February 9, 2021

Not another Webinar: Virtual Events that Connect

Long before all we knew was virtual events, Judy Rees started shaking up online events because she was "bored to tears" with online webinars and knew there had to be a better way. Today, the company she co-founded, Rees McCann, consults with organizations including UNICEF, The UN Refugee Agency, and a variety of global and local organizations to create virtual and online events that go beyond the standard webinar. Her virtual events drive engagement, real connection and real impact.
Below, we interview Judy on her tactics for creating virtual events that connect; when to use these events; and how to measure success.

Why do you think the basic webinar needs to be re-invented? 

I started going to a lot of online webinars far before Covid. And I found usually these things were just boring me to tears. 

I saw some people were quite good at talking to an audience for 45 minutes, but the vast majority struggled to hold people’s attention. They were just getting online and rambling, hoping that the audience would stay long enough to ask questions at the end. 

But, at the same time when I went to in-person gatherings, like when I went into London to go to a talk, if the same thing happened -- if the speaker was a bit boring -- at least I was able to meet the other participants.

With in-person meet ups, as long as you’re interested in a theme, you’re going to meet someone good. With online webinars, I was getting none of that. And that was really pissing me off.

I then started talking to webinar organizers, and I realized they just didn’t realize they could do anything different. That’s how I got into facilitation through Rees McCann, to help people make webinars that drive connection and actual engagement.

What are some of your tactics for making webinars more engaging?

Sure, we created a How-To Guide and an online masterclass which goes into the recipe for how to do this. Many of the tactics involve giving opportunity for small group discussions -- for attendees to meet each other and engage with the content. There’s three real reasons for this. The first is that people meet each other and that drives a lot of the value. We used to go to conferences as much for the networking as the content. People still want those connections.

Second, there’s an engagement piece. It’s well documented that the more people engage with material --  the more they apply it, manipulate it, work with it -- the more they retain. 

The third piece is about social learning. Human beings outsource their learning and understanding to the people around them. In a classroom or conference room, we turn to the person next to us in the coffee queue and ask, ‘what did you think of what she just said?’ What that person thinks helps you clarify your own thoughts. Those two things -- engagement and social learning -- are well documented as critical to getting people to remember and apply what they're learning.

If the organization wants people to actually learn and engage, then they should do more engaging things. 

I have to confess I used to be a planner of pretty boring webinars. We would set up these 45 minute monthly webinars that were a tiny bit educational, but really just a soft sell of our services. We tried to drive as many sign-ups as possible, and prayed that someone would ask a question at the end. It seems like a no-brainer to create a virtual event that people find more valuable and has more interaction. I guess one of my hesitations would have been that it sounds like more work. 

Yes, there is an upfront effort to change from the format of “let me just talk to you for half an hour and hope for the best” but I would argue it’s actually more beneficial in the long run.

It comes down to why you are doing this. If you think about your ultimate goal -- say having valuable new business opportunities -- you could have dozens of run-of-the-mill monthly webinars which do very little to achieve that goal. Or, you can plan a single highly engaging event which does.

There are perfectly sensible reasons to do a monthly event. There’s a convention in marketing about always having something you can invite someone to. There's a lot to be said for that.

This could be a webinar, but this event doesn't necessarily always have to be a talk-over slides webinar. We can make it more interesting.

And once you've done a lot of them, the format is easier to run. So to answer your question, yes, usually virtual events that drive connection and conversation are more work. But it’s worthwhile work.

When you look at switching to this format -- let’s call it a collaborative virtual event for now -- how do the metrics for success change? 

I think the measurement of success is the nub of this whole question. Normally, webinar success is measured by the number of registrations. ‘If we get 500-700 people to register, and a good amount of them show up, it’s a success.’

But, for the organization as a whole, success looks much different. The ultimate goal for the organization is much larger  -- number of business conversations, monthly donations, sales volume etc. What is critical is making real, engaged connections between participants, which in turn drives the social change that is actually the purpose of the organization. So if those are the metrics which organizational success is measured, why is it different for a specific group like event organizers? 

