As you may recall from previous columns, I serve on the overall planning committee for a regional faith-based event in North Carolina. Pilgrimage, a large-scale event for United Methodist youth and their adult leaders, traditionally takes place in person during the second weekend in November each year. As you can imagine, that was not the case for the 2020 annual event.
Read on to learn more about how our team pivoted in 2020 to provide a community-driven, inspiring and engaging event without physically gathering. You’ll read a lot about the culture of producing a virtual event and a bit less about the technology used. My goal is to shift your framework of thinking: An integrator shouldn’t simply install technology for the buyer and end users to define how they want to use it. Drive the thinking of your customers; use their experiences as a selling point for new business — and you’ll thrive.
As the days and weeks of March 2020, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, went by (arguably quite slowly), our team met regularly to discuss and discern a path forward for the Pilgrimage 2020 event. The decision to shift the event to a virtual format was unanimous and it was during this decision-making that we agreed to hold our “Pilgrimage 2020 To Be Held Virtually” announcement until we had established at least some concrete information to share with stakeholders and our attendee base. As a communicator and marketer, I was the loud voice on the team in pushing this strategy. Far too often are empty announcements made by organizations: The headline is “[Organization] Announces Big Thing That Will Affect Many Stakeholders,” but the content of the announcement is, “we’ll give you more information later.” Pro tip: When you make a splash, use that splash to share actionable information or you’ll create feelings of hesitation and apathy amongst your stakeholder community. There is a time and a place where speed is more important than content — shifting the structure-of-attendance for an event is not one.
I’d like to say that the fun began when we made the announcement, but really it had been occurring for weeks prior. Our team was meeting with leadership teams of the event’s parent organization, gathering insights and feedback from past attendees and event partners, coordinating with legal teams, exploring technology solutions and much more. In the least dramatic manner possible: we threw everything we knew about event execution out of the window and sat down with a clear mind and empathetic desire to fulfill the mission of the ministry.
We explored everything under the sun to host our virtual event: off-the-shelf virtual event platforms, traditional videoconferencing tools like Zoom, Skype and the like, and others. In the end we decided to custom build our event experience, which we did in-house quite efficiently using a basic WordPress framework. We called it the “Portal.”
A myriad of WordPress plug-ins were integrated together to create the platform, all of which allowed us to power:
- Multiple registration types and pricing structures
- Dynamic content delivery depending on a user type and their registration status
- Free and paid content types and rules to limit or unlock access
- And more
The Portal was (and strategically, still is) the central location to interact and engage with the Pilgrimage 2020 experience. Every piece of content to this day still lives accessible to all attendees.
The event had four general sessions, each made up of individual pieces of prerecorded and live content. The event’s parent organization, NC Conference of The United Methodist Church, has an in-house studio — we used this location to stream the live content to attendees, which was embedded on dedicated “General Session” pages. In addition to the live feed on this General Session page, attendees could also find an order of events, pictures, live chat, ads, behind-the-scenes camera feeds and more.
We delivered each general session stream live to attendees with our Epiphan Pearl and Vimeo’s content delivery engines. We also simultaneously streamed teasers to social accounts to generate additional excitement and revenue streams. Some of the content in the stream was pre-recorded and some was live. We marketed it all as live which, quite frankly, it was: The challenge of a live broadcast is still ever present despite the increased reliance on prerecorded content.
Community-building is a pillar of the event so the interactions between attendees outside of the general sessions were just as important. We hosted speaker panels via Zoom meetings (which we also streamed live to the Portal), chat rooms and virtual gathering spaces, and more.
Our team — primarily made up of volunteers — blew it out of the water. The key to our success was that we defined our own experience; we didn’t adhere to an off-the-shelf event solution. We also managed the feelings of our stakeholders from the very beginning in our messaging. The attendees of our event were spending, if they still aren’t, six or eight hours in front of a screen to attend school. We read the room from the beginning and empathetically established that a virtual event could never replace an in-person experience, but it could provide so many other opportunities.
Attendees were able to gather in smaller groups throughout the state, which created an even greater excitement amongst the youth who traditionally look forward to seeing their friends in-person once a year.
We wouldn’t have been able to execute the event without the in-house studio of our parent organization — which is a critical takeaway for you. In-house studios, if they aren’t already, will be a large focus for your customers in the coming months. Our society’s extreme reliance on virtual engagement won’t go away when we are all vaccinated (yes, get vaccinated) and the pandemic comes to an end. Mixed-format events are the new normal, and your customers will need tooling and consulting to achieve their goals. Take advantage of this.
If and when you submit an RFP for a virtual or mixed-format event, position yourself as a partner that will empower the customer to use technology to drive success — you’ll create a blue ocean.