Engagement Play #22: Reach the Summit
How to host a successful summit for your online community.
Feeling ambitious? Summits are an incredible way to create value for your members, and generate plenty of engagement — not just during the event, but in the weeks pre- and post-summit too.
The Community Club hosted virtual summits for community pros in both 2020 and 2021, both with a relatively small team pulling the strings behind the scenes.
“We had three people planning and running much of the event,” Chief Community Officer Alex Angel says. “Cole Zerr, our Community Operations Manager, took point on coordinating all of the speaker outreach and management, I focused on concept and topics as well as moderating panels and holding my own talk, and our Founder and CEO, Mac Reddin, helped with high-level concept, outreach to some of the bigger speakers, and event promotion.”
While hosting a summit can seem daunting — particularly if it spans several days — breaking the event down into smaller, actionable tasks can help.
How to host a knock-out summit
Start with the end goal
Define the purpose of the event and what the end goal is for your attendees. At this point, you’ll need to ask yourself some hard questions: firstly, is there a big enough need for people to gather?
Maybe a live virtual conference isn’t necessary. Could a different medium better suit your goal?
Everyone wants a seamless experience for their events, and with the right tools and planning, you can make it happen. “Look for platforms that create an easy-to-use experience for your attendees — the last thing any event organizer wants is for their attendees to get lost in the virtual hallway,” Cole says. “So what makes a platform easy to use? Essential features.”
Cole’s list of must-have features:
- smooth video/screensharing broadcasts to prevent any
- an easily accessible schedule
- brandable registration landing pages
- one-on-one networking tools
- breakout rooms or virtual tables
- live chat messaging for interactivity and questions
- booth areas for sponsors
Cole recommends coming up with a shortlist of platforms, then attending an event hosted there to understand what your members’ experience will be like. “But be sure that you’re considering both the attendee and organizer tooling when reviewing platforms,” he says.
“The organizer needs proper tools at their disposal for an event to run without a hitch.”
Keep it simple
While virtual summits are fast becoming the norm, many organizers are still tempted to replicate in-person summit formats, with multiple speakers and content sessions happening at once and constant networking.
“That’s way too much to do virtually,” Mac says. “At Club’s summits, we only had one thing happening at any given time — whether that be a speaker, a panel, or a networking session. This allowed us to focus on providing a single, effective experience for everyone, while also keeping engagement high, as there was only one place to engage.”
Plan, plan, and then plan some more
“The number one thing that we did that led to a successful event was over planning,” Mac says. The team did several dry runs for the big event, so everyone understood the nuances of the platform they were using, while also discovering a few quirks and rough edges that they had to plan around.
In the weeks leading up to the events, Mac, Cole, and Alex were also in constant contact with speakers, making sure they understood exactly what was expected of them and providing them with a speaker guide full of FAQs that might arise in the run-up to the summits. It’s also a great idea to make sure you have phone numbers for each speaker. “We ended up making use of this multiple times throughout the event, both to make sure speakers showed up on time, and to help a few work through technical issues they were experiencing,” Mac says.
Have a back-up plan
No matter how much planning you do, there are plenty of things that are just beyond your control. Have a plan in place for mishaps, technical difficulties, and speaker no-shows.
The Club team learned this the hard way during their 2020 summit, during a session that was ironically titled ‘Community Fails’. “The speaker wasn’t able to start on time due to a thunderstorm knocking her power out, but luckily that session had originally been planned with two speakers anyways,” Mac says. “Brian Oblinger took to the virtual stage alone and hosted a great Q&A session instead!”
Set specific roles for each teammate
Even if you’re pulling this off with a relatively small team, it helps to have clearly defined roles and responsibilities. Who is communicating with speakers? Who is the emcee? Who is moderating the chat? Who’s handling social media?
If large-scale events like these are a core part of your community strategy, it can help to have someone on the team to lead the charge, too. “For our 2022 summit, our biggest learning was that we need someone who can focus on this 100% of the time, so we hired a Community Events Manager who will be running the show going forward,” Alex says.
Rethink the ‘webinar’
Zoom fatigue is still a thing. Very few people actually want to watch your webinar, and even fewer want to watch 13 hours of webinars over several days.
Rethink the approach of having a talking head on camera for 45+ minutes — keep your sessions shorter and make them as interactive as possible. The Club team experimented with four types of sessions (fireside chats, panels, presentations, and networking). They also made sure that no session lasted more than 30 minutes and encouraged all speakers to constantly interact with the chat and leave time for Q&A after they were done presenting.
“We also tried to include some fun things to lighten the mood and get people energized,” Alex says. “We brought in a DJ to kick off each day, and this was one of the best decisions we made — not only did it get people excited (and dancing) in the moment, but it was a huge topic of discussion in our community during the summit and well after. Someone even brought it up months later to say they wished we could bring the DJ back for non-summit events because they had such a good time.”
Be prepared to moderate the chat
If you’ve worked in community for a while, this one probably goes without saying. While having an in-platform chat is a wonderful way to keep attendees engaged and sessions interactive, you’ll want someone keeping an eye on things.
“Coming from a gaming background, I’ve seen first-hand how out of control the chat on a livestream can get,” Mac says.
“However, we haven’t had to delete a single comment at either of our summits. I heavily attribute this to our audience — community builders are incredible people, often the nicest in the room, and likely have experience with moderating themselves in their own communities. Still, we do caution you to consider a moderation strategy for your virtual event, as not every live audience will be as welcoming.”
Personally invite your target attendees
A personal touch goes a long way. “While larger communities and brands may not be too concerned about this, at our first summit, it was a game-changing strategy for us,” says Mac.
“We were relatively new to the industry, and didn’t have a huge existing network or following we could leverage to drive enough attendance, so we personally reached out to over 1,000 community builders and managers via email and LinkedIn. This personal outreach saw a 30% conversion and accounted for about 300 of our RSVPs!”
Keep promoting leading up to and during the event
With no upfront logistics like travel and lodging, people are far less likely to RSVP and plan in advance for a virtual event. “For our 2021 summit, we announced the event about two months ahead of time,” Mac says. “And still 60% of our RSVPs came in the week before the event, and 20% came in while the event was live!”
This was spurred on by the fact that the team kept up a stream of content on social media right before and during the event, tweeting and posting on LinkedIn about upcoming speakers, while also sharing some of the best quotes as speakers presented them.
“The great thing about virtual events is that someone can see a post about it, and five seconds later be registered and watching — a phenomenon not possible with in-person events!”
Keep it fun
“Unless it very specifically makes sense for your event and audience, throw your ‘corporate-feeling’ event and branding out the window,” Mac says. “Theme your event, make it fun, and keep it lighthearted. Fun is paramount.”
On the hunt for more handy engagement plays?
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