For associations, in-person events are a critical part of not only maintaining but expanding membership. After all, connecting face-to-face gives members a deeper feeling of community connection. Not to mention, at in-person events they get a chance to meet new contacts to exchange ideas and expand their professional networks.
Yet in this unprecedented era where temporary physical distancing measures prevent face-to-face gatherings in order to mitigate against the pandemic risks, what can associations do to keep those meaningful connections alive?
In spite of the restrictions, I want to impress that the show can still go on, albeit for the time being, in a virtual setting. Post-pandemic, event organisers can consider incorporating more hybrid events (comprising both online and in-person meeting offerings) to their event programme strategy as attendees and members get comfortable in face-to-face settings again.
I know from what’s happening on the ground with many of our association customers that the shift is happening – many more are switching to meetings online as an alternative to cancellation – and they’re finding success in doing so. Two weeks before CUE’s (an education non-profit) spring 2020 conference, a global health crisis erupted. They decided about a week out that they were going to flip the switch and move to a virtual event. Adjusting registration pricing and opening the conference to the public attracted an additional 750 registrants in just one week. They continued to gain registrations across the duration of the event as well.
It’s important to keep that success top of mind. Virtual events can play an integral role in any association’s event programme. Here’s my guide to which type of virtual event you may want to organise and a few pointers regarding best practices:
Planning is still essential
Just like in-person events, virtual events require the same attention to detail and a similar level of planning and roll-out. It’s critical to prepare members ahead of the event as not all virtual meetings are the same and there are many different types of video conferencing/event technology tools.
- Prior to the event, create a guide for attendees explaining how to access the event, sessions and utilise the conferencing tools.
- To put attendees to ease, a few days before the event actually begins, offer an “intro session” during which attendees can practice launching sessions or sending messages.
Understand the different types of virtual events
Webinars typically use video conferencing tools that enable the ability to present live or pre-recorded video, allow Q&A, and can and can be offered as on-demand recordings post-event. Due to their one-off educational nature, webinars have thrived with 100% virtual attendance.
Top tips include:
- Attention spans are short as we’re so used to consuming content in short spurts, so even a 15/20-minute mini webinar could work well for members.
- For an engaging experience, be sure to open it up to questions or have live polling for an engaging experience.
- To extend the longevity of the webinar record it and release it on-demand so members can still consume the content.
Much like physical in-person conferences, virtual conferences are built around a live agenda of keynotes, sessions, breakouts, and include multi-session content as well as community engagement tools such as mobile event apps. One of the main reasons members choose to come back to association events repeatedly is networking opportunities. Although members can’t be in the same physical space at the moment, it doesn’t mean there isn’t an opportunity to network and engage. A mobile event app, whether used on the phone or in a web browser, can connect members and help to facilitate more meaningful connections.
Top tips include:
- Schedule dedicated (virtual) networking time into the agenda to encourage attendees to meet.
- Use registration data to link attendees with similar interests and set up group chats and breakouts. The video conference platform Zoom can support meetings of up to 1,000 people at a time, and organisers can use it to create up to 50 different breakout rooms at once.
- Create your agenda in a way that allows for scheduled breaks and make sure your speakers and presenters incorporate live polling and Q&A to support a more interactive experience.
Internal Hybrid Events
For international associations, internal hybrid events, which include both in-person and virtual experiences, are a good way to share a message across regions and offices.
Top tips include:
- Consider creating time for different chapters to network – both in-person and virtually.
- Set up group conference calls for committee members around the globe to connect and feel part of one community.
- Consider the virtual viewing experience and work in ways to highlight teams who are not able to join in person.
External Hybrid Events
These events require two kinds of infrastructure: physical and digital with higher levels of video production so that online attendees are provided a similar quality to what in-person attendees experience when face-to-face with other delegates. For this to work well equal attention in terms of content and engagement must be given to both members in the physical location and those joining remotely.
- For those joining virtually, look at leveraging social media and gamification options to truly engage attendees.
- Add a mobile event app to facilitate deeper engagement and offer dedicated time for one to one networking.
- An advantage of hybrid events is they may attract sponsors who would not have otherwise been drawn to a live event.