Scalable Success: Smaller Organizations Doing Big Things

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Is it possible to do meaningful digital events when you don’t have a big budget and/or large staff and audience? Three professionals from nonprofit groups offered their perspectives and advice on how to succeed in the digital space with limited resources.

Loren Benavente is an online meeting manager for Educause, a nonprofit association for IT professionals committed to advancing technology in higher education. She joined Educause in 2012 to help grow the association’s online offerings, which since then have nearly tripled to include 50-60 digital events a year, including a mix of hybrid events, webinars and online seminars.

Benavente, part of a team of three people responsible for these programs, handles the meeting planning logistics, while two content leaders focus on finding presenters and managing the content component for each digital program. Each person works from a different remote location, another challenging dynamic. How is such a small team, working in distributed environments, able to produce such a high number of digital events? Benavente offered these tips:

• Be adaptable. Although all three team members work on each digital event, with Benevente focusing on meeting logistics, the other two members focusing on content, cross-training is essential so each team member is able to pitch in when needed.

• Assign responsibilities for specific tasks: “We laid out all of our tasks down to the nitty gritty and assigned specific tasks to each person, trying to bundle tasks where possible, condense, cut out and automate whenever possible,” she said. The team uses Google sites and drives for all of its process documents and timelines. “Organization is key,” she said.

• Get buy-in from colleagues, stakeholders and leadership. “This is most important. Without buy-in, the program will be dead from the get-go.”

Brooke Passy is meetings manager for the Wound, Ostomy and Continence Nurses Society (WOCN), part of a team of four staff members who focus on the association’s live events, related virtual components of live events, as well as webinars and online courses. Passy said the association had been recording sessions at the annual meeting for the group’s online library, when the decision was made a few years ago to start live streaming some of the sessions at the annual meeting. The group started out live streaming a few sessions and now live streams more than a dozen each year. Here are some of Passy’s tips and lessons learned along the way:

• Get your pricing model right from the start. WOCN started out offering live-stream sessions for free to members, but in the second year charged a fee for them, which did not go over well with members. The third year the association found a strong sponsor for the live-stream sessions and was able to offer them free to members. It also found a good strategy in pricing the package of live-stream events at a price point higher than the annual membership fee, offering the package for free to those who buy a membership.

• Understand the best way to incorporate continuing education into virtual events. WOCN works with an accreditation consultant and its virtual platform provider, Digitell, to design things like pop-up boxes, evaluation questions, certificates and other program elements to show that a person watched the streamed programs live (necessary to earn CE credits for these sessions).

• Create a true partnership with your virtual event sponsor. Hollister is WOCN’s “partner in education,” Passy said, sponsoring not only the live-streamed sessions but also the association’s online library of education sessions.

• Understand the potential for expanded audiences. Especially in the world of nursing, Passy said, members will rotate staff to attend the in-person conference each year. The live-streamed sessions have proven a great way to reach a rotational audience. Virtual attendance has grown from 100 people at each virtual session in the first year to 300 people at each virtual session four years later — without any erosion of in-person attendance, Passy said.

The Association of Corporate Travel Executives (ACTE) is another lean and mean nonprofit that has made strategic use of virtual events. Greeley Koch, ACTE executive director, said the association holds dozens of events annually, a mix of live events, webinars and virtual conferences to reach the largest possible number of buyers and suppliers in the global corporate travel marketplace. At its annual meeting, ATCE live streamed the two major plenary sessions, which feature the event’s top speakers and panelists. Thanks to the group’s persistent marketing, it was able to get 200 people — 80 percent of those registered for the live broadcast — to log-in for the live stream. “We kept sending them messages about what’s in it for them to attend,” he said.

He added that virtual also gives the association the ability to dialogue with members throughout the year. “When a major supplier announced a new program that raised a lot of concern among in the marketplace, we were able within a week to put together a virtual event that drew 750 registrants in 40 countries, and allowed us to tackle an industry issue on the spot.”

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