‘We Have Flown Away From Events and Landed Somewhere Else’

We have to stop thinking that we are creating online events, says event producer Heather Mason, and reimagine them as broadcasts.

Author: Michelle Russell       

online events

Heather Mason, the CEO of Caspian Agency, challenges the belief that that more interactivity in online events always equals more value.

As part of PlanetIMEX Community Day, Oct. 16, Heather Mason will be presenting a complimentary PCMA webinar, “A New Approach to Boosting Digital Event Engagement,” from 1:30–2:30 p.m. Convene chatted with Mason, the CEO of Caspian Agency, which she founded in 2005 to create and produce conferences for the innovative and social good business space, to learn what she’ll be talking about.

Here’s an excerpt of our conversation with Mason, who also serves as a consultant for the Rockefeller Foundation, advising partners on convening strategy, design, and formats both in-person and virtual, and is an instructor in the Masters in Meetings & Events program at San Diego State University.

What are some highlights of your upcoming webinar?

I’m going to be talking about increasing digital engagement, but also looking at digital engagement through a pretty critical lens, in the sense that I’m challenging the belief that more interactivity always equals more value. And I think that is a premise or an assumption that sometimes we start without even asking if that is indeed true, and where interactivity fits, and must it be a possibility.

The second-biggest thing I talk about is how can we think about using the digital space in the way that we’re already using it. We’re working in screens and if anybody is saying, “How do I get people to stay at my screen?,” well, then they must have never binged on a Netflix show. They must’ve never been glued to their phone. They must have never gone down a rabbit hole with cute animal videos on YouTube.

We need to think of what [constitutes] sticky content and identify that first. And then try to see if that exact behavior can map to something we want to do. Rather than try to force behaviors that are unnatural with screens, we want to actually encourage behavior that is extremely natural and downright addictive when it comes to screens.

I talk about breaking down what people do with screens, and talk about asynchronous and synchronous engagement, and the tools and techniques that are available to us — everything from different types of apps, video engagements, contests, and challenges that can make content really sticky.

The thought that we must include interactivity in a digital event comes from the fact that that’s one thing face-to-face events is really good at  — the networking, the unexpected encounters — that’s hard to create in an online environment. Do you agree?

What we are trying to do is replicate what was happening in the real world — I take away two pieces of that. One is, I think about non-facilitated and facilitated connections. The nice part about virtual is it can actually facilitate some very relevant business connections quickly and more efficiently. Everybody can’t always come to that in-person event, but online, you can facilitate a connection between two people, even if they’re on two sides of the globe — I think that’s where virtual wins hands down.

The unfacilitated networking, which is more those serendipitous connections, I think, frankly, we hadn’t had to have that much effort put around it [at face-to-face events]. We say, “Everybody meet at the pool, the reception’s over here, here’s a coffee break.” And I think in the prior incarnation, which is only six months ago, [at live events] we had to force people. I know my staff has been asked millions of times by clients, “Go find everybody. Try to get them into the general plenary.” When maybe what we should have been asking is, why do we have to force people there anyway?

And if they want to stay in the lobby, the lobby should have been something you were focusing on before. The lobby should have been the place at a breakout, giving people the ability to network. We should have been facilitating more of that.

I think this is also where apps are excellent in making connections virtually, because we don’t need it to all happen at that moment on that day. We could be connecting via an app ahead of time and say we’re going to meet somewhere. Meet on that day, let’s go to the virtual lobby coffee break. And if it’s boring, we’ll go back to our app and maybe text each other.

I think you could also almost do it like “video dating,” by having people post videos describing that they want to talk about. There’s a broader opportunity for attendee-created content. They could also post videos of themselves asking a speaker a question.

We just need to get creative and start to uncouple what we used to know as important and question every piece of it, because what will lead out of that questioning and that intense scrutiny, will start to surface where our assumptions of value are.

Millions of people are watching TV shows every night that are informative and actionable. We can do the same thing in the virtual world as well.

So making that connection to watching TV, is it important that virtual events have high production value?

Yeah, absolutely. I think high production value is critical, but I also think we should consider why low production value [videos] like TikTok are working.

Where we go wrong is we are trying to put on an event online. And I think that immediate thinking has got to go out the window. What the new thinking and new approach should be is, I want to engage my audience. Who is my audience? I am now a broadcaster. I’m a producer of content and interesting experiences using a screen as my medium. Well, who has done that? Hollywood, like I said, TikTok, Netflix, YouTube.

Can you provide an example?

I’m a consultant with the Rockefeller Foundation and I helped them on the EAT Forum, which was all about food systems, and you can see what we did on YouTube for the Reimagining Food Systems Event (watch below). Basically, we set up a newscast studio in the Netherlands — it looks like a news broadcast. And then we had people send in videos in the field who work in food systems and that’s the sizzle reel at the beginning.

And that to me, was very interesting, engaging. The chat box was very active the whole time. We used Slido to do polls. That’s an example of how you could pull all these different things together and make them pretty vibrant, and interesting and watchable.

Was this an online conference?

It was going to be a conference in real life. It was turned into a broadcast instead. I think that the language that we’re using and are trying to use more and more is a “broadcast.” I think these are discussions, these are broadcasts. Again, I think where we go wrong is by calling any of these “events.”

I think we start to see the benefits emerge when we realize we’re in completely different territory. We have flown away from events and we have landed somewhere else and we need to take stock of that environment, look around it and enjoy that environment for what it is, because we do it all the time. And I think it just takes that mindset shift to get over to that new environment, and then we really start to get excited.

So you’re excited about the future of the industry?

I could not be more excited about the future of events. Of course, I have to acknowledge that this health crisis has been devastating to so many and has taken away jobs in our industry and supporting industries. There is a lot of mourning and grieving still to take place.

But for event producers, I think our current environment just opens up so many avenues that frankly, I think we could have been in before, but COVID has accelerated our ability to access them. And by these different avenues, I mean one is strategy.

That’s been part of the problem of planners not getting a seat at the table at their organizations because it was [perceived] that these skills — planning an event — were ubiquitous and not only ubiquitous, they were not a professional-oriented skillset.

Now, with virtual events, anybody who’s smart knows they can capitalize on that gap in the marketplace and the fear and the realization that most people are facing now that they cannot do this without professional assistance. We are going to lose a huge opportunity if we don’t jump into that and show that we are the trailblazers and the trail guides for this direction of activity. The second thing is we can really show how this can augment strategically any in-person event. They are not uncoupled, in fact, they are beautifully coupled.

I have been shouting in the wilderness that the event was never the point. The event could launch something that should continue. It should be a culmination of something that was started. The event was just a tent pole in a larger [world] of activity.

The other reason I’m so excited is all of a sudden, our one big event that might’ve been a whole bunch of LEGO bricks that were pushed together has been smashed into a whole bunch of little events. What does that say? More labor, more resources, more job security. All of a sudden you have to plan 15 events instead of one — and that was actually a dangerous place for us to be in our career.

Now, if you were heading up a department, even if the department is just you, you can have access to resources and you’re doing 500 events, or if you were doing 500, you’re now doing 5,000. That to me is not overwhelming. That says job security, coupled with strategic guidance and advisory capacity. Job security and strategic advisory and capacity — what more do we want?

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.

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