5 Ways to Improve Your Virtual Events and Engage Your Online Community

5 Ways to Improve Your Virtual Events and Engage Your Online Community

Julia Claire Campbell Events, Marketing, Nonprofits Leave a Comment

This post is a guest blog by Ryan Ozimek of PICnet

Have you signed up for my new online master class for nonprofits? Sign up here: How to Stand Out In the Inbox – Nonprofit Email Strategies That Actually Work! How to get your emails delivered, opened, and read -and how to build a community anxious to hear from you!  

When the COVID-19 pandemic paused all in-person events in 2020, many people thought it would only be a temporary hiatus.

However, in thinking outside the box and experimenting with virtual events, many nonprofits discovered just how beneficial they really are! 

Perhaps your nonprofit was one of these pioneer organizations that tested new virtual event ideas! The first few months may have felt like venturing into a new frontier with very few guidelines or industry best practices. 

Just 12 months later, we’re in a very different place. Most of us have grown accustomed to logging into Zoom or other virtual platforms for a wide range of event formats.

Our supporters and donors are comfortable “attending” events from the comfort of their homes. Many of us have found our way planning and hosting these virtual gatherings. 

While most organizations are probably eager to return to “normal,” we’d like to propose that you consider keeping some of the most successful virtual fundraisers in your calendar, even after it’s safe to host in-person gatherings. 

We truly believe that excellent virtual events can and should be part of your annual fundraising strategy going forward.

To help you feel more confident and get the most out of your efforts, we’ve rounded up some tips and tricks from industry experts to help you improve your virtual events and better engage your online community.

3 Benefits of Incorporating Virtual Events Into Your Fundraising Strategy

It’s probably not surprising that the number of nonprofits that hosted virtual fundraising events doubled in 2020 when the Coronavirus pandemic began.

Some hosted webinars, educational events, and live-streamed charity concerts. Other nonprofits turned to Q&A sessions, virtual cooking classes, and a host of other creative ways to engage their online communities. 

There are many advantages to virtual fundraising, especially now that most people are comfortable with the format.

Lest you’re tempted to abandon the virtual fundraising strategies you’ve built, here are just a few key benefits of virtual events that should prompt you to keep at least a few in your regular fundraising strategy. 

Virtual fundraisers are usually time and cost-effective

Even after you factor in the cost of platform fees and any subscriptions or software you might need to invest in, virtual events are usually much cheaper than in-person fundraisers.

Reducing overhead costs increases your fundraising potential! 

Virtual events also tend to save you and your hard-working team time.

From the planning and preparation process to the post-event debrief, most of it can happen from the comfort of your own homes or your offices. 

Even when you factor in any dry-runs or walk-throughs that a virtual fundraiser requires, they usually take less time to plan and execute than a similar in-person event.

Virtual events expand your network reach

With in-person fundraisers, your reach is limited to how far people are willing to travel to attend your fundraiser.

The beauty of virtual fundraising events is that anyone can join the festivities from anywhere in the world! This empowers you to dramatically expand your potential donor base with just a few clicks of a button! 

Even after we return to more in-person events, you’ll be able to continue building your national or international reach by adding several virtual fundraising events to your calendar.

Many of your local donors who prefer the comfort of their living room may appreciate this as well.

Think about parents who have a hard time getting a sitter, elderly donors who find getting out and about more difficult, and other people on your donor list who would appreciate the opportunity to stay connected virtually.

It’s easy to measure the results of virtual fundraising events

Sure, it’s easy to count the number of tickets sold or how many people showed up at your in-person events.

And, it’s generally easy to add up all the money you raised on the day. But it can be difficult to gather other bits of data at live events compared to virtual gatherings. 

Technology allows you to gather vast amounts of data from virtual fundraising events. You can keep track of who clicked on various links, the number of impressions, likes, comments, and much more.

All this data paints a picture over time that indicates what kinds of events your donors get excited about, how engaged they are throughout different events, and more.

This kind of data can help your overall fundraising efforts (both online and in-person) when used correctly. 

5 Ways to Improve Your Virtual Events and Engage Your Online Community

Now that you’re (hopefully) thoroughly convinced of the benefits of keeping virtual events in your annual fundraising plan, we’ve gathered some top tips and tricks from industry experts to help you improve your virtual events and better engage your online community. 

1. Set specific goals and identify your target audience

Treat virtual fundraising events just like all your other fundraisers. Outline what you hope to accomplish with your virtual event.

These goals shouldn’t be limited to fundraising objectives. How would you like to improve your relationship with current donors? How many potential donors would you like to engage? 

Regardless of your goals, it’s helpful to create specific and measurable goals for each fundraising event, so you and your team know exactly what you’re working toward. 

Once you’ve set your goals, that will greatly influence your target audience.

For example, if your goal is to raise $1,000 from new donors, current donors aren’t your primary audience.

On the other hand, if your main goal is to educate people about an upcoming initiative, current AND potential donors are your ideal audience. You get the idea. 

Identifying your target (or ideal) audience will help you choose the best advertising and communication strategies to reach that audience. You can segment your email list to reach people within that audience and write advertising content specifically to them. 

