5 Insider Lessons to Nail Your Next Virtual Event
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By WILL SCHMIDT
One thing we learned at the Collaborative: Virtual Sessions is that the social sector should not focus on a return to "normal" after the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, the industry needs to focus on how to work through the coronavirus and adapt to the ways it's changed the fundraising landscape, together.
The immediate change that has been felt by most nonprofits is the pivot from in-person to virtual events. For the team at the HEADstrong Foundation, like so many others, the COVID-19 pandemic meant canceling multiple in-person 5K events.
It left the team of eight discouraged as they forecasted a substantial dip in fundraising revenue. However, they decided to get to work and quickly pivot to a fully virtual 5K, "The Last Shift," that began on April 6, 2020, and ran for the entire month.
Once April came to a close, "The Last Shift" had raised over $120,000 to benefit lives affected by cancer. We reached out to Jeff Baxter, director of community engagement at the HEADstrong Foundation, to find out how the team hosted such a successful event. Below, we walk you through how the team came up with the idea, how they activated a massive audience, and what their internal operations and virtual event logistics looked like.
Lesson 1: Know Your Audience, Intimately
Most places went into lockdown during the first or second week of March 2020. When the shelter-in-place orders were announced, the HEADstrong Foundation knew they needed to mobilize their community by hosting a fully virtual 5K.
The biggest question they had to face was around timing for the virtual event. They were tinkering with the idea to run the event on April 6, but wondered if it was too close to lockdown, if anyone would even care, or if it would come across as tone-deaf.
What ultimately prompted them to move forward with an April 6 start date was their depth of knowledge of who their audience is: athletes and sports enthusiasts. At this time, college athletes across the country had just lost their entire sports season due to COVID-19.
This season would also be the last time many college athletes would ever have an opportunity to play high-level, competitive sports again. Further, April 6 was also National Student Athlete Day.
Despite the questions around timing, everything aligned too perfectly for the HEADstrong Foundation to ignore. They were confident that this was the perfect group to engage to support "The Last Shift," and that they would be capable of driving fundraising revenue to cover potential losses.
This underscores the absolute importance of knowing your audience and personalizing your offerings for them. Whether you're running a 5K, hosting a gala, or orchestrating another event entirely, you have to play to their preferences, lifestyles, and unique perspective within any given situation.
Lesson 2: Fully Activate Your Audience
Knowing your audience is one thing, but getting them to participate in your event is another thing entirely. For the HEADstrong Foundation, the secret to successful activation was to target a hyper-defined segment of their audience.
The founder of the HEADstrong Foundation was a college lacrosse player, so the team decided to reach out to college lacrosse players before anyone else. They also decided to leverage influencer marketing, wherein the HEADstrong team targeted the top three senior college lacrosse players in the nation (pictured above).
Each player received a direct message from the HEADstrong Foundation Instagram account asking if they wanted to run in the virtual 5K and help spread the message to other athletes. From there, the team began targeting other lacrosse players across the country.
"People are accessible through social media like they've never been before. We went on every college lacrosse team page to find the team captains and reached out and invited them to join as well. Some participated, some didn't, but we were still able to create a major swell of support for the event."
Start small and targeted before branching out to larger segments of your audience, much like you would with a soft launch for a fundraising campaign. Within that segment, you may even consider reaching out to certain influencers who can act as spokespeople for your event. Additionally, your nonprofit will want to engage with these audience members on the platform where they're most likely to see your message.
Another tactic that helped the HEADstrong Foundation was making registration for the event simple, so that influencers could easily activate their own networks to take action. They made it a flat $20 to register and only asked for name, email, and Instagram handle.
As a result of their influencers' outreach, they began to see teams signing up to participate left and right. Ultimately, there were 2,000 people who signed up for The Last Shift.
Lesson 3: Maintain Clear and Consistent Communications
As they moved through the planning phase of the event, the HEADstrong Foundation used a variety of tools to stay aligned with one another and ensure nothing slipped through the cracks. Every week, they synced over Google Hangouts to review updates and assignments from the previous week before tasking out new roles for the upcoming week.
At the same time, they tracked all progress and responsibilities in a spreadsheet as the team continued to move forward. This was helpful for items like the email marketing calendar and nailing down deliverables for each send.
