher-order requirements. For example, a person needs food before they can worry about friendship. 

It’s also a useful model for virtual events. Your guests have foundational needs that must be met before more sophisticated albeit marketable ones, like “connection.” It’s only by starting from the ground up that you ever fulfill their higher-order needs. 

What are these needs, you may ask? There are six to consider. They fall into three categories—basic, psychological, and self-fulfillment.

Maslow’s hierarchy of virtual event attendee needs

What does this framework mean for you? Well, the reason people might not be loving your virtual events (sorry, I said it) is that you aren’t meeting their needs in the right order.

1. Structure

If you find attendees drop out of your event or don’t stay until the end, it may be because you lack structure. Events that lack structure give people anxiety and make them less likely to interact or engage. If there’s no clear agenda and your attendees feel uncertain about where your event is going, what’s to stop them from clicking away? The reverse is also true: Having structure puts your attendees at ease, allowing them to relax and enjoy.

To provide structure and allow your attendees to immerse themselves in your event, you need to tell them what to expect, remind them of the plan, and actually follow through. Give attendees a very clear sense of what will happen and when it will all end. And don't just drop it in the invite email—make it constantly available, so people feel oriented at all times. 

I recommend following this run-of-show (which you can modify based on your needs) to help you stay organized and provide your audience with a sense of structure.

Welcome Run of Show
Example run of show

At the beginning of your event, be sure to walk your participants through the run-of-show so they know what to expect. Better yet, send the agenda ahead of time or pin it in the chat so your audience can follow along.

Checklist: Build structure into your event

  • Share your agenda with attendees
  • At each stage, remind them what's next
  • Start and stop in a timely manner

2. Guidance

If your events have a tendency to descend into anarchy, a lack of guidance may be to blame. Many hosts are hesitant to enforce their authority on an event, but it’s important to understand that limitations are actually a gift for your attendees. In the absence of rules, people start unmuting themselves and talking over one another. In contrast, when your participants know the rules of engagement, it provides a basis for harmony in behavior and reduces the social anxiety of not knowing how to act. 

Tell your guests exactly what to do to get the most out of your event. Share your house rules at the outset of the event (and make sure to enforce them). And don’t forget to orient your guests in the virtual environment—for example, where can they find the chat, submit a question for Q&A, and navigate to a breakout room for networking after the talk?

Continually prepare your guests for what’s coming up next and provide them with direction to get the most out of the event. For instance, if you'll be taking questions, announce the Q&A periodically to get people warmed up and thinking about what they want to ask. Or if there's a break for networking, tell people to come away with three new people’s emails. Make it fun and lighthearted.

Checklist: Guide your guests effectively

  • Share house rules and enforce them
  • Orient your guests in the virtual environment
  • Provide guidance on how to get the most out of the event

3. Unique Value

If you get a lot of registrations, but those registrations don’t turn into actual attendees, you may not have articulated your unique value clearly enough. Your unique value is your guest’s reason for attending your event. Without it, your audience may face the day-of dilemma: If they don’t see a compelling reason to attend your event live, they may fall prey to their burgeoning to-do list and skip. 

You need to show your audience that you’re giving them the opportunity to learn or experience something very specific they can’t get anywhere else. This is your “only-ness” factor—the thing that only you can provide. Maybe it’s the chance to ask a question of one of their heroes. Or maybe it’s the opportunity to learn a skill that will help them in their career. Or maybe it’s the opportunity to experience something unique. For instance, Brooks Wine runs virtual tasting sessions hosted by artisan producers—allowing foodies to try delicious food and wine under the guidance of an expert. Whatever your event’s focus, show your audience that it’s time well spent.

Checklist: Make your event time well spent

  • Center your event around a uniquely valuable experience
  • Clearly articulate the reason your guests should attend
  • Respect your participants’ time by making your event only as long as it needs to be

4. Engagement

Do people attend your events, but nobody really participates? Consider building in more opportunities for engagement. With screen fatigue at an all-time high, it’s critical to consider not just what you’re presenting, but also how you’re delivering your content. Use a visually appealing format to help your audience digest your content—think visuals, overlays, and video footage. Incorporate interactive activities, like practice exercises, games, or even a group stretch. If it’s going to be a long session, give your attendees a break part way through.

