Delivering More Engaging Virtual Events with Jeff Breunsbach, Tirza Austin, Chris Detzel, and Brett Wangman
Alex Mastriani: Welcome to the Member Engagement Show with Higher Logic, the podcast for association professionals looking to boost retention, gain new members, and deepen member involvement.
Heather McNair: Throughout our show, we'll bring on some experts, talk shop about engagement, and you'll walk away with strategies proven to transform your organization. I'm Heather McNair.
Alex Mastriani: I'm Alex Mastrianni, and we're happy you're here. Hey, Heather, how's it going?
Heather McNair: It's going really well. How are you, Alex?
Alex Mastriani: Great. I'm so excited to be here today for our first podcast episode. This is a long time coming. And even more thrilled that we're talking about virtual events, a really hot topic right now. In 2020, in- person events, as we know, came to an abrupt halt. Conference rooms were closed and exhibit halls were quickly exchanged for computer screens. I'm sure you attended a virtual event or two last year. But the way that you ran virtual events in early 2020 should not be the same way that you run them in 2021.
Heather McNair: Yeah, I'm sure we all attended many virtual events in 2020. And we've been hearing from many of you this year that you're approaching your events with purpose this year. The scramble we all had to do last year is in the rear view mirror. This year, we have time to actually set strategy. So we've gathered a few experts who pulled off successful virtual events in 2020. And they're going to share some of their experiences navigating through those events, and talk about what worked and what didn't work so well for them.
Alex Mastriani: Higher Logic's own Jeff Breunsbach is here to moderate with us, along with three customers. We have Tirza Austin, online community manager at American Society of Civil Engineers. Chris Detzel, he's the former global enterprise community manager at Imperva, now with Reltio. And Brett Wangman, president at the Center for Association Growth. All right, Jeff, over to you.
Jeff Breunsbach: Awesome. I'm Jeff Breunsbach, I'm the director of customer experience and education at Higher Logic. I am actually also a co- founder... And I'm actually a community manager myself of a customer success leadership community called Gain Grow Retain, which I started with my business partner earlier this year. So I've got kind of a unique position there. Without further ado, I'm going to kick it first with a question. And Chris, maybe let's jump in with you. How might you look to integrate your virtual events within your tech stack? So Chris, from your perspective, were there any other considerations that you had to take in as you started thinking about webinars and other virtual events that you were hosting for Imperva?
Chris Detzel: Yeah. So let me just give a quick background, just because it might help. And I did think about this question a lot, because back in March is basically when we started our virtual webinar program, and we eventually, over the several months, we kind of put it into four buckets. An AMA webinar, a product deep- dive webinar. We have 16 to 18 different products. Also kind of a roadmap webinar, and a new product webinar, virtual webinar. So we kind of broke it down into four pieces. And as I kind of looked at, like you said, the technologies there's... Higher Logic has this really great add- on, it's on the events management side, to where you can invite somebody directly, or an entire community directly to a particular webinar. And they get an invite on their calendar. They can accept. You go in the back end, you can see who RSVP'd and who canceled and those kinds of things. So it's pretty cool, when you do that. The other piece though is, you could put a link to like Zoom or things like that. The hard part about that is you have to manually go into the webinar to see who actually attended. So in the back end you can say," Checkmark yes, no, yes, no." So maybe take a picture of those kinds of things. What I would like to do is two things from an integration standpoint. We use Gainsight as one of our main customer success tools. And so it'd be really nice to kind of look at that piece and say," Integrate the events management piece into Gainsight so we can get some more information about our customers." And then additionally, there's an advocacy type of add- on that Higher Logic has that tells you," These customers did these things, and so they should get these points." So I think integrations into those kinds of things would be really cool, and something that I would be looking at for 2021, so that I don't have to manually go and do all this stuff. Right? It's a time suck. But there's all these technologies doing all these things, and so the nice thing about the platform is that it has APIs to where you can really integrate specifically in that stuff.
Jeff Breunsbach: Yeah. So it sounds, though, the big thing for you is just trying to make sure, how can you understand who's attending events, which events they're attending, making sure you can kind of map that back into some of the contact records that you have. And then I think the last part you mentioned, which was something that hopefully we'll dive into a little bit later on as well, around kind of the gamification. So how are we actually kind of giving points? How are we helping people understand kind of where they are and what they're doing, and how that kind of ladders up into becoming a more active member of the larger community that they're in. So that's great. Brett, is there anything that comes to mind for you when you think about technology and layering some of these things on for a number of your customers?