For example, they had one email with a pre-recorded video message from the president of the HEADstrong Foundation:
Then, another email that went out one week before the event with tips, fundraising challenges, and ways to for virtual participants to get others involved:
Finally, an email went out the day before "The Last Shift" kicked off with details on what to do during the run, as well as what to do once the run was finished:
When planning your own virtual event logistics, it's crucial nothing slips through the cracks with regard to your messaging. People need to understand all the details about how they are expected to participate.
Send a few extra emails to your registrants, keep your copy simple, and be direct with any crucial information or asks. The switch to a fully virtual event can be confusing for your supporters, and you need to do everything in your power to keep everyone on the same page. Videos are also a great tool to humanize your organization and pump everyone up for the event.
Lesson 4: Get Crafty and Creative
"Don't be afraid to create something new and simple. It will open you up to a whole new list of opportunities for your nonprofit."
This was a sort of mantra that Jeff and the rest of the team lived by during "The Last Shift." No idea was discredited simply because it was new, and this gave rise to some powerhouse results.
First, the team encouraged all runners to invite their friends to make a donation to either their personal fundraising page, or through a "virtual high five." With this virtual high five, people would use Venmo to send $5 directly to the HEADstrong Venmo account with the name of the runner in the comments of the transaction.
The HEADstrong Foundation took all these Venmo transactions and entered them as offline donations into Classy. At the end of the event, they had collected an additional $4,000 from this tactic alone.
Next, they had to rethink the traditional incentive for participants. Due to COVID-19, there were many questions around whether custom items and swag could be created and shipped to people in a timely fashion, if at all.
So, the HEADstrong Foundation decided to instead offer everyone a discount code for their online merchandise store through a personal letter from the executive director. That way, people could buy something they wanted, and all purchases contributed to a higher overall revenue total from the event.
Last, the team worked hard to activate their supporters' networks by equipping people with information to spread the event. For example, one of the three initial lacrosse players HEADstrong targeted reached out to his former head coach, who decided to get his entire high school team involved in "The Last Shift."
Social media was the cornerstone engagement piece across all efforts. They asked everyone to tag their posts with the #LastShift2020 hashtag, whether they were promoting a new registration or submitting a picture of their GPS route after running.
This was crucial to create a sense of community, which is more important than ever while running a fully virtual event. All of these people are participating separately, but together, and your nonprofit needs to do everything possible to bring them all together.
"With virtual events, if you're not doing anything on social media it won't work. It has to be a socially driven thing. It drives the community feeling.
Lesson 5: Start Year-Round DIY Fundraising
Once the event is over, DIY fundraising can be the perfect way to re-engage your community and nurture all your new supporters to become lifelong members.
Moving forward, the HEADstrong Foundation will build an endurance athlete fundraising program for people to run a 5K, triathlon, Ironman, or participate in another major athletic event in their own lives and use it to fundraise on behalf of the organization.
For example, if someone loves to golf, they will be able to pledge their next golf game. If they go for a run every day, those runs can be used to fundraise on behalf of the HEADstrong Foundation. Turn their entry point to your organization through a virtual event, into the way they can easily continue to fundraise for you on their own terms.
You can, and should, include a virtual element for all events coming down the pipeline, whether it's augmenting an in-person event or going fully virtual. Not only can this help during the COVID-19 pandemic, but it can establish a new stream of revenue for your organization for years to come.
"The last shift was born out of dedicated athletes losing their last season playing competitive sports. We're already talking about how we incorporate this next year, but we realize it might not be the unicorn it was in 2020. Still, if we can get even $20,000 in revenue from an event we don't have overhead expenses for, why not?"
Just like in any sports competition, sometimes we're overmatched by our opponent, but that doesn't mean we give up and let the other team win. We have to learn to celebrate the small plays and accomplishments. There are a million little details and virtual event logistics that can be overwhelming, but with some creativity and the right tools, you can recover and grow your fundraising revenue.
Use the HEADstrong Foundation as inspiration for ways your nonprofit can quickly adapt, activate your audience, and drive support for your next virtual event. If you're interested to hear how Classy's online fundraising software can help power your virtual event, reach out to us directly.