Spotlight: Caitlin O’Malley shares how PCMA is managing Virtual & Hybrid Events in 2021

Event Trends, Spotlight Interview

May 27, 2021

Julia Sousa

In today’s Spotlight Series we had a chance to chat with Caitlin O’Malley, Program Manager at PCMA. Caitlin has been with PCMA for nearly six years and has created and managed the digital event experiences for PCMA flagship events, and has also been planning and producing some of PCMA virtual and hybrid experiences pre-pandemic and throughout the pandemic.

Through this interview, you will learn from Caitlin about the success with Convening Leaders, which went hybrid in January 2021, and their plans for Educon, which will go hybrid in July. We also talked about running engaging virtual sessions and webinars, and PCMA’s most coveted educational program, the Digital Event Strategist Certification. Read below (or listen to the recording) to learn more about how PCMA has been managing its virtual and hybrid events in 2021.

Pivoting PCMA’s Hybrid Offerings

We’ve always had an online component, but it was definitely more of a take what we’re doing face to face, put it online, give a couple of offerings. There was always a chat, but we never did any purposeful networking. Now, of course, that all changed last year with 2020.

In the pandemic, we needed to figure out how we were going to put people together in a meaningful way and make space for that because it’s what people were looking for after staring at their screens for a whole year. They needed something else.

So we went with a platform that gave that opportunity and we called it community conversations. We would put topics in, we would have rooms and they were open for you to go in and talk. We did have PCMA moderators wandering in and out of them to make sure that the conversations were moving but we were not monitoring if you were talking about your topic specifically. If the conversation wandered as it does in any networking event when you’re in person face to face, that’s great. 

The whole point was just to get people talking, get them comfortable and get them connected. 

They were able to turn on their video and see one another. If they didn’t want to turn on their video, they didn’t have to, there was always a chat available too. The attendees really valued it and we really want to continue. This is something that we are continuing on for this event for Educon in 2021. And we are excited to try and combine those audiences. 

Caitlin O'Malley PCMA

Plans for Educon going hybrid in July

We are going to try to combine our virtual and in-person audiences for Educon in July. And I’m personally glad that it’s a little bit of our smaller audience. Right now we have around 200 people registered and most of them are face to face. We know digital attendees register later, maybe the week of or day of a conference. So we are very excited that we have that many people ready to come and hope to continue to build that audience. 

We are trying to find more ways to connect the audiences too. We know we’re going to do some workshops, we’ll be able to split people in-person and online into little groups to do their workshop and then hope to be able to have both types of groups to share with one another. 

We’re also doing a couple of idea books, where we’re going to take all the information that these different groups have shared, and then create something that’s kind of like case studies and a little bit more interactive. We’re going to try and bring all the ideas that people bring up and write down to make something available online. 

The other thing that we’re trying to do, both for health and safety reasons, is to have a moderator for the Q&A sessions. So we’re not going to do the “pass the mic” or go up to the mic stand, because that takes a lot of cleaning and walking around. But people can go into their app and ask the question. With that,  you don’t even know where the question is coming from: you don’t know if it’s someone in the room or online. That was one easy way to combine our audiences. 

We’re still working on more ideas. Nothing is ever finished until three months after the event. So we’ll hopefully come up with some good ones and be able to share what we learned and what worked and what did it. 

How was producing Convening Leaders this year, in January 2021, and how that was different from previous years, prior to the pandemic. 

For Convening Leaders, whether it was pre-recorded or live, there weren’t a lot of speakers on stage this year: there were a couple in Singapore at one of our hubs, we had a couple of other hubs in the US, but not a lot of onstage presentations, a lot of them were pre-recorded and run semi-live.

In the past, we’ve had an education team that worked on the face-to-face component. We’d have, let’s say, 10 concurrent sessions going on plus your main stages at separate times, and we would pick what we thought worked best — we didn’t have the ability to give people online the option to choose any of the sessions in-person. We just didn’t have the equipment and manpower to manage that level of customization to the online audience.

So we chose the 2-3 rooms that we thought were best. We would offer two sessions per time period, usually one more general and one more specialized so that every group felt like they had their own specialized session that they could go to throughout the conference while also attending the more general sessions. We would do interviews in the interim in our studio, or we would have things prepared ahead of time that we put out there as extra content.

Caitlin O'Malley PCMA

Obviously, budget is always a concern. And last year, with everyone losing people and losing money in this industry, we had to make those considerations. So we did less concurrence and we used more of our staff and included them with the education team. With all of these concurrent sessions, we needed somebody in the room with the speakers to talk to them and do things like mic check, scheduling, details about the platform, etc. 

So we had people from our partnership team, our sales team, our communities and membership teams coming in and playing those roles where, typically, it would be an education role. I think this was a great experience and it gave those teams a little bit more of an insight into how we deal with the speakers and what we do. It also connected them more to the content.

