Five things we learned about using tech at events

We’ve wanted to run a WonkComms event on ‘events’ for a while. As communicating digitally outstrips face-to-face interaction, there’s something special and enduring about getting a bunch of people together in the same place, at the same time, to exchange ideas.

But what if digital tools – such as virtual reality, Facebook Live, Periscope, and Slido, to name a few – could help to facilitate this? Can technology help audiences to meaningfully engage with your content, enhance the experience of attending your events and demonstrably improve impact as a result?

At ‘Using tech at events’, the sixth Breakfast Club session, we were joined by Catherine Feltham, Film Manager at WaterAid. Attendees sampled ‘Aftershock’, WaterAid’s virtual reality film about post-earthquake Nepal, and Catherine talked about the practicalities of working with VR. Joseph Barnsley, Communications Officer at the LSE IDEAS think tank, then spoke about his experiences of using audience interaction tool Slido.

Our Breakfast Clubs are held under the Chatham House rule, so we can’t say who said what, but there were plenty of useful takeaways.

1. For tech’s sake (don’t do it)

Technology needs to improve the event for the audience and should be integrated into the event’s strategy, not used as an add-on. You don’t want to start feeling like you’re on a bizarre game show about monetary policy, after all.

Decide on your events strategy, including key messages or call to action, and carefully consider how you want your audience to relate to this content, weighing up the potential gains of a digital tool vs. the resources involved.

In the spirit of experimentation, however, sometimes it’s good to follow your gut and try something new. The examples here might just help you persuade your colleagues to follow you unto the breach. Which brings me onto my next point…

2. You need a captain and crew

Whatever tech you use, it’s super important to train people internally and have a practice run-through before kick off. Even showing all staff how to use Twitter (like, properly) boosts their confidence and means they’re more likely to use it.

If you’re the captain, lots of events tech involves exercising your editorial judgement. For example, if you’re using interactive voting or a Twitter wall, you’ll need to be responsive and have a good level of understanding of the subject covered by the event (see below). You’ll also need a decent workspace set aside to equip your crew with wifi, power sockets, an intravenous coffee supply and so on.

3. Take me somewhere I’ve never been before

Virtual reality has been called the ‘empathy machine’, with films like WaterAid’s ‘Aftershock’, the UN’s ‘Clouds over Sidra’, or the National Autistic Society’s ‘Too Much Information’ having the unique ability to put you in someone else’s shoes, from a young refugee in Jordan to a child with autism in a crowded shopping centre.

We know that when they feature a good story, these films can increase engagement and pile up donations to charitable causes. But in our Breakfast Club session, we also got down to the practicalities. Typically taking between six and nine months to produce and costing a considerable amount, these films rely on headsets such as Samsung Gear VR, or operate on a smartphone app in conjunction with a simple viewer, like Google Cardboard to get the most out of the experience.  

Collaborating with a clued-up freelancer or agency is pretty much essential unless you’ve got impressive in-house capacity. Having said that, look out for the new Samsung Gear 360 camera  which self-stitches 360 degree films together using your smartphone as a monitor and costs just £350. It’s well worth taking a look at the BBC’s Research and Development VR resource for more ideas.

Whatever your budget, your distribution plan matters a hell of a lot so locate your advocacy and influencing spaces in advance. Consider the user journey so that there is a planned conversation afterwards, or literature to give away. Given the amount of investment, you’ll need a really good trailer to create a buzz online and evaluation questionnaires are indispensable too.

4. Livestream with a specific purpose

Livestreaming using YouTube, Facebook Live or Periscope can allow you to use the content from your event in new ways. Try using Facebook Live to interview your keynote speakers beforehand. Creating bonus content can be more effective than broadcasting the entire thing. You might end up using Periscope, Twitter’s live-streaming video app, more often because think tanks’ audiences tend to be on Twitter rather than Facebook. Several organisations represented at our sessions found that livestreaming events in a separate location was a popular tactic to cater for spillover audiences who couldn’t fit into the venue.

5. Ask the audience

When tech is used to reflect the mood of the room, it can act as a great leveller, bringing new people into the discussion, and increasing the quality of debate. For this, making sure someone is listening and reacting in real time is key (see point two, above). You’ve got two main choices here: pre-planned polling and organic polling.

A great example of pre-planned polling is this Hans Rosling event at ODI. An audience of international development experts were asked decidedly tricky questions about poor and marginalised people worldwide via a polling tool, in order to expose some common misconceptions.

If you’re more interested in experimenting with organic polling, Sli.do is an affordable app that lets you create a poll in real time that responds to the topics covered in the panel discussion. Sli.do also allows you to approve tweets before they hit the Twitter wall. Incidentally, we concluded that Twitter walls are great for endorsements and general engagement with your event but do not necessarily do a lot to help audience members contribute meaningfully to the discussion itself.

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Image (c) WaterAid/Mani Karmacharya

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