What’s the future of virtual events?
Farra Trompeter: Welcome to the Smart Communications Podcast, this is Farra Trompeter, chief growth officer at Big Duck. I have the pleasure of welcoming back Chris Tuttle, who will talk with us today about the future of virtual events. Chris Tuttle is a digital strategist and nonprofit marketing expert with more than 22 years of experience, working with hundreds of social good organizations around the world. As the founder and principal of TuttleCo, Chris and his team help nonprofits use digital more effectively to raise awareness, increase constituent engagement, and to cultivate more meaningful actions through digital strategy development, campaign and virtual event consulting, as well as social web and email management services. Personally, I have known Chris for, I don’t know, maybe going on 15 years through the wonderful world of nonprofit communications and technology. We have served on a board together for the New York City Anti-Violence Project, done lots of volunteering through NTEN, and have just had lots of fun. Chris, welcome back to the Smart Communications Podcast.
Chris Tuttle: Thank you, Farra. It’s so great being here and always good to talk to you about everything happening in nonprofit communications and marketing.
Farra Trompeter: We are recording this podcast in June 2021, but we’re going to take a minute. We’re going to travel back in time to 2019. Chris, I’d love to just start with, what was your experience with virtual events pre COVID-19 and everyone having to scramble from their offices to embrace the world of online communications 24/7?
Chris Tuttle: Well, so I like to say, or sometimes even joke that we were doing virtual events before they were called virtual events. A lot of organizations were doing this before we all had to go virtual with everything we were doing. Whether that was live streaming interviews in the street, or on the red carpet, or broadcasting galas, and conversations, and webinars for larger audiences to be able to see or access for those who couldn’t attend in person. I think especially a lot of national and global organizations have been thinking about how digital and virtual experiences can help us connect and reach more people for quite a while now. But of course, the global pandemic has changed everything and nonprofits had to completely rethink how in-person programming and services are offered via a virtual experience. How do we create those experiences in a way that are going to really be engaging and interesting and also allow for those authentic conversations and relationship-building opportunities that used to happen in-person to continue even in the virtual world?
Farra Trompeter: Right, so I remember, you know, back in March 2020, as everyone was getting settled in and trying to understand what was happening with COVID-19 worldwide, and in their communities, and obviously within nonprofits in the work they had delivered. We were starting to get phone calls. We were even producing webinars and lots of blog posts about how to respond to COVID, which we’ll link to at least one of them in our transcript for today’s podcast. But I’d love to just, you know, go back. And I’m curious, what were some of the first events you produced in response to COVID-19 as nonprofits were scrambling to figure out what to do with their programming?
Chris Tuttle: Like you, and like a lot of agencies in nonprofits themselves, we immediately started thinking about how we can meet with our existing clients, our social media, and web and email clients to figure out how they could deliver their programs online, and being like you able to organize webinars and live broadcast in different ways, we were able to kind of demonstrate some of the possibilities early on with some of our larger clients and they saw tremendous success. They easily saw what I think a lot of our organizations did earlier on in the pandemic, we saw more people tuning in and more people accessing this content than we were historically seeing with the organization’s work previously. We also, you know, presented them options of what more we could be doing, especially I think earlier on when we started seeing everybody started doing webinars, everybody’s webinars were free and everybody had a webinar on every topic and every day you could sign up for webinars. And so we also had to start thinking about how do we help our organization stand out and do something different. And how do we help them do these things in a way that’s going to be really best for their audiences? Some of these organizations are audiences that are an older population, 65 plus, and maybe aren’t as familiar with accessing certain types of content or even Zoom meetings.
Farra Trompeter: Oh yeah. I remember I spent lots of time trying to get each of my parents to understand how to use Zoom early in the pandemic. We had good 15 to 30 minutes tutorials, several times when we were trying to do family Zoom meetings.
Chris Tuttle: Yes, I feel like I still do on occasion. So yeah, thinking through those, but also thinking through like in this particular case, the organization I’m thinking about works with the elderly population, 65 plus who have Parkinson’s. And so they were also unable to access their support groups. They’re unable to access their exercise groups and things that were necessary for their livelihood. And so thinking through how do we get those programs out to folks and make them more accessible, both became a challenge to deal with, but it also became an opportunity. Suddenly the organization was able to reach people in areas where there were no local support groups or local exercise groups for people to be able to attend.
Farra Trompeter: Great. I’ve had the personal joy of participating in a few events that your company TuttleCo has produced from a really engaging Facebook live conversation about Black leadership in this moment with the Anti-Violence Project that now has both a Black executive director and a Black board chair, to Philanthrocon, which is a multi-day conference for the Association of Fundraising Professionals, New York City chapter. I’m curious, what are some lessons that you have learned in producing lots of these events and broadcasts that you’d like to share with our listeners?