And we had all hands on deck for the digital experience, because our face-to-face hub was in Singapore. We do have a small team in Singapore that was able to help facilitate that, but we had to hire AV companies and other people, other volunteers, and things to help run that. 

We had a great time in January. Like I said, there were a lot of pre-recorded sessions with live Q&A, or people coming on live, but not as many people on a stage whereas we’re gonna have a good mix coming up in July (for Educon). 

Fostering Engagement in Virtual Events

Nobody has the secret sauce yet. I don’t think of how to do it super perfectly. But we have a couple of different ideas. And we’re going to try and make it work as best we can and connect the audiences when possible.

We’re definitely always experimenting and learning. One thing that we started doing with our webinars specifically is finding what everyone wanted to hear about before a webinar. Once it hit April 2020, we just had an explosion of questions. Everybody wanted to ask a question because they wanted the opportunity to connect in some way.

They’d have their voice heard, even if they weren’t physically speaking, they wanted their questions heard. So we typically had webinars that would go 45 – 50 minutes. And then we leave a little bit of room for Q&A. Instead of running out of time for questions altogether, we purposely made that room for lots more questions. 

We also add it on our website so when you sign up for the webinar and put in your name, your email address, and all that, you can add your questions as well. We just have an open field, it’s optional for you to put in a question that you’re thinking of, and there’s no promise to answer any of those questions, but it helps us to know what people are thinking. Having these questions ahead of time is great for many reasons:

  • It’s great for the speakers, because they at least get a little bit of information of what people are thinking and know what to add to their presentation. 
  • It’s also great because we are able to give people that opportunity to be heard and ask these questions.
  • And we can see what questions are coming up, which can lead to another webinar because everyone’s asking this one thing, and we can expand on it. 

Caitlin O'Malley PCMA

How to increase chat engagement for virtual events

Ask your speakers if they are comfortable looking at the chat and responding to questions in real-time while keeping their presentation going as they’re doing that. I feel like when a speaker is looking at the chat and responding in real-time, whether it’s during the whole session, or if it’s your semi-live, people want to connect. If they see that a speaker is talking back to them, that to me just always blows up a chat way more than anything else that you could do by typing.

Also encouraging conversation right at the beginning, before the presentation even starts. Get people’s fingers moving. When they’ve answered once, they’re more willing to answer again, is what it really seems like. 

Any encouragement that you can have from your speaker, from your staff, from whoever is going to help lead the chat, definitely helps people continue to share and talk, making sure people feel welcome to be in there and that their ideas are valuable. 

We can all always learn from each other. I learn something new in every webinar session that we do, and sometimes it’s not from the speaker. It’s from somebody in the chat just sharing something or a new tool. So making it welcoming, whatever that means to your audience. 

Unfortunately, there’s no one straight answer that I can say. But definitely welcoming people to share and chat throughout the sessions, and even before it starts is something that really helps, at least for our audience.

Thoughts on Virtual Session Moderation

Don’t leave it up to your speaker to run the chat, have somebody on your staff do that. We typically want people from the education team, because they usually know the most about the sessions, because we’re talking about it weekly, or sometimes daily. They know a lot about the speaker and the sessions, and they have good tips to add. 

A lot of times we rely on our marketing and community teams, because marketing is seeing these things being pushed out there, they get the session titles, descriptions, bios, and all the things. So they usually have some good information to be a chat moderator. And then your communities teams or your membership teams, they’re used to talking to people. They can read the description and you can tell them a little bit about the speaker or what the topic is. They’re just good at talking. I mean, that’s their job to talk to people and engage with people. 

These are definitely the teams that we jumped to first to be a chat moderator and they’re so important to keep that chat going. Sometimes we do have people that are moderating the session also. They’re asking the speaker questions at the end, they’re introducing the session, conversing with the speaker, encouraging others to participate via chat, Q&A, poll, etc. Sometimes you can use that person as a chat moderator too, but then that might fall off as Q&A goes. 

Always have a document to outline what is going to happen and reminders, from a welcome message to anything related to the sessions, or any links that you want to drop, etc. Being able to strategically put things in the chat, whether it’s about the session, or it’s about your event overall, is super helpful. And it’s more possible if you have someone dedicated to doing that for each session.

Hybrid Events Planning & Production

You need a tech company that is able to handle the streaming. Previously, a lot of it has been a one-way transmission. It’s been from on-site to people’s computers, through a platform. Whereas now, if you’re planning a truly hybrid meeting, you’re gonna have presenters that are at home streaming and who may not be able to come in and sit on stage or stand on stage with you, and present. 

So you definitely have to have a tech company that’s able to take a stream either way, and successfully use that stream to get it on stage. Have a big enough screen or projection that people can see your speaker. You don’t want a computer up in the front and only the first 10 people can see it. 

You also have to consider when you have a speaker on a stage, if they have slides or a video added to their presentation or something visual, you can just put that on the screen behind them. However, if you’re in a situation where the person’s at home, you have to think about how you’re going to display the slides and the person. A lot of little things to think about. 

