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Attendees ‘Were Not Flying Off Early.’ After Initial Letdown, There Can Be Much to Like About a Virtual Event.

“We would’ve exceeded 2,000 people in New Orleans—we already had more than 1,800 signed up,” said Bob Moore, executive director of the American College of Osteopathic Family Physicians (ACOFP), still with a bit of a sad tinge in his voice, even though they pivoted their March annual conference very successfully to virtual. “We would’ve broken records.”
As it was, they still exceeded 1,000 attendees. But that sentiment sums up much of what’s happening now with events. Many organizations were experiencing huge successes with them and knowing the inevitability of having to pivot to virtual this year carries an obvious letdown. But we are seeing more and more virtual wins as the platforms get better and we are getting more, dare I say comfortable, with the virtual experience.

This is kind of a part two from a previous article this week about VentureBeat’s virtual pivot. That was more about sponsorships and networking during the event. While Moore took us through what led up to their pivot, the registration options and the content and feel of the event.

Here are some takeaways:

Decide early. Moore saw back in January what was happening in the world with COVID-19. They have a lot of academic members and the institutions were starting to enact travel bans. Of course now, things are more obvious. The sooner you make your decision to pivot, the better—for cancellation fees, getting space in 2021, booking virtual platforms for this year (really), and for your audience to get used to the idea.
Offer a virtual discount (but maybe not that much). ACOFP already had 1,800+ people registered. But what they then offered could still be a blueprint for planning an event this fall—a 25% discount for staying registered. More than 50% of the registrants took that deal. Just over 44% asked for and received a full refund. And 100 people deferred their registration to the 2021 conference. If you can provide similar value to your attendees from the in-person event, then don’t be shy about pricing it that way. Remember, attendees are saving huge dollars on travel costs.
Keep to one track. ACOFP chose to focus on one track. Moore said that it was just easier to stick with the schedule they already had. “Otherwise, we would have had to remarket, reconfirm speakers, reconfigure time frames. This way we already had the speaker commitments and everything built into our mobile app.” He did say in the future that he would shorten the 45-minute sessions and the 8 am to 5:30 pm days and add more breaks.
Enhance the virtual experience. “Polling is the most interactive of the various Zoom features,” Moore said, because it gets everyone easily involved. The Financial Times is hosting a series of online events called “Digital Dialogues.” In the first one, of the 4,600 who watched live, nearly 4,000 people responded to polls during the session.
Keep it as simple as possible. As mentioned, they used Zoom’s webinar platform and kept the conference session schedule intact. Their sessions were in a recorded format via the learning management system of Blue Sky. (If you do this, try to have live Q&As.) “There are great technology partners that can be leveraged to help host your meetings, moderate and so forth,” Moore said. “…we partnered with PSAV to have one of their staff be there for extra help. It was a huge win for us.”
Have some fun with it. Moore praised his board president for showing up as Elvis and lightening the mood. He would be a little “more intentional” with fun next time, maybe karaoke between the breaks or showcasing some talented members.
Spread it out. This seems to be a common sentiment. VentureBeat expanded their annual conference into spring and fall sections. Moore said he will spread content out over two weekends for the next event, providing more opportunities “to reach our audience.” Their March conference went Thursday to Sunday and he marveled that for the first time, people attended the final Sunday morning sessions! “They were not flying off early.”
Post the content after for registrants and refer to it often. It’s one thing to post webinars and conference content after the event ends, but it will get more attention if you remind people it’s there and actually use it yourself in articles and other content. (And even more if it counts toward some type of certification.) Not only will ACOFP ’20 virtual registrants have access to the content, but the recordings will also count toward the most coveted level of continuing medical education credit.
Think virtual—there will never be a hard stop. About nine months ago, Moore “implemented a staff reorganization that added a few senior staff positions to a traditionally flat organizational structure. [They still only have a staff of about 17.] Being technology savvy was one of the key attributes I looked for in these new hires.” While in-person will come back, the virtual aspects will not go away. There’s just too much greater-audience potential in them.