Chris Tuttle: Well, I think there are so many things that we’ve learned and are still learning because it’s not a constant; things are still changing. But first and foremost is that the virtual event experience has largely been based around video. And frankly, I think video is the future of social media and most social channels already prioritize live video content over just about any other type of content, whether that’s uploaded recorded video photos and certainly text-based content. Secondly, I think virtual events, like most things, are more effective when they have clear objectives and you know who your audiences are, and you have clear and coordinated planning and process. And we’re not doing things at the last minute and rushed, but we’re thinking through how we’re going to create that really great content that is worthy of all the attention and engagement that we’re trying to create with our audiences.
Chris Tuttle: I also think that the best content for virtual events and live broadcasts are largely going to be things that are educational in nature. They’re going to help people, think through all the things people are searching on Google or YouTube about your work, about the services you offer that they might be looking for, and how can you create content that’s educational to that end? It’s going to be entertaining. Performances have obviously been something that has really taken off in this past year. And I think we’ve seen a lot of great examples of how some organizations have been able to utilize their contacts or connections or the performance work they do in-house to create really memorable experiences that are quite amazing to tune into. Also engaging, I think we’ve all seen chat rooms and polls and surveys, but we’re seeing other ways that folks are being engaged in this content and in the creation of these virtual experiences and being able to be a part of that.
Chris Tuttle: And or emotional, and of course, all of these other things could also be emotional, but there’s also the ability to tell amazing stories with video and live events and really tap into the emotional part of our work and why people were involved and support us. And more than anything really it’s about centering our audiences and centering what they need and want from our organization and from our work, think about how we fill those needs with either virtual programming, video content, live programming, and find ways to involve the community in that. Whether that’s giving them the ability to ask questions and have an expert answer those questions for them, to learn a new skill was tutorials where they’re guided through a process, or if it’s about presenting an opportunity for them to support an amazing cause and help them understand the people that they’re making a difference for.
Farra Trompeter: Well, I love all of those tips. I’m going to particularly hold onto those four E’s of making sure our content is educational, entertaining, engaging, and emotional, which I think is a great guide for video, but of course, everything that we produce. But I want to shift a little bit, you know, sometimes we learn the most when things don’t go as planned. I know these events are happening live and in the moment. You can’t necessarily pre-record. You’ve got to be ready to go and you’ve got to embrace those times when things don’t go as planned. And I’m curious if you have any tips you can share with folks to avoid pitfalls like that in the future? Again, not that any of your events have ever had anything go wrong, but maybe others you’ve seen?
Chris Tuttle: Of course, yes. None of our events have ever had a tech issue or a hiccup. No, they have, certainly, they have. All of our events have. And they will, no matter what we do. And no matter how well we plan and try to prepare for things, we also have to plan for failure and we can’t prevent accidents or tech issues from happening. But if we plan for them, we can prevent them from getting worse than they need to be. So whether that’s having a plan for the comments and chat in case you get Zoom-bombed, or somebody tries to hack your chat conversation and disrupt things. Or if you have a plan for when you’re on-air and your host gets disconnected in the middle of your broadcast. At minimum, we can talk out the scenarios and talk through what would happen. But better still, we could also draft needed copy or content. And that’s usually what we do. And I would highly suggest that any organization that’s doing anything, particularly live, just make a plan for failure.
Farra Trompeter: Great. So here in the US, you know, lots of folks are talking about returning to the office and really resuming in-person events. I just agreed to speak at a conference in the Fall that will be in person. That will be very exciting. My extroverted self cannot wait to engage with people in that way. I’m curious, do you think folks should still consider how to have a virtual element for their conferences, and galas, and other events as we move into this kind of return to the office/return to in-person mode? What is the future of virtual events?
Chris Tuttle: Absolutely. There should still be virtual components of our events. They’re definitely going to be opportunities to have offline and in-person events that may not have virtual experiences. However, the world is digital. It’s no longer about offline and online. We all are online 24/7, even when we are at offline events. We still have phones in our hands. We still have TV screens around us. We still have WIFI access beaming us and connecting us with the rest of the world. And so I think like what we’re going to see in the future here is a shift at first back to in-person events. There are certainly already a shift happening, and I think all of us can agree a great desire to see people again and to even reconnect with the world. But we’re also going to see that it’s going to be different. The world is still changing and this pandemic is still changing us and how we’re going to interact with things in each other.
Chris Tuttle: So, I think there’s going to be a few things that are going to happen. I think we’re going to see some events that are going to remain 100% virtual. We’ve already seen this with some of our clients, either regional organizations that we’re now able to reach drastically larger audiences than they’ve ever been able to reach before. Or from certain organizations for which their audiences may have had physical limitations or concerns, or accessibility issues to not be able to access certain events. And then frankly, for all of us, for every organization, the ability to reach people who otherwise couldn’t afford to, couldn’t take the time off of work to, couldn’t travel to, couldn’t deal with their anxiety disorder enough to be able to attend something in person, whatever the reason. There are ways that we have been able to make all of our work more accessible to various communities because of the virtual experience.
