Canceling a conference is a decision that most association CEO’s never imagined they would be forced to make. But many organizations recently faced that challenge, and more will probably do so in the near future.
Fortunately, technology now gives us alternate ways to continue our work, including providing members with education and fellowship. Virtual conferences and meetings are more than an option. They are an increasingly popular way of convening that organizations should embrace for reasons that go well beyond the current challenge. Every association that depends on an annual meeting for a major percentage of budget should have virtual plans in the back pocket. (And, by the way, maybe it’s time to identify additional sources of revenue.) These are just three reasons why maximizing your virtual potential is good business:
Build a Bigger Tent
As an industry focused on continuing education, associations should be the masters of this technology. When Kevin Ordonez and I were interviewing business leaders and CEOs for our Association 4.0 books, the need for organizations to move beyond the traditional definition of member was a consistent theme. Gary Shapiro, President and CEO of the Consumer Technology Association described that group’s growth like this:
“It (CTA) was an old boys club. I wanted us to expand in all ways.” Now CTA has 2,200 members ranging from companies that manufacture drones, 3D printers, and self-driving cars to those producing wireless health capabilities and content creation. (Association: 4.0 Positioning for Success in an Era of Disruption, Chapter 7)
Virtual meetings can bring new individuals and groups into the tent. If your organization seeks to expand internationally, online events are an opportunity to engage global audiences. They offer an economic and convenient way for people to gain exposure to your brand.
Meeting in cyberspace makes education and networking available to more of your constituents, especially if you add co-creation to the mix. Arianna Rehak, CEO, Match Box Multimedia produces SURGE, a co-creative conference for the association community. When we interviewed her for our book, she described the event like this:
“SURGE was designed to capture the collective knowledge of the members of the AssociationSuccess.org community by gathering them under a virtual roof and engaging them around conversations that matter.” (Association 4.0: An Entrepreneurial Approach to Risk, Courage and Transformation, Chapter 6)
Following the meeting SURGE content is repurposed as e-books and articles.
This goes without saying. Virtual events have a reduced carbon footprint, and they conserve financial and human resources. Dip a toe in the water. Pick one or two of the most popular sessions from the conference you just canceled and host them online over the coming months.
Most association professionals realize the value of online meetings. The biggest hurdle is learning how to integrate this technology into your organization. Start with the basics.
There are five primary considerations for planning a virtual meeting:
1. Content and Format
Identify the content that is most suitable for virtual delivery. Then determine which of the following formats will present this information effectively for your audience. Your goals and objectives for the platform, along with budget considerations will help you to narrow the choices.
Webinars versus Events—Webinars are common in the association world. Virtual events are just beginning to take hold. A virtual event is a more complex undertaking providing multiple sessions, interactivity, vendors and a robust learning experience comparable to a live conference. Click here to learn how Pauli Undesser, CEO of the Water Quality Association, and her team converted a face-to-face meeting to a virtual event in just 72 hours! (Read more about Pauli in Association 4.0: Positioning for Success in an Era of Disruption, Chapter 22.)
Live Stream Meetings—offer interactive features such as Q&A and audience polling but they also require more oversight and monitoring during the event.
Pre-recorded Meetings—may call for work upfront to capture and package the content. They don’t offer as much interaction as a live streamed meeting, but you can schedule the session for a specified time and have moderators available to answer questions through a chat function.
Most platforms allow you to record the live event and distribute a link to the recording.
Using a conferencing service such as Zoom or Go-To-Meeting is an easy way to launch your first virtual meeting. Click here to review PC Magazine’s top picks for 2020. Ask these questions before you purchase:
- Is there a platform staff or presenters are already using?
Does the vendor support the media your presenters prefer (PowerPoint, video, etc.)
- Have you reviewed several services to test features and evaluate which bells and whistles are most important for you? Most companies allow a 30-day free trial. Many providers do not require a credit card on file. So if you neglect to cancel, you won’t be charged when the grace period ends.
- What are your audience’s technology preferences, IQ and hardware. Choose a platform that makes the meeting experience easy and engaging for them.
- Does the platform support the number of participants you anticipate? If you are planning a virtual conference, does the software allow services such as simultaneous sessions and registration, badging, communications and sponsorship options?
- Will it integrate with other platforms such as your AMS and LMS?
- Does the vendor provide support?
- Are tools for interactivity such as polling and Q&A available?
- Can you leverage your LMS to manage tests, surveys and/or evaluations and certificates?
3. Presenters and Moderators
Make sure that presenters are comfortable on camera. Familiarize them with best practices for video presentations and allow time for trial runs and feedback.
To put everyone on the same page, prepare information customized for staff, presenters and participants which includes:
- The meeting agenda and norms for behavior i.e. use the mute feature when necessary, etc.
- Instructions for using the platform and information about various features. The process for introductions, Q&A and meeting wrap-up
- Speaker media expectations (video, PowerPoint, etc.)
- Schedules for training and practice sessions
- Key staff contacts and technical support
- A list of possible problems and glitches, both technical and human, and strategies that will be used to address each issue
- The process for handouts or other meeting assets
The ability to participate from anywhere is the curse and the blessing of meeting virtually. Distractions are literally at people’s fingertips. Keep audiences entertained by:
- Scheduling shorter sessions with plenty of breaks
- Choosing speakers who project enthusiasm and confidence
- Incorporating interaction via panel discussions, chat and questions submitted in advance
- Providing a professional visual experience with consistent backgrounds and branding
- Sharing the responsibility by making participants co-creators and providing video or audio breakouts
Corporate support is as important for virtual events as it is for any conference. To maximize your relationship with sponsors, make them partners. Keep them in the communication loop. Don’t just solicit money, ask for ideas and feedback about what types of recognition are most valuable to them. There are plenty of options for highlighting support and providing benefits, including:
- Time on the agenda for presentations or product demos
- Branding on conference materials and backgrounds
- Sponsorship of a session, a presenter or a virtual room
- Separate session URLs that include a sponsor name
- Virtual booth space where attendees can browse product offerings and download information
- Providing attendee lists either in full or filtered by areas of interest or levels of engagement
An elbow bump will never have the emotional impact of a hug. And a virtual meeting can’t offer the personal connection of face-to-face communication. But the digital world provides unique opportunities for learning, gathering, co-creating and serving members and their industries. When you expand your virtual reach, you will also grow your association’s community.
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