Brett Wangman: Yeah, so for our biggest customer in the hospital medical space, when we canceled their annual conference, like everybody else, we started looking at all these other platforms are out there. But then we kind of took a hard stop and said," Listen, we're just going to do a small approach here, run a variety of small events and see if we can't learn along the way." And we wanted to build as much as we could on the Higher Logic platform, because we had just spent several years trying to get away from siloed sites. So we use Higher Logic. And then we also have NOAH as our AMS. And then we had a lot of experiences using GoToWebinar, so we decided that they can size our list, or our capacity, and GoToWebinar to get it up to 500 attendees. But now I'm kind of stuck. That's my technology platform there. And our first event, we just allowed you to... When a member came in, they saw a link, and we'd send them over to GoToWebinar and we wouldn't make them register through the AMS. The problem is then we couldn't really track you and associate you with the event on the Higher Logic side. So then we switched, for event number two, to make them go through the AMS. When we bring them back to the Higher Logic, then we recognize they're in a security group. Now we show them a register button or a sign- in button that takes them over to GoToWebinar. They still have to fill out the GoToWebinar form, though. It sounds like a lot of you don't use GoToWebinar. Good for you, because it doesn't seem to have a lot of integration options. So what I've been looking at is trying to figure out, can we integrate GoToWebinar with NOAH? Can we integrate GoToWebinar with Higher Logic, so that once you do register you get put into that session, you don't have to go there a second time. Because it's really important that we do get you registered and associated with the event community, because that's how we track what pages you're going to, whether you're visiting our sponsors. And then for our sponsors, where we can actually see whether you're downloading any of their promotional materials from the resource library. So we need to get you logged in. But making you getting logged in is causing other problems down the line. So that's what we're trying to solve in the short term.
Jeff Breunsbach: Yeah, that makes a ton of sense. And I think the two big takeaways there for me, too, is just how important it is to try and make sure that the technologies are all talking to one another. I think before even taking some of the larger steps, just how do we make sure these are all synced up so that we can get the right information into the right place? And I love the example you gave of, we actually have a community dedicated towards the event, and so if we don't get users and members in there, then that's kind of a fault. We need to make sure that we're engaging them beyond just the virtual event itself. And that's a way for us to do that. The second thing, which I think was a little bit smaller that you mentioned, but I take away as a big thing is just the surveying and trying to get feedback and trying to iterate as we go. You mentioned having the first meeting and then iterating through the second one, and kind of changing... One of the things for our Gain Grow Retain community that my business partner Jay and I did is we surveyed after every single session that we held. We did a weekly meeting, and we've actually had a weekly meeting going for 30 something weeks now. And one of the things that I think actually helped us in that environment though, of why people... I don't know if they believed us or not. But when we actually surveyed what we did, the first thing we did the next week was we actually brought up the survey results. And we said," Here's what you just told us from last week. You did not enjoy this, you enjoyed this. Here's how we're adapting today's session. Here's what the changes that we're going to make." But we did that for consistently for about six to eight weeks so that people knew if they were actually going to take the time to fill out the survey, we were actually going to listen to that feedback and use it. Sometimes I think people oftentimes just write off surveys because they're like," Hey, if I fill this out, are you actually going read it?" So that was a way for us to just bring some authenticity back into that. But I think similar to your point, Brett, we just tried to figure out how do we iterate as we go so that we can make sure and just make as much value for the member at the end of the day, was our big bowl. So I like that. Tirza, let's maybe jump to the next question. I think you're going to have maybe a lot of ideas around this. But how did you see virtual events helping to fuel other parts of your content? So you might have a virtual event, but then what were you doing with that content afterwards? How did you actually think about maybe the attendees that didn't show up? How are you kind of getting the word out afterwards of using that content to your advantage?
