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Reimagining the conference experience with SocialAtHome

By ATB Financial 8 July 2020 5 min read

When 2020 started unfolding, Mike Morrison was busy preparing to host Canada’s largest digital marketing conference, SocialWest through his business Bloggity Conferences & Events. In its fifth year, the June conference attracts about 850 digital and social media leaders and practitioners to Calgary, Alberta for two days of interactive learning, networking and fun.

Then COVID-19 happened. And tough decisions were made to protect one another, especially around mass gatherings.

“Every way I made money was gone and the task of having to come up with a new way to make money in a pandemic was at first too much,” he says, candidly. “I just didn’t feel confident in myself that I could do that.”

Shaken at first, Mike realized that simply postponing the conference was neither realistic nor of value to already registered attendees. He readjusted his entrepreneur hat and set out to discover how to recreate the same experience, virtually.

SocialWest evolved to SocialAtHome, an online event that broke travel barriers and through computer screens to engage conference attendees in truly unique ways. By going virtual, Mike was able to attract an audience from across the country (10 provinces and one territory, to be exact), and because he put his audience first in building the experience, he was able to identify a conference model that’s now being adopted by other organizations.

Connection is paramount in a crisis

Making the transition from in-person to online didn’t come naturally to Mike, who hadn’t had many virtual event experiences. A man of boundless energy and infectious enthusiasm, Mike is passionate about providing value and engaging with his audience, whether that’s giving tips about building up your business’ Instagram followers or dishing the latest Canadian entertainment news.

His most immediate challenge was how to address the 800-odd tickets that had been sold. Much of the funds had already been spent on venue, staff and other contracts. Just issuing a blanket refund would have broken the company.
“So, we gave our attendees a choice—a 100 per cent refund, no questions asked, or...do you want to go on this wild ride with us over the next six months?”

A mind-blowing 83 per cent decided to stick it out, as did all the sponsors, ATB included.

Key for Mike to pivoting his business model successfully was communicating with his audience every step of the way and giving them something to distract themselves during quarantine.

“I was thinking that while I was trying to figure out what to do about the conferences, I’m just going to keep providing content to people, like a placeholder. Also, it gave me a purpose, I was going crazy, like everybody else,” he says, laughing.

He launched a series of webinars where registered attendees got in for free and others for $25. About 800 people signed up for the first webinar to learn about social media for your business during a crisis. The numbers stayed up throughout the series.

Tip

Stay in touch with your customers when pivoting and keep it personal. Mike built loyalty for his brand because he’s entertaining and because he goes the extra mile to connect, show his clients he cares and is vulnerable. Between notifying attendees of the change of plans to when SocialAtHome went live, he sent out more than a dozen emails to over 800 people—individually to each person, to avoid spam filters.

Do your research and jump in

In the meantime, he and partner Richard Einarson dove into what other online conferences were doing, what they wanted to accomplish and how to ensure the best possible experience for their attendees. Part of the solution was finding a robust software program that would give 32 speakers and more than 500 attendees the feeling they were at a conference. Then they pitched the program to attendees to get their approval.

Webinars and online conferences abound, but not many sparked that emotional connection Mike was looking for. He drew on his four years’ experience as a producer of Breakfast TV to build one.

“I knew how to do intros, how to prep your guests and make sure the shots look good and keep it all on side. All that helps create these really great webinars.”

SocialAtHome also used networking software that opened “rooms” for people to meet and chat for three minutes and continue later, if both agreed. Attendees also were given a premium option that included recorded sessions.

Tip

Manage expectations—yours and your customers’. The online format meant changing how the sessions were organized; there were slightly fewer presentations as SocialWest is traditionally a two-day event held in three theatres. Also, each presentation was shorter.

“Twenty minutes is short in person, but when you’re staring at a computer, it is the perfect length,” Mike says.

The networking rooms were a surprise hit, too—proof that innovative thinking can retain fundamental goals: in this case, connection, if done properly.

Don’t give up on your vision

Mike is known for sharing his sense of glee as well as his commitment to community. He wanted to keep that spark of excitement of the conference with all the attendees and was delighted to work with ATB on sending a swag package via Canada Post to each attendee.

Marked with a big DON’T OPEN UNTIL JUNE 11, the box created a buzz that let loose the first day of the conference, when Mike led people to open the box all together. Inside were goodies that ranged from socks with the event logo on them, to sidewalk chalk and codes to a Drag Queen Bingo and an end-of-day package with a face mask and the message “goodness grows” to pass on to others.

“That’s something that unified the attendees—they were all experiencing the same thing, all together, no matter where they lived, the timezone, their experience level, it was something everyone was doing together. And, I think that’s really important for online events.”

Realize your skills are still there

Like many, Mike hit an existential wall when everything started shutting down.
With support from his partner and friends, he soon realized his skills engaging people with quality events and organizing them weren’t gone. It just meant using them differently.

“I think in small business, we get so zeroed in on your one product, your one offering—which is normally a good thing. But you forget it was your skills that helped you come up with that offering. So, use those skills to come up with ways to adapt that offering.”

Advice

Try something and do it quickly. Don’t get bogged down by the “but.” As in, “but I don’t know how to do that, but I don’t have the experience.” The key to success is getting something out there relatively quickly, not waiting.

“There’s opportunity for everyone. This levels the playing field for everyone, the bar has been lowered by society. People just want to be entertained, fill up on good food, and you just have to figure out how to provide them that.”

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