‘You Can’t Get That Kind of Reach in Person’; Take Advantage of Being Virtual

“Virtual events break down geographic barriers to attendance. Stretch your event across time zones so participants can experience it live wherever they are. Leverage digital conferencing platforms… that enable live captioning and translation for speaker remarks so audience members can view subtitles in their local language.”

Bob Bejan, Microsoft corporate VP, in a Fast Company article titled “8 Ways to Rethink Virtual Events for the Age of Social Distancing”


There’s no doubt that there are some drawbacks to virtual events. After all, we are social creatures. But there’s also a lot to embrace. Bejan, who will be delivering a keynote fireside chat at our upcoming BIMS event featuring the SIPA Sales & Marketing Leadership Summit—see the incredible list of speakers here—has some definite ideas on how to make your virtual events shine.


Here are some of those and other ways publishers can take advantage of virtual events.


Think outside—or extend!—the box. There’s no reason anymore that your event has to be just 2-3 consecutive days. Do a special hour of content every Monday afternoon and call it your Magic Monday conference. BVR’s Divorce Conference scheduled sessions weeks before and after. Instead of their annual conference, the United Fresh Produce Association created United Fresh LIVE! 365, a year-round online platform featuring a permanent expo, social gatherings, on-demand education, webinars, conference programming, and networking opportunities for the global produce industry. “We basically built a year-round convention center,” John Toner, VP of convention and industry collaboration, said.


Go global. As mentioned above, there should be no barrier besides time difference why you can’t have a bigger global audience, if that works for your niche. Content from virtual events can also be put on-demand, so if the time difference is a hindrance, they could watch it anytime. “At Microsoft, we publish event recordings to Stream and Yammer for people to watch when it works for them,” Bejan writes. For Pro Farmer’s first virtual Crop Tour in August, four online, 90-minute broadcasts brought in more than 18,000 total viewers coming from all 50 states and 12 countries. (Historically, the typical audience across the four days and seven Midwest locations has ranged between 2,000 and 3,000.) “You can’t get that kind of reach in person,” said Joe May, marketing and sales director, indicating that Pro Farmer will most likely keep some of that digital component in future Crop Tours.


Make it a conversation. You want your audience engaged with presenters throughout a virtual conference, Bejan writes. “For example, connecting via your social communities where your customers are already engaged can help build conversation leading up to the event and get people in the mindset to learn and ask questions. Enabling attendees to engage with each other and ask questions ahead of time can also help presenters prepare to address what’s top of mind for their audience.” He also points to the importance of a good moderator to encourage that conversation.


Parse the data, while the event is going on. “There’s definitely more data that we were able to collect with the virtual event than with an in-person event,” Enit Nichani, vice president of marketing for North America at IGEL, told TechTarget. The article said that a reporting feature in vFairs—their digital platform of choice—enabled their marketing team “to see how many times a user visited a particular booth, what sessions they attended and how long they stayed for those sessions.” You should use the data to even make changes during the event, if need be. Maybe some type of Q&A worked particularly well on the first day or a chatroom or exhibitor showroom didn’t. You’ll know.


Always think about what’s different. Eric Shanfelt, founding partner of Nearview Media, told us how important it is to provide opportunities for people to meet one-on-one. But then he also warned not to make these too short. One “speed dating” type session he attended gave just two minutes and that was barely enough time for introductions. Again, in person, 3-4 minutes could be okay to say a couple things and tell someone you’ll see them at happy hour. But virtual is different. He also advised integrating sponsors into sessions and Q&As, making sure they’re not just dumped into separate areas.


Again, watch Bejan live at our BIMS event featuring the SIPA Sales & Marketing Leadership Summit, Dec 2-4. Also see a Power Panel on the Future of Events.


‘Give Them Quick Wins’; Onboarding Should Be Personalized and Thorough

“It’s critical to onboard new subscribers successfully,” Dan Fink, managing director of Money-Media, said in a webinar last week. “Make sure they can easily log in. And if they haven’t accessed anything or they’re not receiving your news alerts, you’ve got a problem.”

Fink’s comment made me recall a survey that Joe May, marketing director of Pro Farmer, helped to distribute for his audience. “Our survey resulted in multiple concerns about user log-ins and passwords to the websites. So what we did was proactively remind our users the basics—how to reset their password; how to set their browser to remember their credentials so they don’t have to enter it every single time. That’s a simple action that we probably all take for granted…”

If we do take that for granted—speaking as someone who loses patience when my digital Washington Post doesn’t easily open for me—then we shouldn’t. If anything, onboarding has become even more important now, when our virtual patience may be on the thin side.