Your attendees will thank you for it. Private equity firm Hg achieved their all-time highest NPS score at a recent virtual HR & Talent Summit by incorporating a hands-on activity. They mailed terrarium-building kits to attendees all over the world for a live workshop, which fed back into the conference’s theme of wellbeing and self-care. But if you decide to include an interactive component, make sure it’s serving your purpose. “You can't just do an interactive event to be interactive,” says Jessica Greenhalgh, Head of Community & Portfolio Engagement at Hg. “You have to relate it back to the content and format of the day.”

Checklist: Create an engaging experience

  • Use visuals, videos, and overlays to illustrate your messaging
  • Incorporate interactivity into your content
  • Tie activities back to your key lessons or takeaways

5. Connection

If your networking events feel forced, you may need to work on your facilitation. Humans have a core need for connection—in the original Maslow’s hierarchy, two out of the five needs deal directly with human relationships (esteem and belonging). Yet it can be challenging to replicate in-person connections over digital space.

My number one tip: Don’t leave moments of connection up to chance. You need to be intentional about how you’re going to facilitate them—much more so than in a physical event where people are free to mingle. For instance, you might start your event with networking (before your feature presentation), so your attendees have a chance to get to know each other. You may also want to open multiple virtual breakout rooms with different topics so people can gravitate to the conversations that most interest them. Ideally, have at least one “host” from your team in each breakout room who can get the conversation going and make everyone feel comfortable. 

To prevent screen fatigue and help your attendees save their energy for these key moments of connection, have them only turn their cameras on when it comes time for them to interact. Research shows the stress of being on camera can drastically deplete people’s energy and contribute to screen fatigue. If your participants are simply watching a presentation, allow them to sit back and enjoy the show. When the time comes for them to participate, you can then encourage them to turn their cameras on.

Checklist: Cultivate moments of meaningful connection

  • Start your event with networking
  • Station a host in each breakout room to warm up the conversation
  • Minimize on-camera time to reduce screen fatigue and keep your participants fresh

6. Purpose

If you’ve made it to these heights, there likely aren’t any glaring issues with your virtual events. They’re probably engaging, informative, and fun—the kinds of events people love to return to. Still, imbuing your events with purpose can take them from memorable to meaningful. If you’re thinking at this level, you’ve unlocked all that's good in branding and event marketing. You’re helping people self-actualize. 

To create an experience that’s truly meaningful, your event should let your participants connect to a higher purpose. But what does this look like? First, it’s important to understand the difference between the outward purpose of your event and its higher purpose. For instance, imagine a virtual conference. The surface-level purpose of the event is education and networking—attendees come to learn and network with their peers. 

Its higher purpose, on the other hand, takes a stance. It’s disputable, as Priya Parker puts it in The Art of Gathering. Some examples of a higher purpose for our hypothetical virtual conference could be:

  • To promote creative thinking in our industry
  • To foster relationships between people facing similar challenges
  • To break down the barriers between traditionally siloed fields

The more defined your purpose, the easier it will be to make the right decisions for your event. This also ties into the idea of making meaningful connections—your attendees will find connection with the people they share a purpose with. Having a higher purpose elevates your event from being simply mechanical to being transcendent. Your attendees will experience your event on a different level if they feel they are a part of something bigger than themselves. 

Connect your event to a higher purpose:

  • Choose a distinct, disputable purpose for your event
  • Consider: How will you facilitate connection between people who share the same purpose? (See “Connection” for ideas)
  • Decide what’s the single most important thing for attendees to take away from your event—and make sure you repeat and reinforce it often

Final thoughts

Switching to a primarily virtual event landscape has been a big change for marketers, but also for participants. While marketers have sometimes struggled to meet attendees’ needs in the virtual space, virtual events have the same opportunity as in-person to fulfill some of our deepest human needs—it’s just a question of adjusting tactics to fit this new way of gathering. When you consider your attendees’ needs first, you’re well on your way to hosting an event that’s not just memorable, but meaningful. And if you tend to your participants’ needs, results will follow.