Tirza Austin: Yeah, absolutely. I love this question. So I actually work within our communications team, but I am our community manager, and that's what I do. I do all the community content. And we actually started our virtual events from an idea from the topic moderators that we have. So essentially, we have a brainstorming session with our topic moderators, which are the most active users in our community. And actually, before the official shutdown, I think it happened on a Monday, right, where pretty much the world came crashing down, we had a meeting on Thursday and I said," Hey, I'd really like to do this as more of like a supportive call during the pandemic." And the group said," You know what? That's a great idea. But we can't just like have a willy nilly call and just have people talking. Like it needs to be topic- based, and we can do it this way." So they had a bunch of ideas. So the community actually drove the content with our virtual calls. They were the ones that came up with the topics. They're the ones that had the ideas for the panelists. But at the same time, some of those questions or topics that came up within the virtual events, we then started discussions within our online community. Or I jotted," There's been a lot of great feedback on this topic. Maybe that's a possible blog in the future." And it's really important to pay attention to your members that are participating in some of these conversations, because they want to talk, and they have things to say, and they're experts in the fields that they're in. And you can say," Hey, I really appreciate that comment that you had. I'd really like you to write about this topic and we can share it out within our community." So it's this idea that content creates more content. And it's really trying to bring in and engage members. Because if I get you to write a blog, and then you share it on your social, not only am I infiltrating your social network, which I want to do, but also because you wrote for the society, you feel engaged more. You feel proud of being a part of that organization. So we even have blogs that... We've had members that have written their younger members to. They're in the early twenties. And we'll publish those blogs. We'll repurpose them within our magazine. So it's in an actual print magazine that's been around for... It's a pretty esteemed magazine within our members. And they're so excited as a 20- year- old to be able to publish some of these blogs. And so they take a picture of themselves with their article and they share it out on social. That's what it's all about, right, is engaging membership. And that's what content should be about. I'm sorry, that was a very long- winded answer, but I get very excited about that question.
Jeff Breunsbach: It was great. No, I think the more you can make the member the center of the spotlight, right, the more we can actually help them build their own personal brand, so to speak. Then they're more willing to share. So how do you get them to write a blog? How do you get them involved in doing things like best practices or thinking about toolkits or other presentations that you have going on? Anything that you can do to help do that. I think we've noticed a very similar trend, where then you're more likely to share it. You're more proud of it. You want people to know. So it's like this way of kind of building a network effect that you can hopefully latch onto. So I appreciate that. Chris, I'm curious from your perspective, kind of similar question, you mentioned taking a big dive into this webinar series that you're doing. Are you envisioning other ways to kind of take this content and use it to your advantage in different parts of the community or business or external for customers?
Chris Detzel: Yeah, that's exactly what we did is, when I started these webinar programs, which for the last four months we've had one every single week, one webinar every week. And then my goal was, because I'm the only person running community at Imperva, it's like," I need to accomplish four or five things at one time," right? And so the nice thing about these webinars, because a lot of these webinars were deep- dive webinars into our products, because they're very complex and everything else, and so our customers have issues with them. Imperva's been around for 20 years, and we don't really have any great content on how to do this and how to do that. You know, the simple stuff. So what I thought was," I could actually create a webinar and get engagements. I could start creating blogs. I could start creating videos and long videos." And I cut those videos into four or five to where it would be very consumable. And so that's what I did is, I'd get access to my YouTube channel and then started posting that stuff on YouTube. If you went to Imperva's YouTube today, you would see like 40 plus webinars, plus videos. I embed those into a blog. I'd go to upwork. com, spend$ 100 on a blog, have a blog every single week on... I'd have four blogs on one webinar. That's probably 1000 or 1200 words. And post it on the community directly. So every week I would have those blogs, and then I would vet all that stuff there. Then I would create how to kind of questions, Q& A, that came directly from the webinars. And so I'd have question, answer, question, answer, question, answer, and then create these pages on Imperva's community. Our community is open. We're a software company. So my goal is focused on SEO strategies, so when a customer searches for a product question, they get the answer quickly. Because I would tell people," If you don't have that answer to your product when people search on Google, because that's where everybody in the world searches, then you lose." Right? And so that's what I tried to create. And this last year, it was just content, content, content. So content is queen. And if you don't see it that way, engaging content is queen... And so if you don't see it that way, then you lose, is how I see it.
Jeff Breunsbach: Yeah, I mean, I think that the name of the game, too, just like you mentioned, is thinking about how can I leverage one thing into five different things?
Chris Detzel: Yeah.
