Brandt Krueger

Freelance Technical Meeting and Event Production, Education, Speaking, and Consulting. Geek Dad, Husband

Consultant, Meeting and Event Technology
Owner, Event Technology Consulting
Instructor, Event Leadership Institute
Host, GatherGeeks - A Podcast by BizBash

Interactive Polling: Reading the Minds of Your Audience

Audience feedback is one of the most important ways you can improve you meetings and events.  Comment cards or surveys can help guide you when it comes to crafting your next event, but why not take advantage of the group while you have them and get real-time feedback?   When you’re looking for a rough idea of how an audience is feeling, just having a show of hands might be sufficient.  When it comes time for an exact vote count, or if you just want to add a splash of technology to your meeting, you may want to consider many of the great interactive polling options available.

Interactive polling technology goes by many names and comes in many packages.  The most common of the options is still, by far, the wireless keypad.  These are handheld devices with a number keypad on them and perhaps an LED display to let the voter know their vote has been counted.

Different people refer to these keypads in different ways.  Here’s just a few of them:

  • APT (Audience Polling Technology)
  • ART (Audience Response Technology)
  • Voting Keypads
  • Reply System (A brand name of voting keypad)
  • Audience Clickers
  • Voting Doohickies (I have a client that won’t call them anything else)

There are scores of different makes and models of these keypad devices, but they all pretty much run the same way.  The presenter will ask a question and usually display a slide with the answer options.  An example might be “Which of our products do you think has the highest profit margin?  1) Wrenches, 2) Hammers, or 3) Screwdrivers.”  Sometimes this slide is displayed via specially designed software.  In other systems the options might be embedded in a PowerPoint deck.

Note: Many of the dedicated software systems for APT haven’t been updated in a long time, so they can look a little dated.  However, with a few modern exceptions, I haven’t found embedding the polling in PowerPoint to be very stable, and can cause crashes.  I’ll take a little dated and stable over pretty and likely to blow up, any day.

Once the question has been posed, the audience members take their keypads and enter in the number that corresponds to their answer.  If the keypad has a display, the number they entered will display to indicate that their vote has been registered.  The keypads operate on a closed wireless network, and send their signals to a base station located backstage or at the tech table.  This base station is hooked up to a laptop where the data is crunched and the results can be displayed- again via dedicated software or embedded in PowerPoint.

The speaker is now able to address the results in real time.  If the audience chose screwdrivers as being the most profitable, but in actuality hammers are, it can serve as an educational moment for both the speaker and the audience.  It’s not difficult to imagine that this kind of real time information can be extremely valuable to C and D level executive wanting to know if their corporate messaging and education are actually sinking in with the rank and file.

The biggest advantage to this type of interactive polling is that is is a closed network, compared to some of the options we’re about to look at.  It should come as no surprise then that these types of hardware solutions are popular with financial and medical groups, where security and confidentiality are extremely important.  We recently provided polling keypads for a group that was so secure that the techs had to leave the room during deliberations, and only allowed back in to run the equipment during the “Is the motion adopted? Yes or No” phase.

Many of the handheld solutions have been around a while, and as such can look a little dated in the era of smartphones.  There are a few high end models, however, that offer their users a whole new level of interactivity.  These new models feature full  QWERTY keyboards, color display screens, and even built in microphone and wireless audio support.  If the voting needs to be tracked, attendees can insert a special encoded badge into the keypad, identifying them.  To return to anonymous polling, they simply need to remove the badge.  This kind of tracking allows this hardware to do more than just polling and relaying audience questions.  It allows them to manage other portions of your event, such as silent auction bidding.

While they can be quite a bit more expensive when compared to the old standby keypads, they can replace many other expensive systems at an event, such as wireless translation headsets, and audience QnA microphones.  When used to their full potential they can be worth every penny and provide a rich, fully interactive experience.

Just as conference and trade show brochures are being phased out in favor of mobile phone applications, so to are the old polling keypads.  With the majority of meeting and conference goers walking around with a wireless supercomputer in their pocket, more and more planners are exploring the world of mobile and web-based polling technology.  There are many services out there, and they’re all a little different, so it’s extremely important to know your audience and know at what level of interaction they’re mostly likely to participate.  Some Internet-based services even allow users to vote through multiple options, increasing the response rate dramatically.  These options include voting via text message, a mobile web site, or even via Twitter.

Many mobile event apps are building in the ability to push polling to their users in an attempt to be the “One App to Rule Them All”.  Others use stand alone polling apps, and still others use mobile web pages.  Whichever route you go, be sure to take into account how that data will be gathered and displayed.  Almost all of these services are going to require internet access of some kind in order for the attendees to send their responses, so there either needs to be quality cellular data services or WiFi available.  This is where text message polling can come in handy, as the cellular connectivity level for sending texts is much lower than data.  In other words, you can send a text message with “only one bar” of signal much easier than you can access a mobile web page on the data network.

Much like the keypad network, the responses are sent to a central location, only instead of a wireless base station, the responses are sent to a server provided by the service.  Results can then be accessed via the web, so once again you’ll need to make sure whatever machine needs to display the results has a solid internet connection in order to retrieve the data.

Note: Be sure to get an idea of what the results display will look like, too.  Many of the mobile apps that have built in polling don’t have an effective way of displaying that data live in the room, and are designed more to replace comment cards than to be truly interactive polling.  Even in full screen mode they might have scrollbars, links, and logos  (other than yours) on the results page.

These services are growing in popularity exponentially with our customers.  We find that once they dip their toes in the interactive polling pool, they become addicted (in a good way) to that instant feedback.  Everything from educational quizzes and game shows, to voting on what to name their internal network, customers are finding more and more creative uses for live interactive polling.