Q & A: Kevin Halfpenny, Children’s Aid Foundation

No matter where you turn, you’ll hear someone in the meetings industry talking about what’s next in virtual and hybrid technologies. But Kevin Halfpenny isn’t just talking. The manager of events at the Children’s Aid Foundation in Toronto is walking the walk as a tech-savvy superstar. Thanks to a generous contribution from bXb, Halfpenny received a scholarship to complete the Digital Event Strategist certification from the Virtual Edge Institute.

PCMA.org caught up with Halfpenny to get a glimpse of what the DES certification process involves, how it changed his thoughts on the future of events and why other event professionals should consider studying for and taking the exam.

PCMA: Did the DES certification process introduce you to any new tools or possibilities you haven’t used before?

Halfpenny: The DES program opened my eyes to a lot of things.

Perhaps the most striking was the potential business opportunities available to digital event professionals resulting from the complacency that exists in today’s physical events industry. Currently, many traditional face-to-face event professionals viewing digital events as a mere afterthought (or even worse – an inconvenience or threat) to their own event marketing mix. This means that there is a real opportunity in the coming years for digital event professionals to educate businesses on the growing number of studies proving the viability and profit-generating potential of the medium – either in a hybrid combination with an existing physical event or as its outright replacement. As the DES program taught me, a transformative shift in the way events are executed could very well happen in the next 5 – 10 years. With advances in communication technologies and computer graphics capabilities coupled with the proliferation of smartphones and tablets – allowing instantaneous and engaging connectivity with one another – it’s a relatively easy scenario to envision.

The possibilities inherent in digital events were further reinforced to me during my “physical” attendance at a conference on social media which took place here in Toronto in early June.

There were 150+ entrepreneurs and small business owners packed in an auditorium-style classroom to hear social media experts speak about the business applicability of various platforms such as Pinterest, Facebook and LinkedIn. At one point during the day-long summit, the event’s organizer stood in front of the crowd and proclaimed, “With so many people in attendance, I think it’s safe to say this event is a HUGE success”!  I immediately reflected on my DES training and asked myself – is it really? I wondered how many more small business owners in Toronto and the surrounding areas NOT physically in attendance would have loved to benefit from the day’s content and networking opportunities. By simply streaming a live feed of the event’s speaker sessions on the event’s official website and incorporating a social media backchannel to accommodate networking and idea sharing amongst virtual attendees, there’s no telling how much more exposure the event (not to mention its paying sponsors) would have received. The irony that this was itself an event promoting the “game-changing” benefits of social media was not lost on me.

Digital events carry the potential to revolutionize how traditional face-to-face events are produced and marketed while vastly increasing their scope and reach.

PCMA: Many in the meetings industry have begun to recognize how digital tools can help keep people educated, but I’m not familiar with as many meeting professionals who have harnessed their power for fundraising efforts. Do you have any plans in the works for raising money for the foundation via virtual or digital channels?

Halfpenny: Non-profit organizations are not exactly trailblazers when it comes to adopting new technologies, and the foundation is no different. Budgets and spending practices of charitable organizations are fiercely scrutinized by their boardmembers and/or governing bodies – many of whom are typically just that – the government.  As a result, an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality permeates through non-profits. This mentality also rules how events are run within these organizations. For the past 25 years, fundraising efforts at the foundation have traditionally focused on the generosity of physical attendees at face-to-face events including golf tournaments, galas and 3rd-party sponsored “guerilla-style” fundraisers with local businesses who hand-select the foundation as their event’s primary beneficiary. As much as I would love to implement some of my key learnings from the DES program at the foundation – and as confident as I am that they would work – I’m respectful of the longstanding fundraising model that is currently in place.

That said, another branch of digital events that could more readily be introduced to a non-profit environment are online community platforms.

As I learned in the program, these online community platforms provide like-minded event attendees a focused destination to find and leverage individual members’ expertise as well as collaborate with one another. Organizations such as as Nike, Cisco and SAP all use online community platforms to prevent their respective event attendees from dispersing to (and reconvening on) other online communities hosted by such platforms as Linkedin or Facebook.  By seamlessly incorporating an online community platform into their existing website (or hosting it on a dedicated micro-site), organizations ensure that their event attendees remain within controlled environments thereby ensuring that attendees are consuming the company’s own branded content and messaging as opposed to someone else’s. The result is an increased likelihood of converting event attendees into brand / cause evangelists or long-term advocates.  As such, I believe that these online community platforms carry huge potential for non-profits while providing a more viable and realistic foray into the world of digital events.

PCMA: Some in the meetings industry worry that they will struggle to engage their virtual audiences. What are some of your key strategies for keeping people involved and excited who may not be directly in front of the topic or issue?

Halfpenny: Engagement, as I learned in the DES program, is perhaps the most important consideration when producing a digital event.

Physical events are engaging by their very nature. Attendees move from room to room, interact with one another and have few interruptions during education sessions. This is not the case with digital events. Attendees at digital events are typically tied to their computer desk with interruptions all around them. What’s more, they have limited opportunities for natural engagement. Without engagement, digital events become little more than white noise while we focus on other things.

Throughout the DES program, a number of suggestions on how to keep virtual attendees engaged were offered. They included:

1)    Ensuring that the content communicated in the online event was relevant to the attendees or risk it being ignored

2)    Selecting presenters who were comfortable speaking to a physically “absent” virtual audience – a skill that even the most accomplished of speakers might not necessarily possess

3)    Providing a backchannel chat feature during the virtual event via Twitter or some other means where attendees can communicate and “network” with one another

4)    Incorporating online gaming elements into the digital event environment that allowed for friendly competition between the virtual attendees (i.e. displaying a running online leaderboard showing which attendee answered more content-specific trivia questions correctly throughout the event)

5)    Including “structured networking” opportunities into the virtual environment where virtual attendees could regularly interact with their peers at pre-set times during the event

PCMA: For those who are new to the concept of either enrolling in digital learning opportunities or offering continuing education through virtual channels, how can studying for the DES certification help put them on the fast track to success?

Halfpenny: The program dedicates an entire module to the topic of education and learning. In it, the notion of how people learn – and how they “prefer” to learn – is examined. In the end, the instructor posits that the virtual classroom offers online learners a combination of all of the preferred methods of learning – from lectures and audio/visual, to demonstrations and discussions/collaborations with one’s peers. This all-encompassing teaching platform offered through the virtual classroom produces the one ingredient that is key to participants’ learning – engagement. As I learned in the module, virtual/digital technology can facilitate engagement in ways that are difficult to achieve in a physical classroom.

I believe that enrollment in the DES certification can help educators and students alike understand the many benefits of online learning relevant to their individual needs.

From a student’s perspective, the DES program highlights the inherent limitations of learning in a traditional classroom setting – namely its focus on one individual or group of subject matter experts.  However, in a virtual setting, students have an opportunity to post comments on various topics that can be instantly viewed and responded to by hundreds – with each providing new insight. This example of “social learning” as it is described in the module, allows those not naturally sociable in a physical classroom setting to more freely express their opinions.

From an educator’s perspective, the DES program will not only highlight how best to go about expanding the reach and scope of their program to virtual attendees worldwide but also work to alleviate any concerns they might have that opening up their program to online attendees will somehow “cannibalize” their physical enrolees – a common fear amongst most educational institutions based more on pre-conceived notions than on actual fact.

Interested in learning more?

Click here to visit the Digital Experience Institute site, and learn what DES can do for you.

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