[blog] Running events online. How very 2020.


I had a sobering thought the other day. I have been organising events for more than half of my life. At this time when the events industry has gone into meltdown and at best been forgotten by government, or at worst been deemed “unviable”, my foray into the world of organising online events feels both fortunate and necessary.

In early 2020, as we watched the pandemic sweeping towards us, already wondering if it was in the UK, Community Energy England had a series of real, in the flesh, events already planned. As full-blown pandemic and lockdown seemed inevitable, we quickly jumped headfirst into taking them online. When you jump headfirst, you learn lessons quickly! We were organising a full-day conference with our buddies at Community Energy South, and we took the full-day conference, including multiple breakout rooms, online. It was our busiest digital event to date and overall, we felt it was a roaring success. We had incredible feedback and perhaps the most engaged audience to date. The chat was flowing and hard to keep up with at times! Since then, we have organised a host of other events, all shorter in length and on specific topics, usually based on the demand from our membership, not all-day behemoths with 13 topics and 40+ speakers.

Overall, we have found that doing events online massively increases inclusivity, particularly if the recording is shared online afterwards. Our YouTube channel is now a central part of our communications strategy. In some instances, we have had more views of a recorded event than there were people at the live event. Recording a physical conference to a sufficient quality to put online afterwards would cost thousands. The decentralisation of small cameras in laptop computers, all networked together, working in unison, instead of the need for one expensive camera in the event venue certainly strikes an interesting parallel with our views on the future of the energy system.

I write this in lockdown part two, in mid-November, and it is apparent that most organisations who can operate from their employees’ spare rooms are taking their activities online. I am seeing an almost overwhelming amount of online events taking place. We are truly spoilt for choice. If you want to upskill with your slippers on, now is the time to do it. But at the same time, many organisations I have spoken to are seeing increasing rates of people who signed up for an event not attending. Does this suggest that online events are now so frequent that they are becoming disposable? What can we do to counteract this? Should event organisers start charging for events, to instil a sense of value to attending? Should we switch up the format and move off Zoom onto one of the plethora of other platforms, Mozilla Hubs, or Remo for instance? You tell me, (no seriously, do tell me!). Perhaps, after 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 months of lockdown, might we be at peak webinars and online events, or is this the “new normal”? The response to everything in 2020 seems to have been, “let’s do an online event”. Understandably, we are embracing a new(ish) and recently improved technology, which is exciting. But because of this, I stress the importance of there being a demonstrated demand for events, particularly when working with community organisations who could be under-resourced at present, instead of a finger in the air guess that this is what people want to hear about. You want your event to have an engaged audience and your audience wants to learn about specific subjects. Find out what these are.    

If you made it this far, you’re probably thinking about your own planned or potential events. Here are some take-home thoughts about organising events on Zoom which you might find useful… 

  • Ok, this one isn’t just about Zoom: diversity. Try to ensure your agenda and panel is comprised of a diverse set of speakers. I know this can be hard and involve what feels like clumsy and tricky conversations but it is very much worth it for a more inclusive range of lived experiences. 
  • In this age of peak webinars, you have to be respectful of people’s attention spans and the need to do other things. A full day online event is frankly asking too much of people unless you are sure the content is genuinely needed and is delivered in an engaging way, and you plan for people to dip in and out.
  • Try to determine in advance what you want your outcomes to be. If it is sharing best practice, ask speakers to share their hard learnt lessons and perhaps talk numbers. There is a distinct difference between “we did this” and “we learnt this” and “this is how we made the numbers add up”.
  • Breakout rooms are great idea in principle if wanting to mimic the physical conference experiences, but if it is for more than a hundred delegates (50 if it’s your first time using them), it is a frankly stressful to organise, particularly when delegates want to move between rooms and somehow manage to drop out of rooms. We have made it work but it opens your event up to risk and stress. Instead… 
  • I would advocate more shorter events than fewer long events. For longer events you put all your eggs in one basket and add elements of risk that don't need to be there. 
  • If you plan to put a recording on YouTube, ensure you advise delegates when they sign up that if their camera is turned on, they may appear on the recording which goes online. Make this easy by ensuring they have to agree to this when they sign up to attend.
  • When people sign up, ask them what they want from future events, then your future events can be born out of demand, not a finger in the air.
  • We have distinct roles in our team. Chair, tech driver, Q+A curator, social media poster. Give everyone in the organising team one manageable job and the event will flow smoothly.
  • Try to have a backup Chair and Tech Driver at the minimum. Internet connection issues can strike at the worst of timings, but your event must go on.
  • Send the joining link to your event 1 hour before the event. Don’t let it circulate in the digital ether for it to be picked up by nefarious forces. A friend had an instance of Zoom bombing where some incredibly vile imagery was shared on screen at their event. Sorry to say, that is the world we live in. Perplexing. Try to do everything you can to keep the event and event chat as secure as possible, for example by preventing screen sharing. You don’t want your event to be that event.
  • Brief all speakers. Give them a detailed breakdown of what is expected and an executive summary for those who are bereft of time and or maybe be used to presenting. Emphasise advice on presenting from PowerPoint as a window, not full screen, or exporting as a PDF, it can make it much easier to control from their end, particularly if working on a small laptop screen.
  • A practice session for speakers is useful, but by this point in 2020, has a speaker lived the true lockdown experience if they have not spoken or shared a screen on Zoom? Open your event 30 mins early for speakers so they can test their presentation. This asks less of their time.
  • Get presentations from speakers in advance so you can share them if they have connection issues. 
  • Consider keeping the event running afterwards. Stop recording and allow for a free flow of discussion. Many people will leave, some might stay. We call this “The Co-operator’s Arms” as we know the post-event meet up in the pub is sorely missed!

If this has been of interest or useful to you, we have created a guide for organising events on Zoom. See it as a beginner's 101 guide to doing online events. I, and this guide, don’t have all the answers but based on organising four online conferences during lockdown and multiple working groups, roundtables and forums we thought it might be useful.

Someone once said we organise the best events in the energy sector. I wouldn’t dream of saying that (so modest!), but you could come along to one in the future and find out if they were right.

Yours, in solidarity, Jon Hall.