700 people showing up to a webinar is a metric for something, but it's not a metric for whether the organization is being successful in its actual purpose. Registrations alone, and not actual conversations, is not usually a metric that drives actual value. 

So if not using registration or attendees, how can organizers begin to measure the results that matter - whether conversations, leads, donations etc.?

The challenging thing is it’s much much harder to measure those kinds of things, because they tend to evolve over longer timelines. 

I can count on one hand the number of times that showing up to a meet-up directly resulted in a new client. Rather, the first meeting led to another introduction, and evolved into a contract months later. It wasn’t as direct as attendees or registrations, but it’s those networks, and cultivating those actual connections, which ultimately lead to real value for the organization.

I'm thinking a good first step would be just to shift from the number of attendees to the number of valuable conversations that occur during, or after, a virtual event…

Exactly, or email exchanges that followed from the event. One group I know ran an event to initiate a community of practice for a skill set within a huge, global organization. Their measure of success was how many people remained engaged in the community afterwards. So, say 35 people came to the initial kick off event. If all 35 of them stayed engaged in the conversation, we’d won. But if half of them dropped away, we had not succeeded. So it's never as simple as counting the number of registrations, which is easy. 

Virtual events are so wide-ranging, are there certain events that you find work well with more engagement? Any that do not work?

What I ask is: is it more important that a message is sent, or is it more important how a message is received?

There are certain situations -- a product announcement, or an investor update -- where it is just important that the message is sent. In those cases, a webinar is absolutely great. However, if the most important thing is the message that's received, typically a more engaging format is more effective.

I’ll say one of the richest areas I see people using it is in establishing communities of practice, or communities in general. There are so many enormous networks of groups online, whether a Facebook group or a sub-Reddit or any such online forum. Imagine all these folks connecting around a shared interest and learning from each other - that’s brilliant.

I run an unconference called Metaphorum which brings together the Clean Language community. We've done the collaborative unconference for 5 years now and every time we do it's just awesome...150 people from all over the world connect for a single day and talk about the stuff that they are really excited about. And that can apply to anything - a software product, sanitation and health, alternative energy…

Do you have any examples to clarify that?

One of the meetings that we see a lot of now is the ‘town hall’, or an internal all-staff meeting, let's say for an organization of 100 people. Back in the days of in-person events, when we were in the room together, one of the most important components of this event was to casually meet people around the edges of that town hall meeting.

What was most important wasn’t what the CEO said. It was the conversations that happened about what the CEO said. The same is true for marketing events. Good marketers want to know what people's response to the pitch is, not just the pitch itself.

Any other examples you’d like to note to show how organizations have made this shift, and what they’ve gotten out of it? 

I think the best example is a global organization I work with that uses online events designed for connection alongside traditional webinars. So, again, we're not saying that nobody should ever run a webinar. But they now feel they have more choices. 

For example, if they're publishing a report, they might do a webinar because that will tick a box that says they've got numbers for the webinar. But they'll also follow-up with a smaller event, an invitation-only event, which enables people to actually engage with their research. 

That offers the opportunity to build their relationships with influencers and other NGOs -- which is part of the larger goal of the organization. And when people go to that more interactive virtual event, those people are much more likely to take the report away and share it with other people. ‘Have you seen this thing that's on page 3 of this report?’

So by having these small, more engaging events alongside webinars, they drive the numbers they have to, but also drive toward the real organizational goal of relationships. They tick both boxes.

This reminds me of something we say at Filo which is, ‘choose the tool for the engagement you want to drive; don’t choose your engagement based on the tools available.’

When the tools dictated what was possible was 10 years ago, but not anymore.  Well, I can't teleport over to you and shake your hand, so there are still limitations, but they're nowhere near what they were. 

I'd say it's tools, but also culture, because if there’s not clear examples for success, organizers are very hesitant to try something new. Just running a standard online webinar with the traditional tools can be scary enough. They are high stakes events, so going outside the box is hard. 

That’s true. I said to a colleague the other day, “choose your risk.” If you want a much higher reward of actually selling some stuff and bringing in revenue, you might choose a more interesting design, which may be more risky to start.

