The memcom conference and awards, which turn 21 this year, were scheduled to take place in early June. We had three choices – postpone until later in the year (and risk a further postponement), cancel and relaunch in 2021, or create a virtual event from scratch. We felt that the sector would benefit now more than ever from peer-to-peer networking and knowledge sharing around the immediate and mid-term challenges that COVID-19 has thrown at us all and we, therefore, took the decision to create a virtual event from scratch.
The lessons the team discovered from the whole experience would probably fill a weighty tome, so here you'll find distilled a few lessons of converting an in person event to a digital one below.
Like many organisations, we had various plans that have had to be fast tracked at great speed. Whilst we’d been planning on doing more online webinars and meetings at some point ‘in the future’, COVID-19 ensured that we developed these quickly. In fact we went from converting a live in person conference and awards ceremony to memcom interactive – the first digital leadership conference for the professional association and membership sector in the UK – in just 8 weeks. Everything was new – new content, new tech, as well as the landscape of lockdown and everything that entailed.
Tear up your live conference programme
Having taken advice from experts, we all agreed that some fresh thinking was required. Simply converting a multi streamed in person conference to an online format just wouldn’t work. With delegates becoming ‘Zoomed Out’, we had to rethink the content and how we bundled this into bite sized chunks.
Content and format
We took the decision to spread the content across a whole week, with a different theme for each day. By offering content throughout the week, this enabled delegates to dip in and out of sessions and enabled us to reach an audience four times larger than the in person event. Alongside the core content, we also provided wellbeing sessions such as mindfulness and personal training, and socials to enable networking – one of the key reasons delegates tell us they attend our events.
Make it interactive
One of the biggest challenges is creating the energy and wow factor of a live event. We’ve probably all done too many online meetings lately which sometimes can be more intense and tiring than an in person meeting. Running simple polls in platforms such as Zoom allow presenters to take a snapshot on a particular topic and to feedback to the audience as part of the session and thereby keeping the delegates engaged. Running a mixture of pre-recorded sessions, with live Q&A at the end of the session creates some interactivity and by pre-recording the session it reduces the risk of tech failures. Live panels where delegates can quiz the experts went down really well.
Some of the most engaging and popular sessions were a live link up with the ASAE – American Society of Association Executives. We ran several sessions with our US counterparts to share knowledge and challenges. The most successful (and fun) being Fail Fest. Under Chatham House Rules, delegates shared their ‘biggest failure’! At the end of the session, delegates voted for their biggest failure and a trophy was awarded! This was a lot of fun and created a real buzz and networking that we expect from an in person event. Of course there is a serious point here, that sharing and acknowledging failures helps us to learn and can lead to innovation.
With the exception of sessions delivered under Chatham House Rules, all sessions were recorded. The content from memcom interactive is now available on our new catch up channel memcom on demand. Not only does this give longer shelf life to the conference, it allows other content to be continually released over time, thereby extending the reach of the learning and increasing the global profile for our speakers and sponsors.
Create added value for sponsors
A key area is rethinking packages for sponsors and partners to deliver real value. memcom had already created year-round packages for our more senior sponsors and partners and this is something we’ve extended. Rather than everything hinging on one event, we offer a bundle of activities throughout the year enabling sponsors to access key decision makers on an ongoing basis.
Like many organisations, we had to operate at speed. The last few weeks have provided a great opportunity to test new ideas quickly and our stakeholders have generally been very supportive at this time. Of course a big challenge for the future is how virtual events are priced. An emerging rule of thumb suggests that conference organisers can charge a ticket price of 60-75% of an in person event providing the quality is high. memcom was very grateful to have the support of our sponsors this year which enabled our delegates to attend the conference for free.
One final thought
My one piece of advice would be to get as many people involved in the early stages of planning as possible to help shape and market the event. If you'd like to find out more, we'll be running two roundtable sessions on converting to digital events - Moving Awards Ceremonies Online, 22 July and Moving Events and Conferences Online, 29 July. Find out more on our website.
Debbie Hockham is the Executive Director of memcom. memcom is the network for senior leaders in the professional association and membership sector, which has provided events, thought leadership and networking since 2000. memcom also provides recruitment services and HR consultancy.
Find out more at https://www.memcom.org.uk/