We’ve all learned a lot over the past year. The comms and marketing world is no different, facing many of the same questions as other sectors, particularly around the topic of events. With so much value in bringing people physically together, how do we do that in a remote world? And as the world opens again, how do we adapt for at least a period of hybrid in a way that still feels authentic, brings value and even improves access?

Many organisations and councils alike pivoted quickly into virtual events, learning new tools and approaches to bring people together. It was impressive to see and we were proud to sponsor and be part of many of the events last year that adjusted rapidly and well.

We chose to take a bit more time, learning from what others were doing and testing new technology before making the jump in November to host Transitions, FutureGov’s first ever virtual event. We learned a lot from that experience. And just like all of the other important work we do, we want to share openly what we did and what we learned so hopefully, we can all improve together.

Trust & test in abundance

Over the last year, dozens of new platforms appeared in the market to fulfil the new lockdown context. We actively sought the feedback and opinions from our peers about the platforms they were using. If nothing else, it showed us how much we can benefit from a marketing and comms community of practice. (Give me a shout if that sounds interesting!)

We decided to take a different approach for our event, using Zoom but with the support and creative hands of Lush Media. It wasn’t an approach we’d seen before and felt just different enough to be really “FutureGov”.

But virtual means a lot of tech. And I do mean, a lot of tech.

Running Transitions was significantly less like running an event and significantly more like running a television show: studio camera, green screen, lights, 6 computer setup and full soundboard. I’m pretty alright with computers and I can work my way around a soundboard. But with that much equipment, and a three-person tech team, there’s a very obvious point where my team cannot help.

It’s a challenging experience to stand by, unable to help or actively seek a solution when a problem arises. And something will always go wrong. It’s the secret sauce to why events people love events. It’s exciting to think on your feet. In my event experience, the “what’s gone wrong” has been as varied as setting up the wrong conference room to a school bus of teenagers being stuck in a mountain pass due to snow. Trains will always run late, a building is bound to have a fire alarm and we all know the true joy that is the weather. But when the internet crashes or the camera stops connecting, there’s little we can do.

We had to trust in abundance that the team we brought in was doing everything possible to make the event run smoothly. Our advice: find a great media team and do lots of rigorous testing together. Test it and test it again.

A reliable internet connection is so important

For us, the “something will go wrong” was the internet. Even in varying levels of lockdown, when no one else is in the building, the internet in London is not as strong on a Monday morning as it is on a Sunday afternoon. Go figure.

What was particularly striking about this moment was the chatroom of the event. Hundreds of people echoing: this is the reality we’re dealing with.

We’re just live streaming an event. Imagine trying to coordinate an emergency response, present learnings to a board room or work with anyone on difficult problems. Imagine being one of the thousands of remote workers with unequal access to reliable internet, making it so much more difficult or even impossible to do your job.

I don’t have a solution for this one, beyond possibly not running any events in London. But it’s an important reminder that British society hinges on a reliable internet connection.

You need a community manager

One of the best parts of live events is people watching. When done well, you the attendee have no idea that we noticed you put on a sweater so we adjusted the room temperature, or that you’re actively taking notes for a speaker so we make sure the MC says that we’ll share slides later. Watching you all watch an event is an instant KPI - in real time, you’re telling me what’s valuable.

In a virtual event, that’s significantly harder. We didn’t anticipate just how difficult it would be.

It’s pretty incredible what happens when you give people space to share. Both at Transitions and the events we’ve sponsored, the chat is the place to be. Commenting, asking questions, sharing resources, openly sharing challenges. It’s amazing.

But it’s also overwhelming. It was very quickly apparent that while we’d factored in working with the tech team, managing speakers, managing the CEO and managing our team, we underestimated and left a gap to support the community.

Fortunately for us, we have a Jonathan Flowers - an irreplaceable luxury. Along with a few other FutureGovers, he led the charge, answering questions, signposting to more reading and feeding back information to me.

But, there was no one dedicated to thinking about this area; this part of the experience. We needed a dedicated person who could coordinate our team, keep the audience engaged, share materials and keep track of what others were sharing. We needed a community manager.

Fortunately, we hired one about a month ago. As well as looking at our internal team culture and external community network, they’re going to be an invaluable asset to our future events. And I’ve no doubt this will be increasingly important as we look to hybrid events - how do we make sure that an online group feels the love, gets the most out of the event and has the space to actively participate? Big questions we’re all trying to answer.

Hybrid is the future

We’re all excited by the prospect of seeing each other in-real-life again. The government guidance for reopening has given us hope that soon, this could be over.

But even last year, I was speaking to event organisers who were planning to have already hosted an in-person event by now. They were ready to leave virtual behind. I get it, the technology of this is hard. The value is hard to see, it’s hard to feel.

As excited as we are to be together again, I think this experience has shown us across sectors that hybrid is the future.

Over the last year, we’ve been able to host events that engaged speakers and attendees from quite literally across the world. We’ve been able to attend more events across more places; just in the last week, I’ve been part of a three day event and two award shows. I never could have stretched myself across that before. We’ve seen how easy it can be to join an event we never thought we’d be able to access before and still get the high-quality content and experience. And I can’t imagine giving that up.

As more people seek flexible working opportunities, our events have to respond in kind. I want our events to be as open, as accessible and as useful as possible. We may not know what hybrid events will look like, but we certainly have to try.

Transitions is coming back this April. Get your free ticket and join us for a high-impact morning where leaders will share their experiences of leading change across their place, thinking across networks and engaging people through new approaches and ways of working to address the most pressing social challenges of our time.

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