2020 Virtual Meetings: Lessons Learned
The cancellation of in-person events and the necessary shift to virtual meetings challenged many associations to choose platforms, learn how to manage online events and create educational and networking experiences that met the needs of members and credential holders during this unique time. Below are a few best practices and lessons learned as ISA and ISA component organizations worked through hosting their first virtual events:
TJ Cornay, ISA director of event services
Andrea Rizzoni, MAC-ISA events manager
John Giedraitis, ISA Texas component executive
Heather Leff, New England ISA component executive
Cristina Bowerman, Pacific Northwest ISA component executive
- Communicate as much as you can before the event to give attendees the information they need to successfully join the event. Knowing that attendees may be accessing a platform for the first time and may have concerns, making it simple and getting them comfortable with the technology prior to the event can make everything smoother.
- Understand your goals for the event before selecting the technology. Every platform has strengths and weaknesses, so it is important to know what you want to achieve, first, so that you find the best possible fit as a technology partner.
- Spend the time to get speakers, presenters and moderators comfortable with the format and technology before the event. It takes more time, but having either group training or, when possible, one-on-one training leading up to the event can lower stress levels and make your event more polished by creating better flow and reducing issues with audio or connectivity.
- Have a game plan on how to address problems with tech beforehand so you are not caught off guard. Consider, if your platform goes down in the middle of your event, what do you do? If your speaker’s presentation won’t load, do you have a back-up copy? If your pre-recorded video won’t play, how do you handle it? Something is going to go wrong during the event. Spend some time role-playing how you would handle the most likely scenarios.
- Encourage networking by providing smaller breakout groups/events. Large groups are intimidating for many, so focus on creating opportunities for small groups or even one-on-one connections.
- Space out the sessions within the event so there are more breaks during the day. The needs of staff and attendees of virtual meetings are different than physical meetings. Creating more opportunities for everyone to walk away from the computer, stretch and let their eyes rest is important.
- Have a plan devised for allowing attendees to view the sessions post-event. We didn't anticipate such a high demand to re-watch the recorded sessions. We are allowing those who previously purchased a ticket for the session to review the session on our virtual platform for a limited time.
- When vetting your virtual platform providers, make sure you ask the right questions about staff responsibilities, platform support and time commitments. Ask, “How long will it take me to set up our event? Where can I go if I need help? Do you offer ‘day of’ event support?” By going with a lower cost virtual platform, we were responsible for the website build and running the AV logistics too. This was an extremely time consuming, arduous task.
- Think through your pre-registration process thoroughly to make it easy for both staff and the registrants. Since our conference was an event with multiple sessions we used a single registration in Constant Contact (CC) so attendees didn’t have to register separately for each session. Then, at the end of the CC registration period, we used Zapier to move registrations (about 400) from the CC registration to individual GoToWebinar (GTW) sessions.
- Consider how to manage day-of registrations – especially if you are using separate platforms for registration and the meeting. After the CC registration was closed, we continued to sell individual live session registrations but we sold them through GTW (at an increased price, of course). These were for sale in GTW for each session from the time the CC registration closed until after each GTW live session was done. GTW registration links were on our conference webpage and this increased our attendance and money.
- Map out your communications strategy. We emailed the session schedule and instructions on viewing the sessions the week before the live sessions occurred. Then, we sent the actual GTW session access links from GTW to individual attendees two days out and then again one hour before the live session began (some of this was automated in GTW). With hundreds of emails sent and links, the staff was given access to a spreadsheet with all the information they’d need to answer questions and get attendees into the webinar.
- Consider creating flexible on-demand content. Once the live sessions were done, edited recordings were hung on GTW, and attendees were notified. Those who registered for the whole conference had access to all the sessions; however, individual session recordings were also sold in GTW from links on our conference webpage.
- Make sure your software gives you the attendance and engagement data you need. GTW gave us the ability to see whether attendees watched the session live or on-demand as well as much more. It also helped us pull reports to submit to ISA for processing CEUs.
- Don’t underestimate the amount of time needed to build a virtual event. While individual sessions were more work than a multi-day event, it was easier for the attendee to break up the sessions into bite-sized pieces. But, as an added benefit, we have continued to market the recorded sessions after the 30-day free viewing period (turning off video playback controls and eliminating the extra work of quizzes). Originally we had planned to hold our in-person conference in Waco and record the sessions (a hybrid model); when that wasn’t possible, we changed strategies. The extra effort was worth it, and we believe this year’s conference will be our second most profitable. Big hats off to A.J. and his committee as well as ISA Texas staff - Gene and Misti - for going above and beyond to make this happen!
- Consider how the platform was used in the past. Our platform, Eventmobi, told us that their platform was built for in-person conferences, not virtual. Like many meeting apps, they worked to make their app more user-friendly for virtual conferences in 2020, but they haven’t fully made the transition. Ask your platform how they started and what they’ve done to make sure they can meet the demands of large-scale virtual events. Some problems we encountered included:
- During the live-stream, our platform would need to be refreshed often or it would time out. Our solution: We asked Board members to remind folks to refresh within the question-and-answer box.
- The video controls in Eventmobi allowed participants to pause the video – whether pre-recorded or live-streamed session. We created announcements and about making sure their video was not paused and they were watching the session in real-time.
- Make CEU-reporting as streamlined as possible. Our app could not track which talks participants attended, so we created a survey for attendees to complete to receive their CEUs. For their survey to show up in the report, every question had to be completed. The result was a lot of confusion from participants who claimed to fill out the survey but didn’t show up in the report.
- Eliminate issues by pre-recording sessions but keep the focus on fun. Pre-recording webinars reduces the variables that can go wrong. By pre-recording, you can still broadcast live and control how the program is delivered. PNW-ISA created a hybrid conference where we had live pre-webinar trivia based on the subject matter, a pre-recorded webinar, followed by a live question-and-answer. It offered the best of both worlds and made it engaging and fun.
- Give speakers options for delivery and plenty of support. Regardless of your instructors’ experience, they may struggle with an online format. Since the pandemic, I’ve worked with a few dozen instructors and have learned that many are extremely uncomfortable delivering online learning because they are accustomed to the energy that in-person workshops offer and they feel isolated due to the online format. To help individuals transition, I provided them with options. They could pre-record with instructions we provided, they could record with me and I had the ability to edit making them more comfortable about mistakes, and they could offer their program live. I also created timelines to ensure we had time to correct any issues as they occurred. Options were extremely helpful.