Five Things We Learned About Reaching Audiences in The New Normal

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The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way households, institutions, and think tanks are run, leading to what has become a new “normal” as we longingly look back at the good old days. 

During the launch of a new webinar series—WonkComms Transatlantic—we learned helpful insights on how to engage stakeholders and audiences in a COVID-19 and post-pandemic era. Ana Ramic, Head of Communications at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), and Andrew Marshall, Vice President of Communications at the Atlantic Council, shared their expertise with us. They talked about everything from overcoming Zoom fatigue to how think tanks can improve their communication streams and timings. 

A complete recording of the webinar can be found here

These are some key takeaways from the discussion:

1. There is more demand for creative communications work than ever before.

Routine communications are no longer cutting it in these COVID times, which have become highly digitized due to everything moving online. Audiences are wanting attention-grabbing, engaging, and high-quality virtual interactions. Regular PowerPoint presentations, which may have been sufficient for engaging a live-audience, no longer have the same effect on online audiences and stakeholders. 

Ana Ramic uses Prezi Videos to keep things fresh, for example. 

ECFR enjoys using Prezi videos during online presentations because they can simultaneously present information in a fun way while still allowing audiences to see the speaker’s face full screen. 

2. A bifurcation is arising in the events industry.

While it may perhaps just be a theory for now, Ana Ramic postulates that events (aka the original good) will commodify to a point of having higher standards. 

Due to the mass number of online events occurring every day around the globe right now, it is very likely that a boutique market will emerge for “craft” events that are able to appeal to audiences beyond the common webinar or Zoom meeting. As Zoom fatigue wages on, these boutique markets will offer upscale events, selling in-person interactions as a luxury. As the bar rises for what constitutes a good online event, it is also possible that only high-level speakers will attract and capture audiences. 

Are you looking at your comms budget thinking this sounds a bit daunting? 

It needn’t! 

Take this as an encouragement to be intentional about your think tank’s online events and consider how you can enhance your event game, since virtual meetings and events aren’t going out of style anytime soon.

3. The principles that apply to external events don’t necessarily apply to internal events.

There are different considerations to keep in mind, whether you’re hosting an external or an internal event. For internal events and meetings, it may not be necessary for everyone to travel to a common destination since you likely already know one another. This can significantly reduce travel time, costs, and CO2 emissions. Instead, think tanks might want to consider having a few specific, internal in-person events for the purpose of laying the groundwork for future virtual collaboration. 

On the other hand, you may decide that your team needs to meet in person for morale reasons, rather than pure productivity reasons. 

Regardless of internal or external, however, it is likely that online and hybrid events will become the way of the future.

4. See online events as opportunities to capture audiences with different speakers.

A lot of think tanks have struggled to make all of their events virtual. This, of course, can create a strain on comms teams regardless of whether they’re big or small. 

“The challenges have been massive, but so have the opportunities.”

Andrew Marshall, Vice President of Communications, Atlantic Council

Andrew Marshall recommended looking for the opportunities associated with going virtual, rather than just focusing on the challenges. For example, virtual events open up a whole new realm of speakers. While a high-profile head of state may not have traveled to a think tank for an in-person event prior to the pandemic, they are now much more likely to give you an hour of their time to engage a virtual audience. 

Having access to speakers from around the globe at your fingertips allows your communications approach to broaden as you cover themes and topics you may not have been able to when relying solely on in-person panelists.

5. Step up the professionalism.

Now that most events are online, your think tank and comms team are competing for your audience and stakeholders’ attention more than ever. If you invite high-profile speakers, as previously mentioned, it is crucial that you make the speaking engagement worth their time. 

A sloppy or unprepared webinar will no longer cut it. 

To take your professionalism to the next level you will want to step up the quality of audio-visual. For example, your comms team may want to consider using a virtual green room so panelists and organizers can chat before and after an event to prepare and debrief.

Not only think tanks have moved events online, but so have most other organizations. This means there’s a lot more competition out there to produce a quality product, or event, that both attracts an audience and keeps them engaged. If you’re looking to level the playing field, your think tank/comms team is going to want to get really good at events. 

That starts by building on your strengths. 

Your think tank has unique skills and strengths, so if, for example, your strength is convening, capitalize on that strength and use it to convene people online. Work with your team, partners, and vendors to keep iterating and moving forward. Don’t worry if you don’t have a head of state speaking on your event. The important thing is that you keep learning and seeking to improve, something that will prove beneficial as we look at think tank comms in 2021 and beyond.


Amanda joined Soapbox as a lead content designer after spending several years as a consultant helping the US Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, DC, improving their communications and outreach. In her role with Soapbox she takes a user-centered approach: identifying what users need and figuring out how best to communicate it. She holds an MSc in Environmental Sciences and Policy from Johns Hopkins University.

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