In July 2015, we continued our webinar series to share best practices within the Conveners.org community. While many of us convene in person, a common pain point expressed by the community was of effectively convening communities virtually. Our third webinar “Unlocking the Power of Virtual Convening” was an opportunity to share experiences using a variety of virtual convening platforms.  

This webinar provided an opportunity to uncover what has and has not worked, and to aggregate a list of platforms worthy of trying.  We wish to thank, in particular representatives who joined us from PlayBIG, The Melton Foundation, Peace and Collaborative Development Network, Social Enterprise Alliance, The Tamer Center for Social Enterprise at Columbia Business School, Alliance for Peacebuilding, Net Impact, The Greenermind Summit and The Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship for contributing to the session.  We are excited to share the highlights that emerged from the conversation.

 

Best Practice 1: Content is King! (or Queen!)

Regardless of the quality of your platform, you cannot engage your community without relevant content.  Similar to the lean startup methodology, testing your assumptions about desirable topics early and with little to no investment of money or staff time, can better prepare you for success.  Ursala Knudsen-Latta of the Alliance for Peacebuilding recommends asking your participants during a webinar if there is a topic on which anyone would like to present for an upcoming webinar.  This method helps to keep content fresh and encourage participant buy-in.

Craig Zelizer of PCDN uses their annual survey to understand how the needs of the community change over time to help his team adapt their content accordingly.

“No one will show up unless the content is valuable to the community”
– Craig Zelizer of PCDN

 

Best Practice 2: Only one person in charge of content.

In order to maintain consistency of quality, it can help to have a staff person responsible for managing content for the community. Many organizations use a style guide to support consistency when multiple people are involved in creating content. The challenge is that when too many people are in charge of content, then it is too easy for no-one to be responsible.

 

Best Practice 3: Let your participants set the schedule.

Too often it is easier for the organization hosting the webinar or virtual convening to simply pick a time that works best internally. However, if your focus is really on engaging your community, then let them set the schedule.  Doodle Polls are a great standby, but you can find the tool that’s right for you on this Zapier.com blog with details on the top 16 meeting scheduler apps.

 

Best Practice 4: Nothing beats personal invitations. p.s sure you track RSVPs.

So often we go for the easy communications solution like MailChimp, but if you really want people to show up – try a personal email.  Google Canned Responses is a nifty tool that can help you send personalized emails in a fraction of the time.  Patty Ortiz of the Melton Foundation recommends promoting the virtual convening with lots of details including the bio of the presenter, pictures, and an abstract of the presentation.

 

Best Practice 5: Remember with everything to POP!

Marian Moore of PlayBig reminded us of the adage “POP” which stands for Purpose, Outcomes, and Process.

Purpose answers the question “why”

Outcomes speaks to “what” – and requires that you define success before you begin.

Process speaks to the “how” – what do you need to do to get there?

Our friends at the Rockwood Leadership Institute share the success of the POP model to increase meeting effectiveness.  Developed by Leslie Sholl Jaffe and Randall Alford, they describe it as:

POP is a useful tool for a multitude of the daily activities leaders find themselves faced with: meeting agendas, campaigns, difficult conversations, unplanned calls and conversations. . . . As you can gather from the list, POP is scalable.  It can be used for large, long-term projects, regular weekly staff meetings, a meeting you attend, or a call that comes in that has no agenda, coaching/mentoring sessions . . .”

 

Best Practice 6: Always have a back up – conference call lines fail less than video calls.

There are 100 reasons why a platform can fail from bandwidth issues to echoing lines. Having a conference call line that you distribute as a backup can make it easier for participants to switch over.  Craig of PCDN shared that he “uses our team as a guinea pig initially to ensure if there are any failures with the technology we keep it to the team before trying it more broadly.”  Video calls are preferable, as the ability to see one another is a significant advantage to engaging your community, but it is important to ensure that every participant can be heard.

 

Challenge 1: Attendance for virtual content is decreasing over the years.

According to Kathara Green of Net Impact, “participants are seeking information in new ways, like podcasts and online articles” and overall participation in webinars is decreasing over time.  Marian Moore suggested that you reach out to 10 people who are no longer engaged and have a deeper conversation with them to understand how their needs have changed over time.

 

Challenge 2: How long is too long?

It seems like everyone defaults to the “one hour” webinar, but given everyone’s busy schedules, this may no longer be the most effective length for content.  Ursala asks “How do we make online events short enough for modern attention spans, but useful and in-depth?”  Going back to Marian’s comment regarding the importance of POP!, if you clearly understand your purpose for bringing people together, your objectives, and the process you want to use, then you can also spec out the time required to have a productive meeting, which may only be 30-45 minutes.

 

Platforms We Have Used:

There was no clear “best” platform that emerged from the conversation, as it entirely depends on your use case.  Here are some of the platforms that worked for our participants.

  1. Zoom.us – works well for large groups and distributed content.
  2. Maestro Conference – works well for unconference style virtual gatherings where breakout rooms are needed.
  3. GoToMeeting & GoToWebinar – work great for webinar content in a traditional presentation format.
  4. GoogleHangout – low bandwidth requirement that works well for international participants and allows you to see everyone. Optimized for 10 or more participants.

 

There are many other platforms out there, and this article on the 15 Best Webinar Software Products from Around the Web provides a comprehensive list.

Stay tuned for our 2016 webinar series.  Each webinar is an opportunity to connect with your peers and share best practices and ongoing challenges you face as a convener.

1/12/16 – Measuring the Impact of Your Convening

2/11/16 – Alternative Conference Session Formats to Engage Attendees

3/10/16 – How to Save Money for Organizing Your Convening Through Collaboration

Time: All webinars will be hosted at 3pm EST/12pm PST via Google Hangouts

Registration:  To sign up, click here