5 Essentials of Engaging Online Events
Events from homecoming celebrations to alumni networking programs to conferences are shifting online thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. Around the globe, educational institutions and nonprofit organizations—including CASE—are grappling with that transition and exploring ways to make online experiences engaging.
Take, for instance, CASE’s Strategic Talent Management conference. This popular program was one of CASE’s in-person programs that was reimagined as an online conference amid the pandemic. The volunteer faculty members retooled the May 27-28, 2020, conference to take it online: rearranging the program and adding a virtual exhibit hall and networking social.
“I wasn’t sure what to expect with it being virtual, but it did not disappoint,” said one participant. “I could not have imagined the level of engagement you would create to ensure conference attendees had enriching and rewarding experience.”
Since then, more than 2,500 advancement professionals have joined CASE’s online programs to share ideas, find inspiration, and explore solutions. Here’s what we at CASE have learned about planning meaningful online experiences—lessons that advancement professionals can apply as they hone their own online events for alumni, staff, and their communities.
Celebrate the connections, focus on the benefits.
Online events are an opportunity to connect people at a time when many are working at home, disconnected from colleagues and peers. They can be as engaging as in-person ones—and even offer extra benefits. First, there are no travel costs, and participants can watch recording of sessions when it works for their schedule.
“We’re offering the same quality of content, the only thing that changes is the medium,” says Natalie Stevens, CASE’s director of educational programs in CASE’s D.C. office. “Peer-to-peer sharing is key, and we know that hearing what other people have been doing is a benefit.”
Plan wisely and be flexible.
Help speakers or volunteers be prepared by giving them as much preparation and detail as possible. In particular, build in extra time for them to test the online platform you’re using—that can help boost their confidence.
Even with plenty of planning, the unexpected can ensue—an internet connection goes down or headphones stop working—so be ready to think quickly and problem-solve. Plus, it helps to be flexible. For CASE’s online programs, conference managers plan plenty of breaks during the program, or have opted to offer certain conferences as a series of events (like CASE’s five-week Spring Institute in Educational Fundraising or the three-part Corporate and Foundation Relations Officers Seminar Series) to give participants options.
Be concise, focused, and intentional.
Make sure your online events are focused and deliver information that’s valuable to your audience—especially now amid the stress and uncertainty of COVID-19. For online conferences, for instance, CASE volunteers and staff have homed in on applicable, timely information designed to help advancement professionals solve problems.
Focus is key, says Cheryl Torrado, head of advancement programs in CASE’s Singapore office.
“Concise, focused content is more effective than making sessions long,” she says. That’s known in human relations training as “micro-learning.”
For instance, participants at CASE’s online Annual Conference on Marketing and Branding in June said the quick, 30-minute sessions were just the right length: “That allowed me to listen to the content I wanted without feeling I was in front of a screen forever,” said one.
To get social, be creative.
One key draw of in-person events—CASE conferences included!—is building social connections.
“While I did really, really miss the in-person engagement, this virtual conference was the second-best thing,” said one participant at CASE’s online Social Media and Community Conference in June. “I really enjoyed the smaller breakout rooms where we could talk to each other.”
People still want that experience with online events—it can just be a little more challenging to do. Try these four ideas from CASE’s online conferences to give audiences a chance to engage:
- Icebreaker: This is online platform that utilizes one-on-one networking and randomly matches participants for games like, “Would You Rather,” or “What’s Your Superhero Power?” The prompts for each game can be customized along with the amount of time for each game.
- Roundtables: Utilizing Zoom Meetings, recreate roundtable topic discussions virtually. Each room has a designated topic for participants to explore together.
- Breakout rooms: Within Zoom Meetings, attendees can be separated into groups as small as four people to facilitate small group discussions.
- Watch parties: Participants gather to watch a film or presentation and then participate in a discussion afterwards. For CASE’s DRIVE/Cast, for instance, CASE hosted a Netflix watch party for the film, The Great Hack.
Communication and collaboration are key.
Audiences are getting more accustomed to online opportunities—but nonetheless, both volunteers and participants might be unsure how events will go. Have clear instructions, with plenty of details about how to register, how to participate, what to expect, and how to find extra resources or information.
Finally, if you’re working with any kind of partner (alumni, campus partners, speakers, volunteers), good teamwork is essential.
“Like in-person programmes or other activities or projects, collaboration is one of the key success factors for an online programme,” says Torrado. For CASE’s online conferences, dozens of volunteers (and counting!) have offered their dedication, creativity, and hard to make the experience rewarding. Those strong connections with stakeholders can elevate the online experience.
Special thanks to CASE staff members Emily DeYoung, Rich Nicholl, Tanya Kern, and Sabri Math for their insights on this article.
About the author(s)
Meredith Barnett is the manager, digital communications at CASE.