Here are lessons from the publishing world and Lia Zegeye, senior director of membership at the American Bus Association, in a story on Associations Now.


Be more personalized in your onboarding. Schibsted, a large media site in Norway and Sweden, created a “newsroom onboarding guide to welcome subscribers in a more personalized way. Now new subscribers can choose one of their renowned editors or journalists as a guide through the onboarding period. These personalized onboarding emails have a higher unique opening rate: 63% versus 38% for the standard onboarding process. The retention rate after the first renewal is also five percentage points higher.”


Show, don’t tell. In the personalized onboarding webinars that Zegeye conducts, she “shows a short promotional video from ABA’s tradeshow, providing a testimonial about the value of the event from a member’s perspective. Zegeye said she often gets thank-you notes from webinar attendees who say, “Wow, I had no idea you guys did all of these things!” “It’s a great way for me to connect with our members,” she added. The webinars immediately put a face with a name, and members are more likely to reach out to her directly with questions. “Mailing out packets has become a thing of the past,” she said.


“Remind subscribers and members why they signed on and reinforce that decision,” said Jim Sinkinson of Fired Up Marketing. “New customers—especially trials—forget why they subscribed. Don’t let them forget. Tantalize them with the valuable information they will be receiving. Onboarding materials should address three things: Motivation, method and making them heroes—give them quick wins.” I recently found out that I get PBS2 (channel 800!) from my cable provider; they should have informed me of that earlier based on my preferences.


Target. Speaking of preferences, from a data perspective, “this [opening 30-day] period is also crucial for us to gather patterns of user behavior,” said Katrina Bolak, manager, customer onboarding and engagement, for The Globe and Mail in Toronto. “We need 30 days of data to accurately serve up future content based on interests and for our email segmentation.” After that, content consumption patterns begin to form—good and bad.


Design matters. “We don’t think of onboarding as a discrete activity,” Aaron Steinberg, publisher at insideARM, said last year. “It’s the beginning of our ongoing member service and engagement. We want to be in touch with our customers all the time, and we do a good job of that.” He spoke about the importance of design in the customer service chain. “Our materials are good, our onboarding is good, but in the middle there was a design” on the website that needed to be clearer. That changed, thanks to that good customer communication.


Engage with social media. Zegeye shows new members all of ABA’s social media platforms and asks them to follow ABA from the start. “Members tend to gravitate toward Facebook to discuss their challenges, which gives the membership team a good way to tap into what members are experiencing and engage with them in a meaningful way, she said.”


Emphasize any incentive programs and key website features. ABA has a member-get-a-member incentive program, with the prize being a $50 gift card and entrance into a raffle with a chance to win $1,000. “Your members are your best ambassadors” for recruiting new prospects, Zegeye said. She also walks new members through key parts of ABA’s website.


Get members talking. Having ambassadors reminds me of something I heard once from Elizabeth Petersen of Simplify Compliance. Their conference app allowed people attending the event to have conversations before they attend. “So the week before the session, people started posting who they wanted to meet and what they wanted to see,” she said. “Then they started posting pictures of their dog wearing a conference tee-shirt. And a drink they were having before they got on the plane. So they were onboarding one another… That’s a million times more powerful than me standing in front of folks saying, ‘You must come to this session; it’s going to be the greatest thing.'”


Keys From Pro Farmer’s Successful Crop Tour Event Pivot

In a just-released events survey, Sophie Holt, global strategy director, Explori, said: “Online and hybrid seem to have a complementary role to play alongside [in-person] events. Not only will they give reassurance to visitors who are concerned about safety in the short term, but still want to connect with their community, but they may also have an important role to play in bringing new audiences to established events.”

That was exactly the case for Pro Farmer’s first-ever virtual Crop Tour held last month, Joe May, their marketing and sales director, told me yesterday.