Jeff Breunsbach: How can I take a webinar, chop it up into videos? Then how can I also take that into a blog? How can I then think about other customer stories that come out of that as well? How do we get discussions on the actual community around it? So we've tended to look at that approach as well, that content should kind of fuel itself. And the more that you can think about these as using it in different ways to kind of meet an advantage, then it's going to be really beneficial for you as an organization to do it. So I like that example a lot, Chris, about how you're trying to use that. Brett, maybe over to you. I know you had mentioned, I think, slightly that in one of your examples that you're working with right now, that there was some sponsors. And so I'm curious, have you seen different ways to engage sponsors and having sponsorship opportunities within the community? Obviously I think with in- person events, a lot of organizations maybe have lost the revenue cycle there. So I'm curious if you've seen maybe unique ways or different ways that people are trying to approach trying to monetize some of the virtual events that they do have.
Brett Wangman: Right. So kind of building on what I said before, we made a commitment to try to build as much of it on Higher Logic versus going and getting another platform that might have the avatars and the exhibit space and stuff like that, with the notion now of every dollar we got that would be a dollar saved that we didn't have to go spend on something else. So we created virtual homes for our sponsors, and really what those were was a templated microsite with a community connected underneath it. And so we're essentially trying to replicate a lot of what you see in these virtual exhibit booths, right? Their logo, their description, ability for them to load videos, ability for them to take their sales collateral and put it into a library. And then because we're putting it in a community on Higher Logic, and we're making our members log in, we could now report back to them," Here's who visited. Here's who downloaded your resources." And so we built that all kind of within the Higher Logic infrastructure. And then what we tried to do is take from our annual conference, we used to have bingo cards with people walk around with the cards to the exhibitors, and you get the little dot that says you visited, right? And so we took that same approach with the virtual homes. And then at the bottom of our virtual homes, we would have the sponsor give us one sentence that was... Their one value proposition. And within that value proposition we'd have an underlying word. And then we would create a game with a form that if you went, you'd go and visit the sponsor, you'd go get that word, come back to the form, drop it into this form, submit the form. And then you'd get eligible for prizes. So trying to replicate something that our folks were used to doing at the annual physical conference as a way to driving traffic to those virtual homes. So that was successful. We have been able to generate for one event like 17, 000 in revenue, which is not insignificant, right? So now the goal is to produce a lot of$ 17,000 type events. But where we're struggling and where our focus is more, we might have to break our own rules and go find another platform, is we also used to create events that were very high end just for CIOs, where we would bring about 50 CIOs to a resort in California for a couple days. And our sponsors would spend a lot of money to be at the table. And then we would have reverse trade shows where they'd go sit down for 10 minutes with somebody and then move to the next table, right? Well, our sponsors are saying," That is the interaction that I want now and I'll pay dearly for." So we're trying to figure out what platform is going on... Because we can't do that on Higher Logic at the moment. So that's the next one we're trying to figure out, this kind of high- end speed dating. It's great when you get the executives at the physical event. How do you get them to come through the virtual event, right, and sit in that seat and do those interactions? What's the incentive to do that? And what's the platform to do it? So we've been successful in one sense, but we have another big challenge ahead of us.
Jeff Breunsbach: I think the word you kept using there that sticks out in my mind, too, is kind of these personal engagements. How do you create these personal connections that you were having? And I always thought about serendipity as a big thing, about going to an in- person event, there was a lot of serendipity of who you'd meet. You'd kind of bump into somebody at coffee, you'd meet a random person. So how do you do some of those things? So for our Super Forum this year, we turned it virtual for two weeks. And one of the things that we had was... It's called random coffee. We actually use it as a company. So a way to do some speed dating, essentially, of meeting people, is that you'd get matched up with somebody. You'd have a random coffee, you'd schedule a five or 10 minute meeting, get to know that person, just do some speed networking like that around. Which was an interesting kind of way to, hopefully, bring back some serendipity that you would be missing from some of the in- person events. We also had, I think, 2, 500 people sign up, close to 2, 700 people sign up for Super Forum. We're hosting about 250, 300 people live in sessions. And one thing that we tried to do was also make sure that our event was only in the afternoons and only for a couple hours a day. We kind of spread it over two weeks. And that was met with both great success, and also I think people didn't appreciate that. I think there were some people that are saying," Hey, I'd rather you just squeeze it into two or three days, so I could actually take off or use time off to kind of focus on that." But I think by and large what we heard was people appreciated spreading it out over two weeks and not just trying to cram a conference into two or three days now that it's gone virtual. So that was another thing that we tried to do this year that I felt was successful. And we were hosting 300 people in the session for a couple hours a day in the afternoons. Similar to what you mentioned, Brett, we had communities kind of underlying all of that. So we'd actually drive people back to have discussions in the community, which was another kind of saving grace. Because it wasn't just watching a virtual event, there was actual discussion that could go on. And you could go engage with the attendees or people who were watching that afterwards. So I appreciate that. One last question. Tirza, maybe just start with you, and then we'll kick it around to Brett or Chris. But I think you mentioned having multiple communities kind of... You've got a ton of stakeholders, you've got different chapter leaders. So how are you trying to kind of wrangle all of them into using the same format? Or how are you trying to think about, if you're ultimately the community manager at the end of the day, how are you trying to keep everyone at least aligned to doing similar formats? Or maybe not even doing similar formats, maybe how do you then just have them all go do different things to figure out innovation in terms of virtual events? I'm curious how you've tried to navigate that this year.