So what does hybrid look like? Moore said he could definitely see hybrid in-person/virtual events in their future. “We would stagger the content based on time zones. We would lean in more to the experience, offer on-demand content earlier in the day if people want that.” The mid-day content would be the topics “that we think will have most appeal so it translates over both mediums. We would imagine more ways for our content to lend itself to the virtual environment.”

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Imagine. SIPA Members Show Ability to Pivot in Face of Pandemic.

“The team had to be nimble and committed. They had to move fast. We created all new content for upcoming issues of Madison Magazine—no easy matter in a business that works 4 months out. For example, our Road Trip Issue’s content had to be completely changed. One of the new features was Tune In to Take Out.”
That’s a quote from Andie Behling of Morgan Murphy Media in an interview with Bo Sacks. So many publishers have had to pivot not only on their events but on what they cover and their webinars. Here are five examples to be applauded from fellow SIPA members. I’ve added a little Beatles tint for the headings.
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I’ve Just Seen a Face – the Zoom window. In its May newsletter, Environment Hawaii ran an article titled Board Talk: COVID-19 Effects on Tenants, Legacy Lands. It was accompanied by a wonderful photo of the Zoom meeting they had—talk about powerful faces! “On April 9, via Zoom, heads of the department’s Land Division, Division of State Parks, and Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation (DOBOR) briefed the Board of Land and Natural Resources on how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting their permittees and lessees, as well as the divisions themselves.” By looking at the nine faces, you can see the seriousness and diversity of this subject.

The Long and Winding Road – firsthand accounts. Fantini Research Public Policy Review Editor Laura Briggs “reached out to Ronnie Jones of the Louisiana Gaming Control Board as part of a series seeking insight on issues regulators are facing due to COVID-19. This is his personal account of one of the nation’s hardest-hit areas.” Louisiana ranks third to New York and New Jersey in the number of infections and deaths. Fantini did not settle for any reports about Louisiana. They went to someone right in the middle of it all for this riveting account. “Historically it had not been unusual to shut down one or more casinos in the path of an approaching hurricane, but a total cessation of gaming activities in the state was unprecedented.” Jones is eloquent in his assessment and real in his reactions: “We are, all of us, waiting to exhale.”
Help! – gamification. I’ve written before about MedLearn Media’s popular Compliance Question of the Week. This week’s “Laboratory Question”: is: “I’ve heard there is a CPT® code for COVID-19, is this true?” After the answer is given, readers are told that “This question was answered in an edition of our Laboratory Compliance Manager. For more hot topics relating to laboratory services, please visit our store or call us at 1.800.252.1578, ext. 2. So it’s really serving many purposes: information, lead gen (they can sign up for the weekly questions), revenue driver and archives builder.
Do You Want to Know a Secret? – new content. Magna Publications’ Faculty Focus has, as one might think, executed a total shift to COVID-19 related articles. These include: Fourteen Simple Strategies to Reduce Cheating on Online Examinations; Offering Compassion and Care in Online Courses; and The Importance of Saying Goodbye to Your Students in Times of Uncertainty. They all were posted in the last few days. To promote their upcoming conference, they’ve also posted, Q&A: A Virtual Chat with a Few of Our Teaching Professor Conference Presenters. Virtual to promote virtual—makes sense.
Getting Better – it’s a “womanel”! Plain English Media’s HOAleader.com has a webinar on Thursday titled: COVID-19 and Your HOA, Version 4. (HOA is short for Homeowners Association.) “We at HOAleader.com have now hosted three free COVID-19 webinars for condo and HOA board members grappling with the many challenges triggered by the deadly virus—and the ground is still shifting under board members daily.” What’s my favorite element of this webinar? The panel consists of four woman lawyers—I guess that would be called a “womanel.” Let’s hope that there are enough of these panels that restrictions must eventually be made to include a man.