Think tank events in the wake of the pandemic: Practical tips for online and hybrid experiences

The coronavirus pandemic has not changed the need for think tanks to organize events, but it sure has changed how they do it. In some ways, as event teams have figured out how to make the best of their new online-only situation, they’ve also discovered a better way forward beyond the pandemic.

WonkComms invited Katja Knežević, Events and Governance Manager for Bruegel, and Jasper Gilardi, Assistant Director of Communications Operations for the Atlantic Council, to share their experience with using online event technology to create great events for their audiences. Here are four of the most important takeaways from our conversation, with some helpful tips for how to put knowledge into practice.

From Katja’s presentation: A Bruegel team member during an event

1. Expertise and equipment matter.

In the beginning, there was the simple Zoom webinar. Most of us learned how to use this platform very quickly—and this was enough for the fledgling events that came online during the locked-down days. Then, as some opening-up occurred and organizations needed to get creative with bigger hybrid events and conferences, the tools and platforms got more complicated.

That’s why Katja and Jasper hold firm to the idea that expertise—and good equipment—should be highly valued. Getting the right people and technology in place helped them stay nimble through all the different periods of the pandemic.

👉 Hot tips:

  • Hire an engineer if you can. Budgets vary. But if you can engage a professional to be at the helm, it will pay dividends in audience experience.
  • Use the best lights and microphones that your budget allows, and check to make sure the virtual speakers look and sound good. 
  • Make sure you have a strong computer.
  • Train several staff members to jump in and help.

2. Innovation takes experimentation—and maybe a little failure.

Katja and Jasper both concede that technology sometimes lets you down. Microphones fail, internet connections go out. Luckily, audiences tend to be forgiving about these things, and there are ways to mitigate failures. The most important point is to get past the fear of new tools and take some risks as you figure out your own approach.

👉 Hot tips:

  • For big events, have a seasoned anchor who isn’t shy about stepping into the void and ad libbing if technology goes awry.
  • Try some new event formats, like Bruegel’s traveling interview series that took their point of view from global to local.
  • Try some new live-streaming platforms, like Clubhouse. The worst that can happen is that you learn what doesn’t work for you. The best that can happen is you discover an entirely new audience.

3. Take advantage of the benefits of online events and platforms.

Online event platforms aren’t just a stand-in for in-person experiences, there are significant benefits to using them, whether instead of or in addition to the in-person experience. Obviously benefit #1 is stopping the spread of COVID. But many think tanks were already pivoting to online or hybrid events before the pandemic, because in a global world, the ability to bring together speakers and audiences from everywhere without the obstacle and expense of travel (not to mention the carbon footprint) is truly valuable. Who wouldn’t want to reach more people?

Just to give you some idea of the impact, Jasper says that the Atlantic Council went from 28,000 attendees in-person and on YouTube in 2019 to 1.9 million viewers in 2020 through live-streaming to different platforms.

From Jasper’s presentation: Audience gains from 2019 to 2020

👉 Hot tips:

  • Try a tool like Switchboard to multi-stream your big events to several platforms, including partner accounts, to reach beyond your usual attendees.
  • Try live clipping with a tool like SnapStream to extend your reach to new audiences with shareable moments.
  • Encourage networking through both social media and through the tools built into the event platform.
  • Online platforms generally come with analytics. Don’t skip the learning!
  • Don’t miss out on the branding opportunities that come with online events: For big conferences especially, the graphics, backdrops, and videos you use can help create a cohesive and appealing experience.

4. Some things never change.

We don’t know what the future of events looks like. Most of us don’t even know what next month will look like. But there are some lessons that Katja and Jasper offer that are true no matter what. We’ll leave it there.

👉 Hot tips:

  • Keep learning and trying new things. Experiment with new technologies and find what works for you. The tools are always evolving, so if you haven’t found what you’re looking for, stay tuned.
  • The importance of people-power can’t be overstated. As we move towards more and more hybrid events, the pressure is on moderators and staff to make sure that online and in-person audiences both have great experiences and are brought into the conversation.
  • Nothing is more important to an event’s success than great content and speakers. It doesn’t matter what tools and tricks you use if the audience is not interested. 

Did you miss the conversation? Watch it online here and share your thoughts on Twitter with the hashtag #wonkcomms. While you’re there, be sure to follow Katja and Jasper.

Elena joined Soapbox as a content designer after more than seven years in the think tank space as director of email marketing and audience relations at the Center for American Progress. Prior to that, she spent several years working with progressive organisations as a digital strategy consultant and a communications specialist. Elena earned a BA in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University, and brings a love of language and a respect for audiences to all of her projects.

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