“It went really well. We went into it with no idea how well it would be received and were very pleased. We’re lucky enough to be part of Farm Journal, so their TV crew produced a really professional looking broadcast for us each of the four nights. We never had a live broadcast component before.”
Historically, the typical audience to attend the in-person meetings across the four days and seven Midwest locations has ranged between 2,000 and 3,000. For the four online, 90-minute broadcasts, more than 18,000 total viewers watched—coming from all 50 states and 12 countries. (Crop Tour has always had a good global following, May said.) A total of 340,000 minutes were streamed, a number that even May sounded surprised to hear himself say.
“You can’t get that kind of reach in person,” said May, indicating that, as the above-mentioned survey predicted, Pro Farmer will most likely keep some of that digital component in future Crop Tours. “We would consider combining the two for next year. The farm audience has a reputation for being slower in participating with newer technologies for the most part. But our audience is also business people not just farmers. Adopting [new things] is part of their business strategy.”
For the post-COVID future, hybrid models make sense. If farmers are tuning in, then audiences that are in offices—home or business—all day probably would as well, if the content is good. Speaking of that, 52% of virtual event attendees surveyed in that report felt online-only events are as good, if not better than live events with respect to the content offered. And almost 80% have at least some interest in attending a hybrid event online in the future.
In the past, the decision not to stream an event live came partly from a worry that it would discourage people to attend in person—and publishers were reluctant to charge as much virtually. But given that content is proving to be just as strong virtually, that reluctance might dissipate.
Of course, the survey also reported that attendees cherish the in-person networking and virtual does not replicate that—though hopefully technology will continue to improve there. So May said that they really didn’t try to replicate any networking features.
“Pioneer has been a premium sponsor for 10 years, hosting a big meal and networking social before the meeting,” May said. “We were able to get them to still sponsor the digital broadcast with content items published and promotional items. In fact, we kept all the sponsors except maybe one—and they pulled out for a different reason—and added a couple new ones. And again, it was really well received.”
Having the experienced Farm Journal TV crew proved to be a huge benefit. They had been sending a crew for Crop Tour for many years, getting interviews and footage to use, and doing live setups. So setting up the live broadcast came naturally.
“We would have 15-20 minute segments, then maybe a commercial break, and then live questions from the audience, all highly produced and planned,” May said. “We kept it to 90 minutes, which is still a long time for a virtual broadcast, but people watched. There was just one technical glitch over the four nights that affected maybe five minutes. Some viewers reached out to tell us”—which may be a good thing because it means they are watching and they care.
Another advantage was that Pro Farmer could put their leaders from both the Western and Eastern tours on camera, and then patch in studio hosts from South Bend, Ind. Another reporter took questions from Twitter and Facebook with the Crop Tour hashtag, breaking in with live questions and screen questions too.
“We had [ample] questions every night,” May said. “It’s not like they were just sitting there. Sometimes people are intimidated in person to ask questions. Can be easier sitting behind a computer.
“We learned a lot—it really was continuous learning. You never know for sure [how something will turn out]. But this gave us the best of both worlds.”

Start Early, Reach Out Often and Be Outcomes-Based to Secure Renewals

At De Correspondent, a Dutch, membership-based news site, journalists regularly turn to all 60,000 members to ask for potential sources, information and inspiration for new stories—a process that works so well that it expanded to the U.S. market as The Correspondent.
At the MelEdits blogMelanie Padgett Powers, a big contributor to our Association Media & Publishing division, writes that organizations should develop a similar system when it comes to generating content.
“…put out a content creation call for sources in your regular e-newsletter,” she writes. “Plan ahead and regularly ask for contributions on specific topics… Continually monitor social media and your online communities to see what members are talking about—but also who is doing the talking.”
The benefits of this process are multifold: Not only will you be able to see what your members are talking about—and therefore what kind of content is relevant—but you can also add new, fresh voices into the mix and engage more of your audience. This can be huge when renewals come around.
Here are more ideas to help your renewals.
1. Start the renewal conversation casually—and early. When the time comes for renewal, the “ask” can start from a place of conversation and appreciation. Thank the subscriber/member for his or her loyalty and, if appropriate, participation. Highlight your accomplishments and what you are looking forward to in the year ahead. Ask open-ended questions that require more than a yes and no.
2. Pick up the phone. A MemberZone survey found that 68% of respondents use email to get members to renew. That’s no surprise, of course. But many respondents reported that phone calls were nearly as effective: 66% picked up the phone to get a member to renew, and some of those calls came from company higher-ups. Just over 15% said they used calls from other members to spark renewals.
3. Come up with an upsell and a downsell. Often times, members walk away because they either don’t find further value in their membership, or they cannot afford the membership they currently have. You can provide both a step up and a step down from the membership package they currently have, giving unsatisfied new members a chance to build up their membership or cut it back.
4. Take an outcomes-based benefits approach. People renew their subscriptions or memberships when you provide services they need along with emotional connections they crave. So instead of simply reminding them of a “basket of products and services,” be more specific about the outcomes that you’ve seen.
5. Test methods. Email, phone and mail are all valid channels for renewals. If your organization sends an e-newsletter, add a renewal reminder prior to expiration month. Stick reminder cards in any print outreach that you do. Create a pop-up for users when they log in to the members section of your website. Make it hard for them to forget to renew.
6. Tie to current events, good and bad, and use data. Here in Washington, D.C., theaters pushed back subscription renewal payments to government employees when they were furloughed. That created good will. What’s happening in your industry? Maybe there’s a 50th anniversary that can become a $50 discount, or a birthday special if they renew in their birthday month. Be creative—we do know a lot more about our subscribers/members these days. Use data to your advantage without, of course, being intrusive.
7. Remind users of their password. When Pro Farmer asked their audience if they would recommend the company to others, the answer included an open text opportunity so Pro Farmer got more information—”Our survey resulted in multiple concerns from text responses about user log-ins and passwords to the websites,” said Joe May, marketing director. “So what we did was proactively remind our users the basics—how to reset their password; how to set their browser to remember their credentials so they don’t have to enter it every single time.”

