By Cindy Y. Lo, DMCP
Now that we are officially past the two-month mark for most of us to be working from home, we are all now mostly accustomed to the back-to-back Zoom calls and endless invites to different meetings that used to be held in person. Our challenge is now, “How can my association stand out among all this noise and still create creative experiences where members actually want to stay logged in?”
First, let’s go back to this association’s original purpose: to get like-minded individuals together to discuss current problems and share solutions we can all use to further our respective organizations. Although the global pandemic halted many of our normal, everyday operations, one silver lining has been that it has pushed us to re-evaluate which of our communities are absolutely necessary for us to do business. It has given us the opportunity to rethink the model based on the new medium. So, if you are an association executive director or head of events charged with shaping the next decade for your association – this is your chance!
Let’s take an example of an annual meeting with a tradeshow floor. Instead of trying to exactly translate this one-for-one to a virtual environment, ask yourself if that makes sense. Given the amount of content and information you’re going to be providing, consider breaking this event up into a quarter-long program where each week you are producing new content sponsored by one of the tradeshow exhibitors and choosing topics that have been crowdsourced by your own members. This is a more digestible way for your audience to not only receive information but to participate in the creation of it. Remember each time you can positively provide your community information they actually want and need in a timely manner, you’re building up those community points that you’re going to be able to cash in one day. The more people feel like they are receiving, the more they are willing to give as well. This way, when you do eventually bring everyone together – virtually or in person – it will feel like more of a fun reunion than a one-way conversation.
So does this mean you are spending more? Not necessarily. It really does come down to the platform used and the way you are recording and streaming the content back out to your audience. Remember to ask yourself these important questions often: Why is this meeting happening? Who will be attending? Are the sponsors going to be able to contribute in a fair manner? Am I presenting the content in a way that is going to keep my audience’s attention?
After being two months deep in both producing and attending lots of webinars and virtual meetings, here’s my Top 10 of what to do in a virtual environment if you are the one hosting the meeting:
1. Keep it short.
Do not try to replicate what was once a one-hour live keynote in the virtual environment unless the keynote is a celebrity status, has stunning visuals, and you have hired the right AV company to help you produce and capture the different angles necessary to keep the audience engaged. NO ONE can stay fully focused on a speaker with one camera angle for an entire hour (even in a live event situation). We have personally found 30 minutes or less is about the right length for speakers that are 100% online.
2. Carefully choose your virtual platform.
Just because your colleagues are using XYZ Virtual Platform, make sure you understand why they lean towards that platform. There are easily more than 50 different virtual platforms out there, and NONE of them will do ALL of what you need; you’ll need to prioritize what is important to your organization, and choose from there.
3. Produce like a broadcast director/producer.
This one is going to be tricky because many of us have our CAEs and CMPs, which is definitely designed for the hotel ballroom and a live audience, but now you need to change the way you’re thinking and produce your virtual meeting like a broadcast director … how are you going to make the pre-recorded sessions attractive and enticing enough to keep your audience in tune? Even if your sessions are mandatory because of CEU credit, have some pride in how you produce education webinars and make sure you’re meeting the mark.
4. Seek outside help.
If you are a one-person show, it’s going to be taxing – I know it was for me even when it was live! Think of outside help like this: Who is my “CSM” for my virtual platform? Who’s my “DMC” for the fun engagement I have planned? And who’s going to be my “runner” when I need something that wasn’t thought of during the pre-planning but I’m realizing during the virtual meeting I need? You’re going to need help, and that’s OK.
5. Creative fun goes a long way.
A virtual meeting does NOT mean a one-way lecture from someone streaming to his/her audience. Make sure your chat room has a moderator and you’ve tested that people can easily engage whether they are logged in with a laptop or their mobile device. What surprise and delight moments have you planned during the virtual meeting? The more surprises you have, the more likely it is that your attendees will stay engaged because they won’t want to miss out. Give your audience a chance to brag about what you did to their friends online. Some easy examples are having a dance/stretch break midway through the session, bringing in an unexpected guest just to say hi to your audience, or texting them a surprise electronic gift card midway through the session.
6. Go back to basics.
Right now what we are all missing is human interaction, so take the time to pair people up to meet in private virtual breakout rooms so they can actually have a conversation. Always make sure to have a moderator in these virtual breakout rooms to balance the different types of communicators (remember you’re going to have a mix of extroverts and introverts!). Arm each group with set topics so there’s a common starting point.
7. Branding. Branding. Branding.
If your association has never been strong on digital pre-event promotions, now is the time to start. People want to attend events that look well thought out and designed, as well as enjoy topics that are relevant and unique. Do NOT repeat what everyone else is doing because time is a limited commodity more than ever. Make sure you plan a content calendar well in advance so that you’re pushing out fresh content and that all of it ties to your overarching goal. Think of this as similar to when you decide which tracks you’ll feature at your annual meeting. Allow the “tracks” to help you organize topics, speakers, etc.
8. Social media is your friend.
This should not be a surprise to anyone, but I am amazed at how many associations are still NOT using this FREE marketing tool. Figure out where your association members mostly congregate and invite them to your community so that you can start leveraging the members to help you spread the word about your online content. The best tip I can offer any business (association, restaurant, etc.) is to own your own social media image … if you are absent here, you are not relevant.
9. Don’t be afraid to experiment.
Because we are all going through this pandemic together, NOW is the perfect opportunity to boldly try new things. I would encourage you to break up any ideas you’ve been sitting on into smaller bite-size ideas and experiment with rolling them out to a selective group. You’ll be amazed at how quickly some ideas get picked up with everyone craving something new.
10. Remember, we will meet again.
Remember this is NOT the end to live events or face-to-face meetings. So many of our industry peers have expressed fear that virtual will eventually lead to the extinction of the need for live events, and I have to say I completely disagree with this sentiment. If handled correctly, this period of time will help add to the number of live events when we come out of this pandemic, and more importantly, you have the opportunity as an association to welcome new members thanks to the scalability virtual events offer. I know it’s been daunting to learn all these new tools in such a short amount of time, but remember all new creative ideas and solutions come out of crisis-mode. So, what will your legacy be for your association?
Cindy Y. Lo, DMCP is the CEO and chief event strategist for Red Velvet Events, Inc., a live (and now virtual) experiences and events agency based in Austin. To learn more, visit redvelvetevents.com.
Photo credit: iStock.com/lightfieldstudios