(Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash)

Nearly every association, nonprofit, and business in general has been directly impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, but perhaps none more so than those holding spring and summer meetings and conferences. While these are challenging times, challenges also enable us to rise to the occasion and demonstrate true leadership. Those organizations that recognize the need to pivot their event strategies quickly and thoughtfully will be in the best position to continue to serve, and even provide additional value for, their members and constituencies.

To learn more about how agile associations and nonprofits are pivoting to virtual events in real time, I reached out to Michael Hoffman, CEO of Gather Voices, a company that helps organizations with video marketing and digital engagement deployment and strategy. Recently, Michael and the Gather Voices team have helped several organizations quickly evolve their in-person events to digital offerings. He shares his thoughts on how other associations can create and execute successful virtual events. 

What is your advice for an association that is facing the difficult decision to move their in-person conference to a virtual event?
Having to cancel an in-person conference that takes so much planning and effort is devastating to an organization and to the staff who spent their time on the planning. For many organizations, the conference represents a large part of their revenue as well, creating a strong incentive to try to salvage the conference by taking it online.

At the same time, you don’t want to hurt your organization’s reputation or the reputation of your conference by creating an inferior product. For example, NTEN, a nonprofit advancing the skillful and racially equitable use of technology, decided to cancel their Nonprofit Technology Conference. While the conference represented over 60% of their revenue, they chose not to do a virtual conference. Amy Sample Ward, NTEN’s CEO, had the clarity to understand that the personal, in-person connections are what makes their event special. Trying to turn it into an online event, and do it quickly, would risk ruining a reputation forged over more than 15 years. 

All of that said, virtual events can be effective, educational, and interesting. 

If you want to move your conference online, my first advice is to understand that an all-day webinar is not a virtual conference. People attend conferences to connect, not to be talked at. An event that took months of thoughtful planning can’t be reimagined in an hour. You need to think about the reasons people attend your conference and think about how you can get the same or better impact online. 

My second piece of advice is not to give up on the sponsor revenue. Video, especially video that has a life after the event itself, is a great place for sponsor messages. 

How do strategic goals and priorities shift when pivoting from an in-person to a virtual event?

Strategic goals and priorities should be the first conversation you have about moving an event online. What was your goal for the event? Does that work well online? And maybe you had multiple in-person goals and only some of them are right for the online version. 

Also think about emotion. What do you want attendees to feel at the end of your event? And then work backwards to make that happen. 

What should associations do to market the event? What types and tones of messaging have you found to be most effective when executing a quick turnaround?

 In general, having emails and social posts saying “This event will be amazing!” is not a good approach to take. People trust institutions less than they trust people. Enlist the people who are speaking, teaching, facilitating, and attending to be the voice of the conference. 

A great use of video is to have all the speakers record a short video about their session. Make it a quick preview of the content they will be providing. When folks see that the content is interesting and the speaker is engaging, that will do more than any of your vague pronouncements to get people to register. 

How can organizations create engaging, interactive virtual events that retain a sense of community?

There are two important aspects of virtual events that can help retain a sense of community. 

First, include the voices of the community in the event itself. Pre-recorded video is a must have for an engaging virtual conference. Including the voices of your members and attendees in the event means that they feel more like co-creators. It increases satisfaction and a strong sense of connection and loyalty. 

Second, you need a back channel. There are multiple ways you can do this. For example, the Clowder app, which is an event app and a year-around member engagement hub, is a great way to have people connecting beyond the webinar-style content. It allows people to do some of the things they would do in-person including talking about the content and connect to one another. 

Amy Thomasson is a strategist, content creator, and storyteller with extensive experience in marketing and communications, membership development, and volunteer management.

She has worked in a variety of business environments ranging from the Fortune 500 to professional associations. Amy currently serves as the marketing director for the Congress of Neurological Surgeons.

Amy is incredibly passionate about volunteerism within the association and nonprofit management community, and currently serves as co-chair of Association Forum’s Content Working Group, as well as a mentor to Forum’s Emerging Leaders. She is also a highly-rated speaker and article author, who has partnered with ASAE, Association Forum, AssociationSuccess.org, and standalone associations to deliver engaging content. Amy is a 2018 recipient of Association Forum and USAE’s Forty Under 40® Award.

She has a BA in Communication from the University of Missouri-Columbia, an Executive Leadership certificate from Cornell University, and a Professional Fundraising certificate from Boston University.

Amy Thomasson is a strategist, content creator, and storyteller with extensive experience in marketing and communications, membership development, and volunteer management. She has worked in a variety of business environments ranging from the Fortune 500 to professional associations. Amy currently serves as the marketing director for the Congress of Neurological Surgeons. Amy is incredibly passionate about volunteerism within the association and nonprofit management community, and currently serves as co-chair of Association Forum’s Content Working Group, as well as a mentor to Forum’s Emerging Leaders. She is also a highly-rated speaker and article author, who has partnered with ASAE, Association Forum, AssociationSuccess.org, and standalone associations to deliver engaging content. Amy is a 2018 recipient of Association Forum and USAE’s Forty Under 40® Award. She has a BA in Communication from the University of Missouri-Columbia, an Executive Leadership certificate from Cornell University, and a Professional Fundraising certificate from Boston University.

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