Open Communication, Mentors and Video Can Lift First-Year Retention

In a recent survey of organizations by GrowthZone, only 11% of respondents said their first-year member renewal rate increased in the past year, whereas 26% said it went down; 61% said it remained about the same.

To hold onto new members after that first year, organizations need to demonstrate value as quickly as possible, says Amy Gitchell, senior marketing communications specialist at GrowthZone, in an article on Associations Now. “It’s extremely important that new members understand the value you bring to their lives. In the survey, organizations whose members recognized their value proposition reported higher renewal rates overall.”

The International Coach Federation puts on a live webinar for onboarding to introduce new members/subscribers to key benefits and services. The ICF has found that this type of early engagement boosts first-year retention. “Videoconferencing helps our large organization feel smaller and more personal,” says Don Whittle, director of member experience. “Our members value that personal touch, and it helps make our global community feel much more tangible.”

For new members who can’t view the webinar live, ICF posts a video recording of the conversation to their website. ICF also uses the webinars as an opportunity to explain their credential to new members. That has led to a 39% increase in first-year members applying for the credential.

Here are retention ideas, some from MemberClicks, and more examples:

Keep the communications flowing. I’ve seen many organizations that talk about the importance of that initial welcome kit and outreach, but then they skip to a six-month check-in, nine-month update and then renewals. That’s probably too big a gap. “[Organizations] kind of drop off the radar and leave it up to their new members to get involved (which often, doesn’t actually happen).” Preferred is to see an automated email marketing campaign targeting your new members exclusively with event and benefit reminders, committees or groups they can join, audience surveys and special discount codes just for them.

Send a series of welcome emails. HCPro’s Credentialing Resource Center ran a 10-email welcome series in support of a new website. The emails were triggered when someone purchased membership. The focus of the emails varied each week from “Need help navigating?” and “Visit our FAQ page” to “Access the CRC member forums” and “Take $100 off the upcoming CRC Symposium.”

Organize new-member-only events, live or virtual. Another group here allows new members to come free to Pre-Conference workshops if they’ve signed up for the conference. The idea is to make them feel comfortable and engaged.

Remind users of their password. When Pro Farmer asked their audience if they would recommend the company to others, the answer included an open text opportunity so Pro Farmer got more information—specifically what might be most valuable and what might be lacking. “Our survey resulted in multiple concerns from text responses about user log-ins and passwords to the websites,” said Joe May, marketing director. “So what we did was proactively remind our users the basics—how to reset their password; how to set their browser to remember their credentials so they don’t have to enter it every single time.” And that email could then include other reminders.

Pair them with a mentor. If you can craft an experienced member/new member mentoring program where meetings/calls are scheduled but don’t become overwhelming, then that can be very successful. “If you have an online social community (or some kind of members-only forum), consider setting up a channel where interested parties (both on the mentor and mentee side) can go. That way, you’re helping to facilitate the process, but you’re not solely responsible for it.)”

Organize short-term mentoring opportunities. We’ve definitely done this at SIPA before—pair “newbies” with veterans at the SIPA Annual Conference. “By reducing the time commitment needed to fulfill this role, you’ll likely see interest in participation rise.”

Ask for feedback. “It’s imperative that you ask your new members for feedback, ideally around the six-month mark of their membership.” I would say even before that—maybe four months. By then you should get a good idea if they are engaged and what needs to be done.