There is little doubt that 2020 is turning out to be the year that COVID-19—and webinars—took the world by storm. Leading video conferencing platforms saw a three-to four-fold increase in the number of video conferences and meetings in the early days of the pandemic.
The utility of virtual events for outreach is self-evident—webinars and other virtual meeting formats are relatively cheaper than in-person events and enable a wider reach that cuts across geographies and time zones. In the age of on-demand content, they also offer greater flexibility for audiences to tune into conversations based on their convenience. On the flip side, with a plethora of events to choose from (and a stream of virtual meetings and catch-up calls), engaging and retaining audiences till the end of an event requires a well-planned and executed effort.
The current scenario offers the development and research community an opportunity to rethink how it engages with audiences. In the past few months, the LEAD at Krea University team has experimented with various learning and dissemination formats, from fireside talks to Twitter chats and run-of-the-mill panel discussions. Here are some of the lessons we learned along the way.
1. Set your goal
Organisations need to be pragmatic while setting their goals for virtual events. It is important to think about how to embed webinars within a broader learning and outreach strategy. Before you invest valuable time and resources on planning an event, it is crucial to determine your objectives at all levels—what would ‘success’ for the event look like and how does it tie into your organisation’s goals?
What would ‘success’ for the event look like and how does it tie into your organisation’s goals?
For instance, at an event level your objective can be to encourage uptake of evidence or insights, showcase innovation, identify areas of synergy between stakeholders, and more. On the other hand, at an organisational level, the goal could be strengthening your brand in the sector, raising funding, or creating new partnerships.
When thinking about the goal of your event, it might be useful to develop a learning agenda—identify questions that address critical knowledge gaps and activities that answer them—so that you understand how best to integrate your event with your outreach strategy and organisation goals.
Another vital aspect of this initial brainstorming phase is to ‘think like a participant’. What can audiences expect to walk away with at the end of the session? Having this clarity upfront will strengthen your outreach campaign and help in drawing the right mix of audiences.
2. Choose the right format
Choosing the right format is often as important (if not more) than the content of the event itself. Typically, virtual events are hosted live as a webinar or a webcast.
Webinars are designed to facilitate two-way interactions between the host and the audience. Depending on the goals of the event, the following are some webinar and event formats you can consider:
- Panels are moderated discussions between bring experts and practitioners with diverse experiences and viewpoints. They are useful in advancing the understanding of complex issues and identifying gaps in research and practice.
- Fireside chats are informal (but structured) conversations between a host and guests. They are best-suited to get deeper insights on a topic from thought leaders and experts, and are typically restricted to a conversation between two or three people. Having a knowledgeable host can be the key to draw out relevant insights, ask the right follow-up questions, and facilitate an engaging discussion.
- Tweet chats are virtual discussions around a specific topic (and hashtag) on Twitter, typically anchored by a set of prompts or questions. They are useful to showcase thematic expertise, engage followers, and bring audiences together for a conversation related to campaigns and global event (#NTLTwitterchat).
- Workshops, hackathons, and roundtables work best to build skills, work collaboratively on a specific problem, and present evidence. If your goal is to share findings that may be relevant to policymakers, a closed-door round table may work better than an open event.
Webcasts, on the other hand, are a one-way flow of information. They are useful in reaching larger audiences and typically work best to convey information. Plenary speeches, keynote addresses, and press conferences are popular webcast formats.
3. Look beyond the ‘usual suspects’
COVID-19 has reiterated the need for greater diversity and inclusion of all voices at the table. There is a strong case to re-examine the status quo through an intersectional lens—whether it is through the data that we collect, the voices that we represent, or the way we make decisions that affect the communities we work with.
Strike the right balance of perspectives and bringing in new voices, while avoiding tokenism.
Striking the right balance of perspectives and bringing in new voices, while avoiding tokenism, can hold the key to an engaging and honest dialogue. One way to look beyond your network is to consult donors, ecosystem enablers, and intermediary organisations (people who typically work with diverse organisations), and ask for introductions. It’s also a good idea to look at the people you have on your list and see how many are from grassroots nonprofits, how many are academics, how many are policymakers, and so on. In a similar vein, social media channels can provide useful leads on emerging experts and practitioners in a field.
4. Pay attention to housekeeping
It’s important to set your people and systems up for success before, during, and after the event.
The duration of the event and the day and time are important points to consider while finalising the event programme—it’s best to avoid Mondays and Fridays. The choice of timing, on the other hand, may depend on what works for participants across time zones.
For formats such as fireside chats and panel discussions, it is advisable to share a session plan with speakers in advance—this includes the flow, key questions and discussion points, the time allotted to speakers, and their login links. If time permits, organising a catch-up call with all speakers before the event can be a good way to break the ice and understand group dynamics.
The following points are worth considering while choosing between an existing web conferencing tool or purchasing a new application: The size of the audience, the length of the event, and the interactive features that you want to use. Organising a practice run with everyone involved can help ensure smooth delivery on the day of the event.
5. Encourage engagement
As a general rule of thumb, attendance rates are 40-50 percent of registrations. Since a majority of registrations happen less than a week before the webinar, a proactive social media campaign leading up the event can boost registrations—think speaker showcases, teasers of what to expect, and creative hashtags.
While using visual aids such as presentations and multimedia, it is important to pay attention to both content and design, and optimise these aids for virtual viewing. For example, compressing the images in presentations makes them more readable.
Once the event begins, share the event format and engagement guidelines with the participants at the beginning. For example, will participants have an opportunity to speak? Will a recording of the session be available? Most video conferencing platforms also include tools to facilitate interaction with participants during the webinar. Offering micro-engagement opportunities through tools such as Q&A, polls, and calls-to-action can hook audiences and prevent drop-offs. The chat box is useful to rehash key messages, send reminders, and keep tabs on the schedule. If you are planning a Q&A segment, it is important to support the moderator in identifying relevant questions that will add value to the discussion.
To keep the conversation flowing after the event, organisers can share a webinar recording and key highlights with participants in easily digestible formats such as blogs and infographics.
Despite the widespread use of virtual meeting and conferencing tools, there is little evidence on what works to make an event successful. While the COVID-19 crisis has forced us to shift interactions online, increase in care burdens, pressures of coping with remote work, and digital fatigue are a reality. As a result, the opportunity costs of attending an event in the middle of a workday or after hours are high. As a result, conventional benchmarks to evaluate success such as the number of registrations, participant turnout, and engagement may need to be revisited, as people continue to adjust to the new normal.
- Explore these practical tips for creating a learning agenda.
- Learn more about asking the right communications questions.
- How to host a successful virtual event: Tips and best practices.
- Download this comprehensive webinar planning checklist.