For people in certain kinds of roles, we are almost certainly stuck with webinars. They can't escape the addiction to registration numbers. What I’m saying isn’t necessarily targeted at them. There's a group of people who are more interested in some different results, and are looking for an alternative. I think they will push the envelope and drive it for everyone else.

You mention the attendees contributing more. Do attendees feel like this is a burden ever? Do they know what to do?

There are a number of tricks to creating a virtual event around connection. The first is to be really clear with people what the event is about what they should expect. With collaborative virtual events we’re expecting the bulk of people to be interested in the topic, but not necessarily to be experts. Yes, they do have to engage, but if you’re genuinely interested in a topic, this engagement comes naturally. 

Another hesitation folks may have with collaborative virtual events is not being able to control all the content. What if the small group discussions are negative about my product or service?

I have to say that I don't think that's particularly a valid fear. If people really don't like you, they're not going to dedicate time to showing up. It’s too easy to troll in text online, which people can do anytime, if that’s what someone wants to do. The people who show up to an event are those that are genuinely interested and want to learn more. 

What tips do you have about facilitating the small group discussions?

There are two main things I try to reiterate. The most important is keep the breakout room discussions short, small, and highly focused. Breakouts may literally be as short as 2-3 minutes.

They also should be clear on the output of their discussions. They should know how long, what they’ll discuss, and what they’ll come out with.

How much do you as a facilitator participate in small group discussions?

Again, it depends on the goals of the event. One of the organizations I work with has events that revolve around donor activities. Their desired outcome was to build relationships between staff and potential donors. We want them to actually have handshake conversations. Then when they follow up, it’s obvious:”Oh yes, we've met now, I’m not surprised to hear from you.”

So in those instances we mix the groups up so that the staff members and the donors together. Staff join the conversations around the breakout topics. This of course, helps create face time, but also they also truly find out what the questions are. What are the challenges? What things are people really concerned about? That's extremely important data. 

Exactly. One of our clients wants to host interactive webinars that have open rooms for Account Executives. That way if someone wants to ask a personalized question during or just after the webinar, they can just hop into a room. An even better idea would be to set up several topic rooms -- one could be for engineering questions, one for product people, etc.  

Yeah, that would be lovely to let people dig deep into the topics that actually interest them. One organization I work with had a simple, two-hour long event. The first part had 3 speakers, each doing a short, 10-minute talk. After that, people got to choose which of those speakers to go hang out with for the next 20 minutes. 

That's such a smart, easy way to do follow up questions. You mentioned setting expectations clearly, so it's clear when I go to a “collaborative webinar” I know what kind of experience I will have (just like now, when I go to a webinar, I know I’ll be on mute, and passively kind-of listen). What do you call this format?

Funny you should say that because, way back when, we tried to get people talking about “webinnections” rather than webinars. But no no {laughing}; that didn’t take. I’d love for there to be another word to describe it but we often borrow words that are already known, things like ‘unconference’, ‘barcamp’, or ‘hackathon.’ 

So do your clients call them “engaging webinars” or “collaborative virtual events”...? 

Usually some combination of words like that, yes. But we make it clear it’s different. Our suggested invitation text says “This is not a webinar!!! Expect to meet real human beings and have real conversations.” If people know that upfront, then they're not going to be disappointed. 

You’ve mentioned individuals organizing these events. When do you think it’s helpful to pull in a professional facilitator? 

We’ve tried to enable folks to design and plan on their own with our guide and courses. In other cases, we just take the weight off their shoulders.

We typically see three skill sets involved -- designing the event, producing the event (i.e. pushing the buttons for the breakout rooms), and facilitation (helping people engage, or smooth out any tumble moments). The place where I think we provide the most value is in design. Once you've got that design, the next chunks fall into place. If your virtual event design is good enough, your facilitators don't have to be brilliant. If your design is good enough, it holds itself together. 

If your virtual event design is good enough, your facilitators don't have to be brilliant. If your design is good enough, it holds itself together.