9 Lessons Learned from Our First Virtual Conference
By: Melissa Lagowski
Big Buzz Idea Group
As we continue to navigate this most historic year, I have personally tried to remain focused on the positive and the valuable lessons learned in 2020. Since March 16th, we have helped nonprofit organizations create virtual meetings, webinars, networking events and happy hours. In August, we added in a virtual festival, and in September, we leveled up to our first virtual conference. In one day, we hosted nine breakout sessions, one general session with a hybrid awards presentation, a diversity panel, a happy hour and an exhibit hall.
After kicking the event down the road from May to September, the team at Big Buzz Idea Group helped NAWBO Chicago plan, produce and execute a successful conference In under 10 weeks. The Celebration of Achievement Conference taught us a great deal that we would like to share with other nonprofits who are also trying to identify what to do with their fundraisers. The following are a handful of major components to consider that will lead to success:
- Platform Support is critical. After reviewing and analyzing every event software platform we could find, we utilized Socio for this event, and their virtual help center offered tremendous support! Help was available 24 hours a day, Monday through Friday. I worked with a variety of team members in that virtual support center, but they were all timely, pleasant, resourceful, and at times, even humorous. The articles and guides that the Socio team has created provided a wealth of information that allowed us to set up our event successfully.
- Sponsorships are still available! The Celebration of Achievement Conference is the largest annual fundraiser for NAWBO Chicago, and in light of the pandemic, we weren’t sure what to expect in terms of financial support. We tweaked our traditional sponsorship kit and reached out to as many contacts as we could. Within five weeks, we were able to secure $45,000 in sponsorship – including five new sponsors and an increased investment from an existing sponsor.
- Overcommunicate about what a virtual conference will look like. As we were building the conference and trying to recruit attendees, we found that the majority of people we spoke with were a little confused about what a virtual conference would look like. While it has all the same components of a live event, people seemed uncertain that this could really come to fruition. So we decided to communicate as many of the details as possible in advance to help the participants and attendees prepare for the event. We included screen shots in the instruction emails and encouraged guests to login early to get familiar with the platform. We loved hearing from attendees how easy it was to navigate the online app!
- Extra promo opportunities were a nice feature. As people are becoming increasingly comfortable with being on camera, we invited our speakers to record short promo videos that we could post on social media to promote our event partners and the event itself. It was a nice way to increase the reach of the conference for our client, the speakers, and the sponsors. We are also planning to use the recorded sessions from the conference to create an on-demand resource library for our members.
- Virtual events can expand your reach. This year’s format allowed people to tune in to as little or as much of the conference content on the actual day of the event as they wanted. People from all over the country could attend and benefit from the robust content offerings without any travel expenses, and our attendees will now have access to all the recorded sessions for the next 11 months.
- People were hungry for more networking. By nature, we are all social beings, and living this year in separation is starting to wear on people. The attendees were very interested in meeting more people. They wanted to have more opportunities to create human connections with their peers, and when we do this event in 2021, we will definitely build in more networking opportunities.
- Don’t underestimate the power of a strong Board of Directors. We were blessed to have incredible support from the 13 members of our Board on this project. They had robust conversations, made unified decisions and allowed us to execute on those decisions. They brainstormed sponsor leads and speaker ideas, and they conducted the outreach necessary to help us meet attendance goals. The positive energy generated from this incredibly collaborative Board was an amazing gift during our launch into unchartered territory!
- We can’t overlook the financial wins! Our revenues only hit 63% of our goal this year, but the net proceeds were 117% of our goal. By removing all the costs associated with the conference (room fees, rentals, meals, A/V, staffing, etc.), the nonprofit was able to raise more money than originally expected.
- Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. Technology is great when it works, but it can be glitchy and unpredictable. We had many participants working remotely from many different locations: 11 presenters, 16 panelists and a performer. Allowing time for trial and error was paramount to our success.
As you continue to work through the uncertainties of 2020, we hope that these lessons will give you the insights needed to make the decisions that are right for your nonprofit or association. If you have questions, or just need a sounding board, please feel free to reach out. We want to continue to offer you the support you need to navigate your organization forward.