Tirza Austin: Yeah. So this has been a crazy year for me, because we have about nine different institutes that really function almost as their own separate organizations. And they usually put on their own conferences and events. They have their own committees. So they operate separate from our organizational like society level hierarchy, if you will. And when everything shut down in March I was getting bombarded from this institute, that institute. How do you support them and how do you support their needs? And they're all trying to do something different, and they all have different ideas. And it's really been a struggle. And since March, we've been trying to accommodate people in the best way they can. And Higher Logic has been great because it's something that we already have, right? And it's already integrated with our database. And it's the tools that we have available. And I can get them up going quick. I can set up event registration for you in 30 minutes. And I'll have a Zoom link and registration set up and ready to go. And our institutes that are trying to turn some of these events around quickly, they don't want to go through our conferences department. They don't want to have to fill out the formal society paperwork, because it's going to take them three times longer than it's going to take me to build some of these things out in Higher Logic. And that's really been good and bad, because it's allowed us to innovate and it's allowed us to pivot. But now we're getting to the point as an organization where we're saying," Okay, we've been doing this for nine months. Virtual's not going anywhere. What's the best way to integrate with some of these systems?" So what Brett was describing was really great. Do you run registration within our database, and then send them over to the event platform? What does that integration actually look like? I've been a big proponent, at least organizationally, because we have a committee that is basically like our project management group, right? So we've got a person from every different department that's on that group. IT, communications, marketing, membership, everyone's represented. And so I've been a big advocate in that group and saying," Let's start integrating our systems better. And let's start using APIs better." And that's something that I think you can do. And that's something that Higher Logic has that works really well, is these APIs, that I can go ahead and take these APIs and dump them back into the database. We don't have to rely on systems that are a poor user experience, if we're technically savvy enough to use APIs in the ways that we should be doing it. So to kind of answer your question, I don't think there should be a template or a one- stop shop because there are so many different use cases, but we need to be able to provide the best platforms available with the best integration available.
Jeff Breunsbach: Yeah. I mean, I think that resonates a lot with me too, where... Because I think you're also talking to not kind of pigeonholing everyone into the same format. Let people kind of explore what's going to work for their audience. How do you let them explore the different types of sessions they can hold? How you might do breakout rooms or might not. How do you hold larger group sessions like this? So I think there's a ton that you just mentioned there that's really all of it.
Alex Mastriani: Awesome. Well, that was great. It's so cool to hear some of the really creative and transformational things people are doing to make virtual events fun, accessible, and successful for their organizations.
Heather McNair: Yeah, absolutely. I definitely picked up some tips. And it's going to be exciting to see how 2021, how things really change. I think we're going to see a lot of hybrid events and some really engaging ideas.
Alex Mastriani: Well, that's it for today's show. We'll see you all next time.
This week we've brought together a group of experts to help strategize your virtual events. Jeff Breunsbach, Tirza Austin, Chris Detzel, and Brett Wangman discuss how once the pandemic started, we needed to shift our focus to virtual events and webinars. Though we had to scramble to get through 2020, this year we can hone what it takes to create a successful virtual event. Our experts talk about the importance of our community we are engaging with, and the content we want to create. Listen now to hear to them talk about transformational ideas within our new normal of communication.