Nearly 20 months into the pandemic, event organizers continue to grapple with how events can remain meaningful and relevant to their audiences.
Anyone who has ever planned an event can commiserate with the spectrum of decisions that staff, management and board members have had to make over the past year and a half. Events have evolved during this time in ways unimaginably different than what they looked like in January or February 2020 when words like “coronavirus” and “social distancing” and “Zoom” were still relatively novel to the vernacular.
How events will look over the next few months — and years — will continue to evolve. I predict that the hybrid event will become the new standard and they ultimately will facilitate a better user experience for attendees regardless of whether they are watching live or remotely.
Most nonprofits rely heavily on traditional events for fundraising and operational revenue, and ours, Spur Impact, is no different. The timing of the pandemic relative to our two signature events was fortunate compared to many others. We had a solid three months to pivot our annual #MILLSUMMIT conference to a virtual one in August 2020, and adapted those lessons when it came to planning the statewide giving day event (Do More 24 Delaware) in March 2021. Likewise, once the advent of large-scale vaccinations began in earnest later that spring, we were able to execute on a successful hybrid #MILLSUMMIT conference in August 2021.
Because our organization has been somewhat immersed in this virtual and hybrid world since the beginning of the pandemic, I wanted to share our experiences in what I hope will be useful to the discourse since others (particularly nonprofits) are facing many of these same issues.
Nonprofits deciding on how to execute on a successful event in the pandemic economy should consider three things: leveraging the technology and tools at your disposal; engaging and growing your audience; and empowering your community. These suggestions apply whether your event is virtual, hybrid, in-person, or some combination of the three.
As RSE Ventures CEO Matt Higgins recently said and many other speakers reiterated at the 2021 #MILLSUMMIT, we are in the midst of what is likely the greatest period of innovation in the last hundred years. Social media, video conferencing, shared editing software, and various messaging programs have made it easy for teams to work together effectively and collaboratively without necessarily being in the same physical workspace.
Tech doesn’t have to be super expensive. Some of the most effective events I’ve seen over the past year have used simple webpage portals and Zoom webinar and Zoom rooms (with breakouts) to facilitate discussions and networking. It really comes down to your audience, and so consideration of your audience and leveraging tech go hand in hand. My recommendation is to budget for tech similarly to how you budgeted for venue and rental costs prior to the pandemic. In addition to the tech, event planners should also budget for video production and AV. Consider hiring a local video production company to help facilitate any live components. This spend will pay dividends down the road, particularly when it comes to the user experience discussed further below.
Engaging and growing your audience
Hybrid events are able to reach audiences far differently than their in-person counterparts ever could. For more comprehensive fundraising events, the pandemic hasn’t changed the importance of user experience — and in actuality has put UX even more center stage. The tech (as discussed above) plays an important part in improving this experience for attendees. Attendees, particularly young professionals 25 to 40, have also become used to multitasking on multiple screens and expect to be able to watch some sessions live so they can interact as they can, as well as being able to view the restreams on demand so they can watch them asynchronously. As such, the tech is an important function of how you can engage with and expand or grow your audience.
Quality conference content is an equally key factor to audience engagement and growth. That often means finding speakers who can share their expertise with your audience in a meaningful way, whether through a keynote, workshop, or interactive panel discussion. Because the value proposition varies wildly from conference to conference and speaker to speaker, it’s hard to pinpoint a one-size fits all solution. Sometimes that means paying the speaker an honorarium, other times it means buying or sharing the link to their books, sharing their websites or social media, and otherwise helping make connections between them and other speakers or sponsors.
As events shift to the hybrid model, both organizers and speakers should recognize that the value proposition around events in the pandemic economy is evolving. Everyone should be more open and receptive to negotiate and find mutually agreeable solutions that help keep their interests aligned and make the event a success from both an operational and user experience.
Empowering your community
Hybrid events have the potential to become a great equalizer of opportunity. Anyone can attend and purchase virtual tickets to events around the world including concerts, conferences, webinars and workshops for the cost of the virtual ticket. The access to world class content and speakers is somewhat novel in that you can catch many of these events live from the comfort of your home using your personal device. Two years ago, access to that sort of content usually if not always required booking a flight and hotel, and otherwise took valuable free time away from families and work.
Finding ways to improve access for the wider local community should be a key consideration for hybrid events going forward. Certainly the in-person experience at hybrid events will be more exclusive and should have a different pricing structure than the virtual ticket.
The number of in-person seats, however, can be better controlled in a way to facilitate access to a wider target audience. For example, sponsors may be willing to repurpose some of their tickets so they can be used by nonprofit participants and other community-based groups, such as those that are focused on workforce development and training programs. A “pay it forward” option to ticket registration also gives organizers some flexibility to offer steeply discounted or free in-person or virtual passes to students and other attendees who could not otherwise afford the virtual ticket. These options will result in strengthening the value proposition and reduce any fear of diminishing the value paid by a registered attendee or sponsor.
A final piece of advice I would share with regard to the planning process is to open it up as much as you can to the audience you are targeting. For the #MILLSUMMIT, we have always had a somewhat large planning committee and the event wouldn’t work without the dozens of volunteers who give time throughout the year to craft the vision and execution of the event at every stage. By empowering our volunteers to lead the way, our board’s vision for the event becomes a reality each year.
Hybrid events are here to stay.
The sooner organizations embrace their potential, the more effective the planning process can be. Leverage tech, and use it effectively to grow your network and empower your community. User experience will continue to inform what events look like going forward, and I wish you well as you plan your hybrid events in the future.-30-