A couple of weeks ago, we had the opportunity to share some of the lessons learnt on our ‘virtual journey' with around 250 association executives across Australia & New Zealand at the AuSAE ACE Reimagined virtual conference.
It was wonderful to be part of what ended up being a great example of a quick pirouette from in-person to virtual, delivered on a seamless platform (shoutout to ICMS & EventsAIR), in a colourful, joyful and purposeful way.
Here’s what Banu shared:
"Way back in April 2020, I was a 100% non-believer in virtual events. I didn’t think they worked, I thought they wouldn’t do communities justice; I thought they were a poor substitute for the in-person experience and, naively or arrogantly, I suppose they’re two sides of the same coin, I didn’t think they could deliver what I believed an uncommon experience could and should be.
Fast forward to July 2021; we’ve now designed and delivered dozens of virtual experiences for our clients, reaching hundreds of busy executives in every time zone imaginable – so I’d like to acknowledge that I was wrong. There absolutely IS a lot of value to be had in virtual events – not because they feel like the “only option” at the moment, but because they can fulfil a vital role that we’ve overlooked for far too long as event organisers and community leaders.
Virtual events are that bridge we’ve been missing in between in-person editions and a gateway to a more accessible and equitable gathering of the people who rely on us to provide knowledge, share experiences and enable meaningful connections with other members in that community.
Having said that, and I’m sure a few of you will agree with me, not all virtual events are created equal. We’ve all been to something this past year that’s totally sucked. Unlike this colourful and thoughtful ACE Reimagined experience we’re lucky to have today, we’ve all been to some version of a soulless, uninformative, box-ticking exercise that left us feeling worse than before we logged on.
The lessons* I’m about to share will hopefully lead you away from that path and instead down the path of a more meaningful, authentic and joyful experience for you AND your members. These smiling faces you see here on this opening slide have become somewhat of a hallmark of our uncommon virtual experience and I guess if there’s only one thing I leave you with today, it’s that there IS a way to nail virtual and we should keep at it, pandemic or not.
* Caveat: It’s important to mention that these lessons apply mainly to virtual events that are intended to be participant-led, i.e. events with a heavy focus on interaction and relationship-building, more so than education or one-way transfer of knowledge or content. There’s absolutely a time and a place for both types, but for today, I’m going to be focusing on the interactive version of virtual events.
Why are you gathering and what for?
These might seem like self-evident questions to which you already have the answers, but we’ve found they are still worth testing. Say your purpose out loud, test it with your team and most importantly, test it with your members. Why are you hosting something? This should of course apply to any platform but it’s extra critical for virtual. We get asked all the time, “how can I improve the turn-up rates to my virtual events?” or “why is the no-show rate so high for virtual?” and “there are so many free virtual events to choose from, how can I make my members choose mine?” . Instead of worrying about how many people will show up, if you instead start by designing something they can’t afford to miss, you completely shift the dynamic.
Second and more crucial part of Lesson #1 – what are you and your members going to get out of it? You need to start designing with tangible outcomes in mind. As we said, there are simply too many things to choose from online these days. We LIVE online and most of us are over it. If you can, however, provide a clear takeaway – like the live scribing artefact you see in the background of this slide – in addition to a strong reason for hosting, most of your work is done.
In real estate it’s location, location, location. In virtual events (or any event, really), it’s research, research, research.
Instead of assuming what your members want and need, ask them. Don’t send a survey or a poll – pick up the phone and call them. Have conversations; everyone misses being seen and heard these days. And this lesson is the gift that keeps on giving. Talking to your members gives you a vital touchpoint with them, you get to hear about their challenges and what possible solutions they’re exploring. When they realise you’re thinking of hosting something, they’re already be bought into the experience, because they feel they’re actively contributing to its outcomes, instead of just getting an email or calendar invitation to it.
Do some good, old-fashioned, research.
Size does matter
Again, this is very specific to participant-led virtual events in which the expectation is that everyone gets to see and hear everyone else; and your participants are primed for discussion, debate, decisions and doing. Same as with the in-person setting, the smaller the group, the more likely you are to have those meaningful conversations and connections.
Don't just throw a link up and expect people to want to be there, and stay there
We’re all guilty of assuming what ‘a virtual event’ is or will be like. Your members are no different. So if you’re committing to a virtual event that you’ve got a crystal-clear purpose around, that you’ve identified tangible outcomes for, and you want it to be a small and committed, active group joining, you need to prep and prime them for that experience. The worst thing you can do is dump them in it.
Prepping can be as simple as explaining the format in your invitation. Or recording a little video clip that tells them what to expect. This is really about the practicalities.
Priming, on the other hand, is a little more involved. It’s about getting their mindset and their energy ready for the session. Not as easy as the prepping, but not impossible – especially if you start to get some consistency around how you deliver these virtual experiences to your members. Tell them to be prepared to have their cameras on, mics on, energy on. They need to know that they can’t be doing the ironing or meal prep in the background like we’ve all done so many times over these past 18 months.
We like to start with the visual ‘journey map’ you see in the background of this slide – instead of a linear agenda, mix it up and tell participants they’re going to be taken on a journey instead.
Prep and prime your participants.
Don't leave it to chance
And finally, what happens when you get these committed and energised members into your virtual space – whatever platform you choose to use?
It’s a real gift; this gift of their time and attention – and it’s something we don’t take lightly at UC. Because we’ve seen how quickly you can lose both.
So how do we get the best out of everyone in the session and collectively achieve the goals we set for the session?
We believe it all comes down to facilitation, and how you enable and empower that interaction amongst your participants. It’s not about talking AT them, it’s about creating an environment that feels safe, joyful, collaborative and inclusive. The important thing with facilitation is to set them up and get out of their way. Good facilitation will get you those smiling faces and a virtual experience that your members will appreciate and remember."
For more lessons or to share a lesson YOU’VE learnt, hit us up at firstname.lastname@example.org.