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Will your association’s virtual event meet your members’ expectations?

Individual on virtual call

Events are a critical part of your Mission Experience. In some cases, they may account for a substantial portion of your revenue or indeed be the main attraction for your member base to join. But even small events, that seem insignificant to your mission, can play a major role in how your members perceive you.

An association’s events help to showcase the value of membership – critical content, networking with peers, influence on mission objectives, etc. At least that’s the ideal scenario. A poorly run event can do just the opposite, eroding the trust of members, leaving them questioning the value of the organization.

This is particularly true with virtual events – where many associations have less experience but the expectations from members are much higher.

Your members have more experience participating in online events than you may realize. In the professional world, companies regularly host webinars, round tables, conferences and other virtual events. The experience your constituents have had with these events drives their expectation for your event.

When the pandemic created an immediate need for alternatives to live gatherings, many associations began to search for a digital alternative of a live event only leads to a watered-down version of the original. It can also fail to take advantage of everything that can be gained from a digital event format.

Whether you’ve already held a stellar virtual event, your first one didn’t go that well, or you’re in the process of planning one, there are some important things to consider. There are also some myths to dispel.

Venue, Content & Format

The value of your organization is not the ability to book a hotel and a conference space. It’s your ability to understand the needs of your members and provide them with meaningful ways to learn and interact. There are arguably more ways to do this digitally than in person. But if you choose the wrong technology that doesn’t meet the needs of your members, you’ll create an experience that is frustrating for attendees and can reflect poorly on your mission.

The biggest mistake you can make planning a virtual event is trying to recreate your live event. Though there are loads of companies out there willing to sell you the software to do it. Navigating a virtual conference hall with a cartoon avatar for three days is probably not the experience your members want.

By eliminating the travel expense, you eliminate the need to cram huge amounts of content into three consecutive days. Instead, you can break it into more manageable segments, based on audience interest, speaker availability, and even current events.

Why overlap three content tracks at a time and force people to choose between them? Your members may benefit more from a series of smaller conferences instead. Planning each content stream separately and allowing your members to attend as many sessions as their interest dictates will lead to deeper engagement.

In terms of technology, choose the format that best suits the content and the audience. Don’t limit yourself to slide presentations. Maybe the audience would benefit from a Q&A session with an expert. Maybe it’s a networking session with peers. Maybe it is a presentation. 

By planning flexible events that meet the needs and preferences of your members, you can also spread them over the course of a year. This creates more frequent opportunities to bring members together. It reminds them more regularly of the value you bring to their professional life. It also engages a larger percentage of your membership.

Networking

For some of us, nothing can take the place of looking someone in the eye, shaking their hand, and having an impromptu conversation. It’s true that in-person events allow us to network with people we otherwise may not meet. They allow us to talk about things with like-minded people. They bring us out of our bubble and expand our point of view.

Man on laptop

They also exclude people who couldn’t find the time or money to attend. They often are limiting based on geography. And they can exclude those who don’t feel as comfortable chatting up strangers in person.

There is a wide array of tools available now that help to overcome all of these constraints.

Beyond the popular tools like Zoom that enable video encounters, new services are popping up that enable different types of engagement.

Text-based solutions, like Slack, allow everyone to participate without the effect of talking over one another. These are best deployed with a moderator who can guide the conversation and bubble particularly good questions or comments to the top. Similarly, ‘Discord’ provides an audio channel that allows multiple people to speak at the same time, as if they were in the same room.

The ‘Run The World’ cocktail party app creates short, random encounters between people with shared interests. Microsoft Teams’ ‘Together Mode’, though still a bit buggy, promises to provide a video experience that feels more like a shared space.

Platforms like these help to recreate some of the spontaneous meetings that can provide a tremendous amount of value at a live event. The larger point here is that there are a lot of different technologies available to help you host a digital event. You should choose the ones that meet the goals of your event and your audience. Don’t choose the technology first and try to shoehorn your event into it.

Unrestricted by dates, times, and travel. You’ll get engagement from a much larger portion of your membership and over a sustained period of time.

Revenue

One of the biggest concerns about digital events is that they don’t produce equivalent revenue to a live one. This is a misperception that can be overcome by thinking strategically about each revenue stream separately – attendee seat and sponsorship sales.

People don’t pay to attend an event because they get to shake hands or stay in a hotel in Florida. They pay for perceived value. That value comes from making connections with people who share common interests, learning about something that is relevant and can help them solve problems, and meeting companies that provide services that are truly beneficial to their needs.

By designing your event around the interests of specific member groups, you’ll be able to develop content that has tremendous value. Combine that benefit with the elimination of travel and time away, and you have a great opportunity to capture a large audience. If you replace a single large event with multiple smaller events, you can multiply the opportunity to increase repeat attendance and additional sponsorship opportunities.

Speaking of sponsors, it’s important to understand their needs and interests just as well as you understand your members. Don’t just stick them in a virtual booth. Help them become relevant to your audience and make them part of the content. Provide opportunities for them to have meaningful interactions with your members, and they will be willing to pay for it.

Finally, consider the long-tail value of your digital event. You can charge a premium price for a live event that includes benefits like networking and one-on-one time with experts. But you can also charge a smaller fee to access the event content after the fact. Presentations, Q&As, round-table discussions can all be recorded and packaged into content that can be purchased and consumed after the event. You can even add new sponsors to this long-tail content, or include it as an incentive for the live event sponsors.

Where to start

Start with your members, of course! What content would be most helpful? How much time and interest do they have? What kind of interaction would they like to have with other members? Ask them. They’ll tell you.

And remember, choose your technology last.

Planning a virtual event and having trouble choosing the right technology? I’d be happy to learn more about your audience and recommend some tools that could help. Email me directly at cpierpoint@systemsalliance.com.

Resources

  • Here’s a great virtual events crash course from David Spinks, an expert with years of relevant experience.
  • Slack is great for splitting large groups into smaller chat sessions. There is a video feature that works better for smaller groups and a screenshare feature for presentations.  
  • Zoom is a pretty common platform these days with many using it for meetings and webinars. One of the features we like most are “rooms” where attendees can break out into smaller groups.
  • Discord is an open audio channel allowing people to have live conversations in groups without the breakups you’ve experienced when multiple people talk on a video call.
  • Run the world offers a wide variety of digital event tools, but their cocktail party feature seems most promising for a valuable networking experience.

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