‘We’re in this with you’: How ATB helped knock SocialAtHome out of the park

In response to COVID-19, Mike Morrison had to move his massive SocialWest and SocialEast digital marketing conferences online. Here’s how he did it.

By Erika Stark 22 October 2020

 Calgary-based entrepreneur and influencer Mike Morrison shows off one of the boxes that was mailed to all SocialAtHome attendees.

Calgary-based entrepreneur and influencer Mike Morrison shows off one of the boxes that was mailed to all SocialAtHome attendees.

After six months of adjusting to a global pandemic, attending or organizing online events, conferences and webinars might feel like the norm these days. But back in the spring, when it became clear that large in-person gatherings weren’t going to be possible for the foreseeable future, Mike Morrison was feeling pretty nervous.

The Calgary-based entrepreneur, event organizer, blogger and influencer was in the midst of organizing his SocialWest and SocialEast digital marketing conferences, which together host more than 1,000 people each year. As businesses began to close, restrictions on gatherings were put in place, and COVID-19 started to dominate the daily headlines, Morrison realized that if he wanted to save the conference—and his livelihood—he was going to have to pivot, and pivot fast.

Almost immediately, he and his team began offering free webinars focused on helping other small businesses through the pandemic, and started thinking about how he might bring SocialWest online.

“In terms of a small business, refunding people for the event would have been disastrous for us since so much of that money is spent before the conference even happens,” says Morrison. “I had to come up with a thing that would allow my attendees to feel like they were still getting their money's worth.”

Morrison decided to turn SocialWest into SocialAtHome, and divide the conference into two digital events—a one-day conference in June, and a two-day event in October. He then reached out to all of SocialWest’s sponsors, including ATB, to offer them a chance to change their minds about sponsoring a completely different kind of event.

“They weren’t getting anything they signed up for,” Morrison explains.

But no one backed out.

“We said we’re in this with you, and we’re going to support you,” says Tyler Butler, Senior Manager of Story at ATB. “There was trust on both sides that whatever form it took, SocialWest was going to be amazing.”

‘I can build this’

SocialWest had become wildly successful in its two years of running. So much so that everyone was feeling the pressure to knock SocialatHome out of the park on the first try.

“It felt really high pressure,” Morrison recalls. “You really had to prove yourself because if it was bad, attendees would still ask for a refund.”

In 2018 and 2019, ATB brought the award-winning ATB Listens Lounge to SocialWest. The concept was simple: conference-goers could ask ATB for anything that could improve their conference experience. And ATB would find a creative way to make it happen. It was that kind of delight and shared experiences that the ATB team sought to bring to SocialAtHome.

ATB worked with Morrison’s team to send a box to all conference attendees before the event. Within the box were three envelopes that recipients weren’t to open until they were told.

“We knew that everyone was going to be sitting alone at their computers for this digital conference,” Butler says. “So we wondered, how we could create shared experiences that bridge the physical and the digital? Attendees might be alone. But they could all be doing the same thing at the same time.”

The envelopes in the box contained a colouring sheet, a bingo card, and a self-care package filled with goodies from ATB customers. Conference attendees were encouraged to share their colourings on Twitter, where ATB responded with a critical (but encouraging) artistic eye. At lunch, Edmonton drag queen Ivy League hosted Drag Queen Bingo, and the conference wrapped up with a call for attendees to take a little time for themselves with their self-care package.

Everyone loved it.

“It felt like we almost hit a home run,” Morrison says. “I had felt so robbed of everything I’d built with SocialWest, but this first SocialAtHome was a reminder that I’d built that, and I could build this, too.”

Doubling down

October’s SocialAtHome conference brought with it a host of new challenges for Morrison and ATB. With 90 per cent of the audience having attended the first conference, everyone knew that expectations for the event were sky-high.

“We had to outdo ourselves,” says Kevin Espenido, Assistant Manager, Field Marketing, who led ATB’s activation team this time around. “

The most popular element of June’s conference activation was the “half-time show” with Ivy League, so Espenido, Butler and the team doubled down on that idea and sent attendees another box of surprises. The first day’s surprise was some clay, and everyone was encouraged to mould an animal out of the clay and share it on social for a chance to win a prize. It was also a hint for that day’s half-time show—ATB hired an animal trainer to showcase a couple of different creatures, and we brought back Ivy League to have a conversation with him.

The next day’s package contained some sort of accessory—long gloves, a tinsel wig, and a feather boa were among some of the options. ATB asked conference-goers to share a glamourous selfie of themselves, which turned out to be a preview for a full-on drag show at lunch featuring music, a catwalk, and more. (We hosted and filmed the drag show at Festival Hall, owned by Calgary Folk Fest, an ATB customer).

It might seem like an odd way for a financial institution to support a digital marketing conference, but it’s par for the course for ATB, says Butler.

“ATB was formed more than 80 years ago during the Great Depression,” he says. “It’s not the first time that we’ve helped Albertans through tough times and we think that that means helping them with their financial needs, but also building a strong Alberta community. This was one of the ways that we simply could make a lot of people really happy.”

“We have a role in bringing the community together and in supporting entrepreneurs like Mike who are helping Albertans to learn important skills.”

Coming together—apart

With two fantastic digital conferences under his belt now, Morrison is already planning for the next iteration of SocialAtHome in March. He doesn’t expect to be holding in-person events any time soon, and says that this digital format offers him some unique opportunities. SocialAtHome’s digital offering allowed attendees from all corners of Canada to join in and learn.

“This goal of me wanting to bring top quality digital marketing information to the people was, in a way, easier and better,” Morrison says. “This is actually a really exciting time, and this is coming from someone who had never been to a webinar before March!”

For ATB, SocialAtHome proved that the organization could stay true to its mandate of helping Albertans.

“In Alberta we’ve positioned ourselves to be that human touch in what can be a cold industry,” Espenido says. “There might not always be reptiles or drag queens, but we’re always going to show up in a really cool way.”


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