Chris Tuttle: So, I think there’s going to be some that do remain 100% virtual. But there’s also because of that, there’s a need for us to think about the virtual elements of most, all of our events. And some events may lean into the virtual experience a little bit better like a conference or summit where we can have in-person attendees, but also online viewers who can also all communicate with each other via apps and mobile devices. And then there’s going to be some experiences like galas, which may be better for the in-person experience to actually be attending and participating at a table. But there might be a virtual broadcast element of a performance or the entire stage portion of the gala. So I think we’re going to see a variety of things happen.
Chris Tuttle: And the one other thing I think we’re already seeing happening is a portion of what we’ve been calling virtual events that I think are really live broadcasts, which is the ability to have a panel conversation from different folks, either remotely or in one space to engage audiences online in that conversation. These live broadcasts can often have episodes and could be done on a regular basis. Whether that’s monthly, quarterly, or we’ve even seen many that are happening weekly. In this world where cable networks don’t quite have the power they used to, and the ability to create video content for the masses has become democratized, any nonprofit now can create content that we can all tune into on our TV at home at night. And any organization can create content that’s going to have that immediate live opportunity to engage our audiences, but also that term opportunity to answer questions and serve needs or give entertainment to people who are going to find that video afterward. And a lot of this is actually I think, happening of course, on YouTube. So when we think about social, I think the other big thing that we’ve seen change, and this change was happening, the trend was happening before the pandemic, but it’s been accelerated since, is that the way people are using social is also changing, and the way people are sharing on social is also changing.
Chris Tuttle: And a lot of that is actually decreasing and becoming more private in nature over time and distributed across more social networks than it used to be. But we’re also seeing the number of people who are watching video content and the number of hours of video content being consumed, particularly on YouTube has increased drastically in the last couple of years. So I do think there’s a really great opportunity here for nonprofits to really think through, similar to how a lot of our organizations back in the 2007 to 2011 years, how they can create content for this new medium, this new space before every other nonprofit starts creating content for it. And it becomes a lot of noise. There is still a lot of opportunity here.
Farra Trompeter: Great, and one of the things I love about what you were just saying is just, you know, I think a lot of times people were initially focused on how do I pivot? I think was the word of the pandemic. How do I pivot or move from this in-person event I had to bring it online? And we’re much more focused about format, but I love what you’re saying, and I think what we saw is that it became actually a matter of access and inclusivity. And now by making these changes and broadening up our events and rethinking our content, we’ve actually been able to reach more people who then can access our services, volunteer in our programs, connect with us and support us, take action with us. And I think that’s been so exciting. Well, we are almost at a time, but before we go, Chris, I would love it. If you could leave our listeners with one or two tips for what they might think about when they take their virtual or hybrid events to the next level? What are some things they should think about?
Chris Tuttle: First and foremost involve your community. Your greatest supporters want to see themselves in your work. And there are so many opportunities to find ways to involve them in your program, in the creation of your content and your virtual events. Whether it’s submitting messages, it’s asking questions, it’s submitting photos, or even short video testimonials, or even appearing live on air with you. And then the second big tip I would say is really to think differently. The entire world has been forced in the last 15 months to turn everything online. Which meant that everybody was doing it at once and everybody was largely learning and copying from each other. And so I think what we’ve seen and what we’re seeing especially right now is a lot of Zoom fatigue is that so many of these things are just repeats of the last thing we saw. And so this is an opportunity really for nonprofits to completely rethink everything we’re doing…to rethink the gala experience.
Chris Tuttle: Do we need to have the large event for a national organization in Cipriani’s in New York City where only a hundred people can attend and spend tons of money for the organization but also we spend lots of money to produce this event? Or could we do smaller events in multiple cities happening at the same time and virtually connected, so we’re hearing each other’s speakers and seeing each other in the room? Can we rethink how we’re doing panel conversations or workshops to people who come into our building and have the ability to access our facilities and provide that content and those educational opportunities on our website, on our social media platforms? I think we just need to completely rethink how we use digital in everything we do. And especially in the future of virtual events.
Farra Trompeter: Rethink, reimagine, and re-engage. So, Chris, thank you so much for spending time with us and for sharing your insights. If you want to learn more about Chris’s company, TuttleCo, and how they can help your organization transform your approach to digital, including events, go to Tuttle.co, we’ll link to that in the transcript. Chris, thanks for joining us again. And I hope to see you soon.
Chris Tuttle:Thank you so much. Great to talk to you.