Written by Heather Mason, CEO, Caspian Agency
A lot of event professionals are looking at the last several months for lessons on how to move forward. Personally, I’m looking farther into the past. A lot farther. Because this is not the first time that an entire industry has ‘gone online’ so to speak. Televangelists have been doing it for decades, and they’ve been wildly successful at it. Now, I know that televangelists are not everyone’s favorite topic. They certainly aren’t mine. However, as an event producer, I’ve been thinking about them a lot lately in conjunction with online events. Specifically, what can we learn from them?
Lesson #1 — It’s a Proven Model
When it comes to taking events online, we are not in entirely uncharted territory. It just means being somewhat liberal with our definition of ‘online’. If we open it up to include in-person gatherings that are moved to a new medium that can be accessed remotely, then televangelists have nearly a century’s head start. Back in the 1920s, American preachers realized that they could use the widespread availability of household radio to reach a larger and more diverse audience than their physical location allowed. In the 1950s, the term televangelist was officially coined when those preachers moved to television. The Internet may have been several decades away, but the concept was still there. Televangelists used this model to great success and attracted massive and loyal audiences. Some still do.
Lesson #2 — It’s About Creating a Bigger Tent
This comes directly from the old revival days when tent meetings were all the rage. And they used real tents. The online world gives us the ability to increase the size of our tents. Not just in pure audience numbers, but also from an inclusive perspective as well. Just as televangelists saw the opportunity to increase their audience from those seated in the church pews to those seated at home, we can expand the definition of our audience to different regions, languages, and/or financial abilities. In this sense, a bigger tent is better for everyone. If we believe the world is getting smaller and that including more voices is going to lead to better things for both us and society, then online is where inclusivity can be rich, and where in-person was, quite frankly, lacking.
Lesson #3 — Analog is Great, When Aligned with the Cause
In the rush to digitize experiences, we are learning the hard way what televangelists have known for years. It is not possible, nor even desirable, to completely replicate an in-person gathering on a remote medium. However, there are things you can do that fit in very well to augment the digital experience, and these solutions are usually analog in nature. For example, televangelists would often host call-in numbers during their services, comparable to today’s chat rooms. They did this throughout the day to cover the different timezones. The content may have been pre-taped, but the chat rooms were always live. Televangelists would also send out programs, song sheets, and books through the mail to allow their audience to participate at home through sing-a-longs and other parts of the service. This personal connection ensured that the audience would return week after week, and each time, they knew they could be part of the experience.
Lession #4 — Disruptive Mediums Favor Expansive Thinking
Televangelists have already gone through multiple transitions over the past 100 years. From the move from radio to television, to the modern hybrid of live broadcasts and pre-taped sermons, televangelists know that they must constantly adapt and innovate to stay relevant in the face of changing trends. They have loyal audiences, but they need to keep them. They also have to engage and get personal. Not only are televangelists very aware of all of these points, but they have been wildly successful at them. Today, televangelism is a billion dollar industry with a global reach. However, this never would have happened if they hadn’t constantly adapted to and adopted new technologies and content mediums. If we expand our thinking, we will see that disruption is not to be feared, but rather it should be embraced. It means that what is about to come will be bigger, better, and possibly even more successful than what we had before.
One last note. Just to be clear, I am not advocating for televangelism in any way, shape, or form. However, I do think that their model provides a useful corollary for our thinking. To this end, I firmly believe that changing our mindset is critical in positioning ourselves to be creative, and ultimately, successful.
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