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How to Throw a Virtual Event AND Make it Impactful

We’re living in a new reality, and all of us could benefit from some impactful virtual community building right now.

So, we asked some leaders in community management in different fields for their insights. We gathered input from our own team of Yelp community managers across North America (who had thrown 39 virtual events by the end of April, with triple that number scheduled for May. Connect with local business owners via Virtual Events at yelp.com/events). And we got inspired by the recent CMX Global Connect Conference on Virtual Events which brought hundreds of community organizers together around the how’s and why’s of virtual events. 

While we definitely don’t have this all figured out, we’re here to offer some starting points on how to organize a virtual event that will actually be meaningful to your community.

Approximately 60 percent of the jobs eliminated in the first wave of pandemic-induced layoffs in March were held by women, and 81% of employed moms said their ability to engage effectively at work has been negatively impacted by COVID-19.

The community was in crisis, still Colleen Curtis at The Mom Project was upfront about her initial resistance to the idea of virtual events:

“Honestly, it took this pandemic for us to go all in with our virtual programming. The word “webinar” just never did it for me. In the face of extreme stress and anxiety radiating around the world, we knew we needed to lean into community and online events allowed us to connect at scale. The key to programming for us has been to really, really listen to what our community wants and then be able to take quick action to bring that forward. By hosting every Friday we are challenged to create compelling topics, and the only way to do that is to give the people what they want. We have Valerie Jarrett slated to join us for Unity Hour on “Mother’s Monday” 5/11/20!”

When planning your own virtual events, it’s ok to acknowledge some resistance. They aren’t perfect, and in times of stress and crisis it can be extra overwhelming to take on entirely new things. But the potential really is enormous: “Literally thousands of people have joined The Mom Project‘s Virtual Events over the past 6 weeks to connect and rally together, far more than we ever could’ve reached “the old way.””

For QueerTech president, Naoufel Testaouni, the need in his community was also urgent. According to an impact report released by Eagle, COVID-19 has hit 53% of LGBTQ Canadian households, compared to 39% for the overall Canadian household.

Our first response to COVID-19 was to take a pulse of the community through a survey. People had a lot of anxiety and fear from isolating themselves at home. The second concern was financial security. We put together a program with a professional coach to navigate the emotional hijacking you face during a crisis. The second part of our response is reorganizing our Qareers program, a workforce development program that aims to help LGBTQ people enter the tech industry.”

Whatever your mission was before, it’s going to have a new context now. So get that insight and roll with it.

To Reduce Virtual Event Anxiety:

  • Once you’ve got something scheduled and you are live in front of your community, don’t be afraid to share honestly about where you’re at. Let people know: there will be bugs and new things to figure out, but you are here with a mission to connect, and so you’ll work it out together.
  • Create a detailed run-of-show, even for a very short event. Be ready to walk everyone through the features you’ll be using, just like giving a tour of a venue. 
  • Have a co-host animate the group chat. They can answer questions, share links and even make introductions throughout the event. Foster a secondary, more casual, space of virtual connection and that’ll often be the main experience guests appreciate and remember. 

 

Every community organization with an event schedule has had to suddenly reimagine how to matter to the community they serve. Riaz Charania, Marketing Lead at Myseum of Toronto, now finds himself working on a “Quarantine Edition” of their Intersections festival, and attempting to address the very real limitations of virtual event technology for a diverse community. 

“As an organization we’re accustomed to meeting and being with communities in person. There is of course much to be gained from convening in the same physical space, an energy that can’t be accounted for otherwise. However, there are also advantages with digital programming. We are able to cast a wider net; engaging and connecting outside of our city. We recently did an Instagram takeover for the Philbrook Museum who are located in Tulsa, Oklahoma!”

To Increase Accessibility

  • How to Make Your Virtual Meetings and Events Accessible to the Disability Community
  • Empower community members to become organizers and hubs (take inspiration from the Creative Mornings model of Field Trips.) One person in a household can give an entire family access to participate or even teach and lead. As it becomes safe for us to expand our circles again, we can reach out to our elderly or low access neighbours to be a bridge and ambassador to online spaces where they might find friendship and support. 

Industries that haven’t tackled community building before are suddenly facing an urgent need. In light of social distancing, Trusted Health pulled together six days of virtual events for Nurses Week (May 6-12). While this is largely new territory, the potential exists to use this format to rapidly share essential information and life-saving support.  

While we are all experimenting under some pretty extreme circumstances, it helps to remember that the main reason to do virtual events now is just a more urgent version of why we work in community in the first place: to connect humans, and to make the world a little brighter and our networks a little stronger.

Tools for Getting Started

At Yelp, Tomas Rey was one of the first people to jump into testing virtual event platforms, comparing features and imagining new ways they could be used for community building, so it’s all the more telling that his advice encourages organizers to take a step back, and to notice that: “virtual events are a way for us to take off our professional hats. This is one of the few times we are all opening up our homes and letting everyone in “behind the curtain.” Take the time to listen to your community and create an event that addresses their needs, but don’t overthink it.”

Be brave, do your due diligence, and then jump right in. 

Though there are bound to be bugs and multiple iterations and improvements, if you follow the guidance above your virtual event will make a difference to people in your community. Get ready for the wave of love that will come back to you… and let that wave carry you on to your next spectacular experiment.