The world is now online, whether we like it or not! For those whose business model focused on in-person events, things needed to shift pretty quickly this year - as the Brighton Chamber of Commerce knows only too well. Pre- March 2020 they had discussed the idea of online events but never ran one, fast forward to December and they had 200 under their belt. So how did virtual events compare to the in-person networking that was previously their USP? We invited Laura Barban, Events and Programming Manager at Brighton Chamber to tell the story of their journey to becoming exclusively online.
Before March the Brighton Chamber had never run an online event. How did you know what technology to use and how to set it up? Were you quaking in your boots on the first go?
We had to very quickly do our research, which involved talking to members who were already using meeting platforms, and then it was a case of trying it for ourselves as much as possible.
We held our last in person event which was a Bite-sized Learning with Emma Mills-Sheffield on March 17th, we moved out of our office the evening of March 18th, March 24th we held our first mini member event and just nine days later, on Friday March 27th we held our first virtual event with 15 people on Zoom about the Coronavirus Business Interruption loans. In those nine days we got to know Zoom, using it for team meetings and we ran multiple trial runs, basically, trying to do everything we thought might come up and then fixing it, it was an intense few days!
Laura doing her thing behind the scenes!
And yes, the first once and even some since then was terrifying! In October, we ran Brighton Base Camp: Bananas, which was our biggest, most complex event. We had 145 attendees from over 100 different companies and it was all from the same Zoom link. Meaning we moved everyone around, we had three speakers (one joining us from a tiny island in Greece which came with its own potential issues!), we ran two networking sessions, attendees had five virtual workshops to choose from and we had five videos to stream.
We were fortunate that bar me nearly pouring a large cup of tea on my keyboard just before I was due to put everyone in their breakout rooms for the workshops, nothing went wrong.
As it was such a big event we actually met and ran it together with our MC James Dempster, at SINC, the Sussex Innovation Centre and Chamber members ingenio set us up with an event wifi so we could be sure we’d have the best connection possible. It was a big team effort!
In your opinion, do you think that networking can be as effective online as it is in person?
Yes, and potentially even better, but you need to treat it as much like real life networking, so come prepared with an ask, something you need help with so you aren’t just selling your own product, listen to people and respond to what they are saying and make sure you get the contact details of the people you meet and follow up! You might not need them now but who knows what will happen in the future.
We do an event called Slo-mo networking in which people are in groups of three and we move you on automatically, it means you’ll never get caught by someone for two long and that you can make a lot of great connections, easily online. I do appreciate online isn’t for everyone though and we are doing what we can to get back to real life events too, as soon as it is safe to do so.
What tips would you give to those trying to network to make it as effective as possible?
Come prepared, if you have been sent an attendee list, read it and think about who you’d like to meet, you can even email the hosts and them they know is advance who’d you like to meet.
Think about your intro - first impressions count both online and offline, keep it succinct, your name, your business and something you need help with.
Don’t let it be a one time meeting - I mentioned this before but I think it is really important - The goal with networking is to develop relationships that will last. Keep new connections warm by continuing the conversation on email, via phone or event just connecting on LinkedIn after your meet.
And one more, I know this is number four but it is only relevant to online networking - make sure your name on Zoom or whichever platform you are using is correct! First name, Last name and business name. You’d be surprised how many people turn up with iphone as their name, it is a quick and easy win.
Many of your events focus on interesting speakers, how do you find/attract people to host or contribute to your online events? It is easier now physical distance isn’t so much of an issue?
We will all research and create our top lists and then it is a case in some professional online stalking via LinkedIn and connecting with people. The Chamber has over 600 members and in many cases there will be a shared connection we can ask. In other cases Sarah Springford is our secret weapon, it was Sarah that got Gina Miller for the Summit last year which was brilliant, unfortunately, I can’t tell you how as I’d be giving away her secrets!
How do you promote online events to your members/the wider community? Are there specific channels you find work better than others?
First and foremost we use email, we work with a number of brillant copywriters who help make our events unmissable, we then complement this with social media and good old fashioned word of mouth. I think it is the combination that works well for us as our members are all on different platforms and will take things in differently
For those who are nervous to run an online event, do you have any top tips to help the transition?
Practise! Before we went online I created multiple Zoom accounts and held practise events by myself, my husband thought I was losing the plot but it meant I could put me, myself and I in to breakout rooms and see what happened, one word of advice make sure you mute all devices bar one or you get a horrid echo effect!
Once I had figured it out for myself I then dragged the rest of the team in too, they were very patient, and it meant we could understand how events would be both for us behind the scenes and as users.
Laura and the Brighton Chamber team
Get your head around the different settings - I also went through every setting on Zoom both through the app but also on the web browser, (there is a lot more on the web browser) and then read the Zoom guides so I can completely understand what was what. It takes time but it is worth it.
I appreciate I have only talked about Zoom as that is what we use but the same applies to any platform. We did a lot of research before we started using Zoom and looked at many platforms but Zoom worked best for what we needed.
How do you measure the success of an event? Do you collect feedback from attendees?
We do, we use both Mailchimp’s new survey feature and Survey Monkey to send follow up surveys, we also ask our members.
You can tell really quickly with online events if it isn’t going well because people can easily leave if they don’t like something, fortunately that hasn't happened to us!
We’ve all been on our fair share of Zoom calls where technology has failed - have you experienced any heart-stopping moments during an event? Any advice to ride it out smoothly?
Yes! We had a session where I set the breakout rooms to close after 5 mins rather than 15 and once they are going there isn’t anything you can do to change it, fortunately everyone saw the funny side and it was very easy to fix, I just sent them all off again.
Like many I’ve also had incidents with pets, we have two pooches at home, one of which is just six months old, there have been a number of events where she has snuck in mid event and started playing and my poor husbands has had to crawl into the room to not be seen to try and get her out! She is not an obedient pup!
There are so many elements you can’t control on events as you are relying on speakers, trainers and attendees to all have good connections. We always have a trial run but we have since discovered that time of day can be an issue as in the afternoon people seem to have internet issues, anyone that uses Virgin Media seems to have connection issues.
And of course, people running late! I am keen that our events always run to time because I personally don’t like it when you join an online event and are then left in the waiting room. We always ask speakers and trainers to join 15 minutes early but we have had many cases where the team is calling someone in a panic to check where they are, we have even started an event without one of our headline speakers, fortunately they made it and the audience was none the wiser. I think I have aged 10 years in the last 10 months!
A BIG thank you to Laura for joining us on the podcast and sharing her top tips for running successful online events. You can connect with Laura on LinkedIn or check out the Brighton Chamber events on their website.
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