How the American Psychological Association ‘Crushed’ its Virtual Event

Author: Michelle Russell       

virtual event

Sarah Michel (left), Velvet Chainsaw’s vice president of professional connexity, moderates a webinar featuring Alicia Aebersold (right) and Jodi Ashcraft from the American Psychological Association. Webinar participants discussed the APA’s online convention.

Like many other organizations, the American Psychological Association (APA) quickly switched its in-person 2020 annual convention to an entirely virtual event because of COVID-19. Even though organizers had to transition the event — scheduled for Aug. 6-9 in Washington, D.C. — to an online platform in the space of three months, they knew right away that the virtual version wasn’t going to be “a consolation prize,” said Alicia Aebersold, APA’s chief communications officer. “This wasn’t a thing we were stepping … into because we were forced to do it,” she said during a Velvet Chainsaw webinar last month. Instead, the approach they took was, “This is the thing that we are going to step into and crush it,” she said. “We are going to make it better than it could possibly have been in person.”

Aebersold and colleague Jodi Ashcraft, APA’s director of media and event sales, shared their experiences and learnings hosting APA’s online convention in the Sept. 30 webinar, “What a Difference Strategy Makes: Behind the Scenes of American Psychological Association’s 2020 Virtual,” facilitated by Sarah Michel, Velvet Chainsaw’s vice president of professional connexity.

Aebersold said APA was confronted with a “tsunami” of decisions to make, familiar to all organizations taking their in-person events online, including how many hours of programming to offer (APA’s typical program includes 300-plus concurrent sessions spread out over 3-5 days), what platform to use, how to price registration, etc. “Those logistical questions sort of sucked all of the air out of the room,” Aebersold said. “But in reality, the biggest decision — and I think it was very overshadowed by all of these logistical ones — is … what are you trying to accomplish?”

‘Three Big Things’

APA’s in-person event, which last year in Chicago attracted 12,000 attendees, offers roughly 2,500 hours of content, and a lot of it happens concurrently. “We decided three big things,” she said. “First of all, that we really wanted the convention to be additive — like we want it to be better than it is when it’s in person.” One of the things she said APA staff hear “repeatedly” on site is how “sad” attendees are about how much they are missing because of all of the simultaneous programming. “They’re running everywhere in this giant convention center and multiple hotels,” she said. “We’ve all had that experience [when] the two things you care about are happening at the exact same time.”

Offering sessions on-demand would solve that issue in the virtual event, she said, and make the event the “Netflix of psychology” — registrants could access sessions at any time. That was a big decision that paved the way for other decisions about what they were trying to accomplish with the virtual event, Aebersold said.

The second decision was to make engagement a priority. “We wanted to build a collective experience,” she said, which meant some live programming, “some sort of shared experiences,” and a lot of networking.

And third, they wanted the event to be accessible, and for it to reach audiences they hadn’t been able to attract to the physical event before — including international members, students, non-psychologists, and people who couldn’t afford to travel.

Here are how other decisions were made and what they learned from producing the event:

Pricing — “Because we were doing this massive — thousands of hours of — programming available to people for a long time,” Aebersold said, “we didn’t feel uncomfortable charging a fee.” APA traditionally charges tiered registration fees — members, nonmembers, student members and non-member students — and wanted to continue to offer value to members. After much back and forth at the association, it was decided to take 85 percent off of the in-person registration fee. Members paid $50 (originally $315); the non-member rate was $75 (vs. $495), and the student rate was $15 for members (originally $100) and $30 for non-members (originally $195).

Attendance — The virtual event attracted 14,500 — several thousand more than their in-person conference, which, Aeberold said, “surprised us.” Moreover, that represented a 320-percent increase in student registrations, a 170-percent increase in international attendees from 101 countries, and more than a 300-percent increase in non-member participants. That last group is particularly important as it is part of APA’s strategic plan, Aebersold said, “to get psychology out to more people and to help people understand” its value.

No virtual expo — “We really struggled with whether to not we should try to do a virtual Solution Center,” Ashcraft said. But in the end, with such a short period of time to pull together a solution that would give exhibitors a return on their investment, they decided against it. The 100 or so exhibitors that had already committed to the 2020 convention could defer their dollars to the 2021 event or get a refund. They were automatically published in an alphabetical listing with company descriptions and links, which was posted to the microsite and virtual platform during the conference.

Sponsors were given the opportunity to host small hosted discussions in breakouts on topics that are “keeping psychologists up at night,” Ashcraft said.

Virtual job fair — About 500 job seekers attended a virtual job fair featuring 10 career coaches and career management sessions the day before the conference started.

Production vs. IT — “Production is the telling of the story and IT is making sure the story is told in a way that people can see it,” Aebersold said. “I think people will often mix those two up, especially people who aren’t involved in the back end of conventions.” The platform, she said, is important, but the production is far more important.

“You can’t discount the critical nature of having storyboards and production management, not just the production implementation,” she said. “Our production team did a lot of editing.”

It was really important in the planning of the event, she said, to have the tactical people at the table, along with the production people and the creative people.

Chat feature — The chats during the pre-recorded sessions were staffed. In some cases, the speaker was also available to participate in the chat. Aebersold underscored the importance of having a chat-management team that can share their experiences. She said APA had a Microsoft Teams channel where they would compare notes and help each other.

Aebersold said there was more engagement in the chats than at the face-to-face event, based on the amount of activity and feedback APA received. “They just felt like they got an experience,” she said, “that they never would have gotten sitting in a room.”

In real time — Ashcraft said that at the end of day one, “we noticed certain things about what was resonating and so we sent out a note to all of the hosts that would be facilitating the additional discussions, to say this is what we noticed today” and suggesting what they may want to focus on the next day.

The event lives on — APA set up a Facebook group for people with similar interests in the psychology field to come together and help each other. “While networking can often be described as ‘what can you do for me?’, networthing is ‘what can I do for you?’” an explanation on the page reads. Several thousand became active in this group leading up to and during the event, and it continues to grow.

In fact, membership in the group has increased 43 percent since the convention ended, Aebersold said. People are self-organizing watch parties, where they will pick out an on-demand session, watch it together and then have a Zoom call to have a conversation about it. “Which we also didn’t anticipate,” Aebersold said. “We didn’t anticipate how well any of this networking would go. This was definitely a ‘throw spaghetti against the wall’” and see if it sticks initiative, “and we were really surprised that it worked really well.”

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.

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