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Are virtual events still a thing?

Updated: Dec 14, 2021

I've seen a lot of discussion about virtual events in the last few weeks. After the cautiously giddy highs of the summer and autumn where event and community fundraisers were just starting to get back into the swing of things...winter and the new Covid variants are again leaving us all feeling uneasy and considering heading back to virtual.

But many fundraisers are struggling with tickets sales and attendance. I've got a few thoughts on this and things to think about, as we continue battling with uncertainty for our plans into 2022.

An important note: I'm very aware we are a couple of weeks out from Christmas. This piece is meant to be a note of reassurance and support for 2022 so you can have a proper break this Christmas. It's not intended to be a 'do all these things in the next week' post. So please don't. It's been a year. Look after yourself first and foremost over the coming weeks.

1. Everyone is in different situations

Unlike the national lockdowns where we were all in the same situation and desperate for any scrap of social interaction and entertainment, now there is almost a paralysis of choice.

There are (currently) no restrictions on meeting friends and family indoors, we can still go to the theatre or cinema with masks on. There are no restrictions on pubs and clubs (don't get me started...) There is a lot of conflicting information and everyone is back to trying to make the best choices for themselves and operating in the bounds of their comfort levels.

And for many this will include at least some degree of in-person interaction. As humans, we're social creatures. We crave being together. It's what made the lockdowns so hard. So given a choice between a meeting up with someone in person, walking round an outdoor Christmas market or attending something on Zoom - the vast majority are going to choose in person.

Having said that...Virtual has so many benefits. It's not as simple as "can't we just make it virtual and raise the same amount" but if you can focus in on what matters to attendees when choosing to make your event virtual, you can have a lot of success .

2. CAN this event be made virtual?

Put simply, is the event your offering something that translates well to virtual or is it going to be a bit painful for all involved? You may need to re-look at the format of your event, the offering to attendees and the ticket price.

Something like a Christmas or Spring Market is really hard to recreate online because it's not just about the shopping - it's the festive atmosphere and the photos. Sometimes you need to ask yourself the hard question;

Is it worth the people hours and effort to try and force this event online, or would it be better for our net income to cancel it completly?

3. What makes this event special? Is there a 'money can't buy' or 'couldn't do this in person' aspect?

The virtual events across all sectors that are doing the best are the ones offering access to someone or something that would otherwise be really hard or limited to offer in person. This is one of the biggest examples of virtual winning out over in-person. A celebrity-hosted quiz like the ones from Marie Curie or 'evening with' would need to be capped at the venue capacity, consider security or similar depending on the celebrity and be limited in what you can raise. But take that celebrity online - from the comfort of their own home - and the sky's the limit.

There's a virtual event this week with Tom Hiddleston (yes I've bought my ticket) that is a fundraiser for a theatre in New York. They have sold thousands of tickets. And they gave ticket-buyers the chance to submit a video question to be part of the night. James Marsters and I'm sure many other celebs are doing a similar thing on Cameo - with higher ticket prices for a 'front row' experience. The Bike Project charged more for a pre-event Q&A with celebrity hosts before their virtual quizzes which went down really well with fans.

I appreciate not every charity has access to celebrities. And not all celebrities are created equal. But use this as a starting point. What interests your audiences? What can you offer them that you couldn't in person? Is there an 'added extra' that you could charge a higher ticket price for - either an extra experience or perhaps something in the post?

  • Make it about the memories and experience

  • Make it multi-channel

  • Think about what your audience actually wants

And one final note on this, think about how your audience will be able to interact with the event. Is it Zoom and therefore they need to be at their computer? Or can it be streamed though YouTube, meaning attendees can watch on the TV or an iPad, making it more like a movie night. How your attendees interact on the night is important - make it feel fun and make that part of the selling point.

4. Have your looked at a blended/hybrid event?

Whist in-person events can still continue, have you considered doing both? Especially for entertainment events like comedy nights, an evening with, panel talks etc. Yes there is a bit more additional work, and possibly cost too. But hiring a producer and streaming equipment is not as expensive as you think. It's worth investigating and comparing costs against predicted income from the additional ticket sales.

And there's always the option to give it a trial and see if it's something your audience enjoys. Why not set up a simple stream from a phone or iPad and ask for "donate what you can" Integrate your asks into the evening and make it easy for people to give by text or with a short URL.

5. The event that's not an event

The long and short of the current situation is - some events may need to be cancelled or postponed. And some events just won't work as virtual. So what do you do about that lost income?

This is where the magic of Public Fundraising comes in... don't assume your supporters or event attendees will only give if they can come to that event. Be honest with them, tell them you had to cancel it. And give them the opportunity to give in another way.

Could you tie the ask into your charity's current appeal or campaign? Or maybe there's a new story or urgent update about your work you could tie an ask into?

Let your supporters know what the money raised from your event would have done. And give them the opportunity to still give and be part of making that thing happen.

  • Ask honestly

  • Ask sincerely

  • Make it easy to give

Let your supporters know how they can make a difference. And they'll likely surprise you with their generosity.

There's a great example of this on SOFII and this is another example I found on Pinterest. I'd argue there are a few too many prompt amounts on here (Three prompts is ideal with a fourth option for the donor to "surprise you")

Bonus advice from Jane Curtis

I shared this article on LinkedIn and the FAB Jane had this brilliant advice to add.

Not all events were created equal, the same can be said for virtual events... they're not one homogeneous mass of activity. If you've tried an online Q&A with a celeb or expert and it hasn't performed how you want, don't assume the same will happen with a virtual run or walk or challenge event or even another Q&A.
The pace of change is rapid, we have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, test, measure, adapt and test again. This is evolution. It's messy! Some of your virtual events won't work. Some will. Some of your in person events won't work. Some will. It's not an either/or. Keep talking to your audience. Pilot, test, measure, adapt, grow and repeat.

I hope this has given you a few ideas and starting points for if the events landscape changes yet again. Remember you're not in this alone. The community of fundraisers sharing ideas and tips and being there for each other is what got us through the last two years and will get us through whatever comes next.

If you'd like to connect with more fundraisers, you can join my Facebook group. I host regular Cuppa n Chat sessions, regularly share top-tips and advice and strive to answer every question asked - and tag-team in other fab people that I know could help you too.

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