It’s important to have that tech team. You don’t have to pay for that person to come on site with you and stay in the hotel and all that. They can stay home and handle that room and it’s all remote. And then, the people on site will handle the people on site. We just make sure that you’re streaming and everyone can see everything, which also means: testing. I mean, we spend a whole day up to a whole day on testing, usually, everything knock on wood goes pretty well, and we don’t have to spend the entire day. 

Test those streams back and forth, in any room that you’re going to do it with the equipment you’re going to use in that room. Make sure that you’re testing, whether it’s the day before or the morning of the event. We always test both times. 

We have had a situation where it stopped streaming because the internet went down. There’s nothing we could do about it. But we knew we had tested that morning and it worked, so we felt confident in saying it was an internet blip and there was nothing we could do. 

Definitely having the right people obviously is very important and making sure they know what they’re talking about. Talk through all the details that you might think. It’s for the tech companies and for those specialists to know and make sure that you’re on track and everyone feels comfortable. Have all those conversations ahead of time. Once you get there: test, test, test, test again, just be confident that every room’s gonna work, every piece of equipment that you’re using works, do it ahead of time, do it the day of, do it in between sessions if you want. 

We have been lucky enough to have worked with the same people for the past couple of years. We’ve had the same teams coming on and so that they kind of know our program, they know what we’re doing. They do help us plan some stuff.

But it’s mainly us planning the flow of the day and then asking the questions of is this going to work?How much time do you need to switch over the feeds? How much time do we need to incorporate pre-recorded material, and knowing that you can’t just switch from one session to the next with no warning – because the tech doesn’t work like that. So definitely those aspects, they help us plan. 

For this event they were on-site with us to make sure that everybody was clear, where we wanted to put our studio, or any places that we were going to broadcast from, and where the stage should go in terms of noise. So for things like that and a little bit more of the logistics I think it’s important to definitely include your tech companies, your AV companies. 

The scheduling is a lot more internal but all the logistics and making sure things work properly is a team effort. Consult with your AV on any networking tools or anything that we’re using. Have IT consulting when you’re on site. How are we going to space people? What are we going to do for testing? Where are we going to hold people while we’re getting the results and things like that. So it definitely starts internally, but it becomes a huge, big multi team effort by the end.

Key learnings from managing hybrid events in 2021:

  • Definitely prepare your speakers and prepare them so much that you think that you’re annoying them. 
  • Although many platforms are the same, especially front-facing, there are different intricacies on the back end of each platform. We had live trainings, recordings, and shortened versions so they could just watch the Quick Hits. 
  • We had a team member in each room with a three-page explainer document to make sure everybody is informed and they communicate with speakers.
  • Communicate with your staff so they feel a little bit more comfortable. 
  • Communicate with attendees and direct them in the right direction. There were just some things that probably could have gotten some more eyes if we had banners going up, or if we had some sort of alert.
  • I think communication is definitely key and knowing how to communicate. You don’t want to drive people nuts, but you want them to feel over-informed, not confused.

About PCMA’s Digital Event Strategist Certification

The Digital Event Strategist Certification program originally started in 2011 and it was with a company called the Virtual Edge Institute. Then PCMA acquired them and first started doing our courses online and holding them under the PCMA umbrella in 2013.

With that, we continue to have experts and topics added. In 2016, we did a revamp by adding some different topics or improving them. And then last year COVID happened and we saw this huge boom of people coming into the Digital Event Strategist course. 

Starting in March 2020 through the summer, we held more classes than we ever did. And so we gathered a lot of good feedback through all of that time and decided we really want to do a revamp again.

We decided to make it a course with an expert hour where there was just purely live Q&A. Now we have six weeks of content that varies from 40 minutes to an hour, which is released on a Friday. And then the following Thursday, the expert from that module comes on for an Ask Me Anything session. We also get questions from our audience to the experts, which it’s made available so people can watch it if they aren’t able to make it live.

All of our experts are really experts across the board and have been doing digital events for a long time. If you’re a little bit ahead or a little bit behind, don’t worry about it. Bring your question and we definitely want to help you answer it.

We have workbooks that you can use to pass a quiz each week, you can download the slides if you want, and then you have to pass your quiz to join that expert hour on Thursdays.

We’ve added a lot more hybrid content and we are continuing to listen to the industry and really improve the course as much as possible, making sure to share that information with previous students also. If you have taken the DES course and you have suggestions, let us know because we want to make sure it’s what people need. Everything’s always changing so we just want to ensure we’re serving the audience.

We also have a Slack community now which is awesome because everyone’s learning from each other. We answer questions in there but it is mostly people sharing ideas and asking questions so they really form a community.

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Win a Scholarship for PCMA’s Digital Event Strategist!

PCMA Scholarship Giveaway with AttendeaseAttendease is giving away one full scholarship to PCMA’s Digital Event Strategist. The winner will be picked on June 15th 2021. Click here to enter for a chance to win and learn more about this initiative.

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