2. People still want good content

People don’t want to attend events of any kind where the content is uninteresting, uninspiring, or irrelevant. You can’t rely on flashy technology or diversion tactics to cover up for boring content–especially during virtual events. 

Make sure you know your audience and provide high-quality content that they will value. 

The great news is high-quality and engaging does not always equal flashy!

We’ve all been swept away by speakers who entertained and amazed with just one or two simple slides (or less). And we’ve been bored to death by a presenter who uses the latest and greatest in flashy entertainment. The key is to offer quality content that matters to your audience. 

3. Create feedback loops during your virtual events

Even though your audience isn’t in the same physical space, your virtual fundraising events still need to be more interactive, so your attendees participate in an event rather than just watch something on a screen. 

Successful virtual events create a variety of ways for viewers to engage and influence the event itself.

Whether it’s creating space for comments or questions, emojis, virtual clapping apps, hosting chat rooms or bravely allowing some of your viewers to unmute and actually participate, there are many ways to replicate feedback loops in virtual settings

After all, if you’re attending a real-life event, the audience constantly gives feedback to the speaker. Body language, clapping, and even booing are all part of that feedback loop. It’s essential to replicate this in some form for your virtual events.

4. Breakout groups are a game-changer

Encouraging discussion and engagement within smaller groups can be a game-changer for virtual events.

Offering smaller breakout groups helps attendees feel less timid about unmuting and sharing their opinions or asking questions. In some situations, they can also offer valuable insights into what your supporters are interested in or how they are thinking about certain topics!

Some people really learn better when they can talk about a topic.

Others prefer to listen and absorb information. Adding small groups or breakout sessions into your online event also creates different learning opportunities for your attendees. It also adds a bit of variety to the schedule to keep people engaged. 

5. Follow the KISS principle

It’s true; most of us are feeling more comfortable with online events and Zoom fundraisers.

However, that doesn’t mean everyone is keen to spend hours at a time in front of a computer screen–especially after they likely spent at least part of their workday doing just that. So, it’s more important than ever to follow the KISS principle. 

Kiss stands for Keep It Short and Sweet.

Slash any fluff or filler content. Encourage speakers or presenters to get straight to the point. In a virtual format, condensing things down to short, high-quality content usually has a far greater impact. 

Have you signed up for my new online master class for nonprofits? Sign up here: How to Stand Out In the Inbox – Nonprofit Email Strategies That Actually Work! How to get your emails delivered, opened, and read -and how to build a community anxious to hear from you!  

An Online Community Can Take Your Virtual Fundraising To the Next Level

Even if you follow all the suggestions outlined above–and more, we all know it can be difficult to keep audiences engaged throughout virtual events.

One effective strategy to grab and maintain your attendee’s attention during and after your next virtual event is to create an online community. 

People are looking for ways to learn, connect, and feel like they belong to a community with a common cause. An online “event community” can do just that!

Instead of thinking of your next virtual fundraiser as just the presentation or event itself, put in the effort to create a network of resources, opportunities, and experiences tied to the virtual fundraiser.

Networking opportunities, Q&A sessions with relevant people, a resource library, discussion groups, breakout sessions, and any other opportunity you can think of to engage your attendees before, during, and after your fundraiser

Not only does creating an event community add value to your virtual events, but it can also offer opportunities for your supporters to connect with each other around your cause! That’s powerful for your nonprofit!

Here are four easy ways you can build a virtual event community for your next fundraising event. 

Create a resource library

Upload resources and materials to your online community before and during your virtual event.

Afterward, add recordings of speakers and other resources from the event itself that people may want to revisit. Invite speakers to share any resources or tools that will help attendees continue to learn after the event. 

Break the ice

Icebreakers… people love them or hate them. They have the potential to be even more awkward in a virtual setting.

The truth is, they are actually effective at getting people engaged and encourage greater audience participation. 

So, consider tossing in a very short virtual icebreaker somewhere in your virtual fundraiser, especially if you’re gathering people who aren’t well connected with each other. 

Offer Q&A or “Ask Me Anything” opportunities with people of interest

Whether in a Zoom or virtual meeting context or on a comment thread online, offer a time where your staff or key presenters are in the “hot-seat” to answer questions from the audience.

Many people will jump at this opportunity to get their questions answered. 

Use live polling

Sprinkle live polls and other engaging activities throughout your virtual event to keep the audience active.

This may also be a great data-collecting opportunity to help you learn more valuable information about your supporters! Live polls can also help presenters better connect with the audience that isn’t in the same room (which can be tough). 

The bottom line is that 2020 proved just how efficient and effective virtual events really can be for nonprofits everywhere.

Even after the pandemic fades away (hopefully very soon), we encourage you to consider keeping at least a few virtual events in your fundraising strategy and really making them great experiences and opportunities to connect with current donors, attract potential donors, educate your audience, and raise money for your cause.

About the Author: Ryan Ozimek is the CEO and co-founder of PICnet, whose flagship product Soapbox Engage, makes online fundraising and engagement more effective and affordable, enabling organizations to raise more money and change the world. Ryan lives in Washington DC, and is a graduate of UCLA’s graduate school of public policy. He’s also a fan of burritos, and is always looking for global taqueria tips.

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