In February of 2020, the team at Grid Forward started to execute its well-defined yearly plan anchored by a number of in-person events.

A month later, we threw that plan in the waste bin and started over.

Like so many other organizations, Grid Forward went through the painful and uncertain process of figuring out how to engage its members and community virtually. Supported by Publitek, the team felt its way forward, launching a series of small-group roundtables, two larger town halls, a series of lunchtime discussions, and a tenth-year anniversary celebration during its annual member meeting… all online.

To top it all off, the team hosted a virtual version of its flagship GridFWD 2020 event in October. Instead of two intense days at a conference facility, we hosted more than two dozen events over eight days. Grid Forward and Publitek applied the lessons we learned along the way to making this event as relevant, entertaining and convenient as possible. By the end, over 500 people participated in at least some portion of those sessions.

Over 500 people participated in GridFWD 2020, a roughly 25% increase over the in-person GridFWD 2019

While we all missed in-person connections and camaraderie, the ability to bring people together across vast distances at very little cost opened up new ways to connect. The lessons we’ve learned about virtual events will help us to continue Grid Forward’s momentum in 2021 and frankly for years to come.

1. Your audience is logging in to learn

What we missed most about in-person events was the networking: the value in swapping cards with a speaker, chatting to a new contact for five minutes outside a session room, or sipping wine with an old friend at the end of the day.

The more than 500 people who logged in to GridFWD 2020 were there for something else. In the exit survey, just 19% said they were effectively able to make new connections. Even so, 83% of them said the conference was a good use of their time. Why? Our three session formats (featured sessions, discussions topics, themed social groups) all scored at least 4 out of a top score of 5 for excellence. Our participants were there to learn.

83% of respondents said GridFWD 2020 was a good use of time, vs. 76% in the in-person GridFWD 2019

That’s the first lesson of virtual events, so make sure your content delivers actionable information. Get input from your audience what they want to learn about and deliver it, without a sales pitch. Vet your presenters and plan your sessions for maximum educational value. Don’t worry too much about making connections–that’s what LinkedIn is for.

2. No one likes four straight hours of Zoom

Raise your virtual hand if you like sitting in a virtual meeting for over an hour. Over two hours? No hands. Much has already been written about Zoom fatigue. We’ve all felt it. So why schedule a virtual event that asks people to sit artificially straight and alert for half a day at a shot?

For GridFWD 2020, we scheduled a few sessions each day, spread out over eight days. Attendees could pick and choose the sessions that they wanted, and were always able to take breaks if they wanted. And outside of the opening and closing sessions, no session was more than an hour.

The schedule for week 1 of GridFWD 2020 shows how sessions fell over four days, color-coded according to the type of session, and distributed to allow participants to find sessions that fit their schedules. In our exit survey, 62% of participants said they preferred “spacing out sessions across the longer timeframe.”

3. Remember your audience’s time zones

Another good reason to spread out sessions was to make it easier for attendees from different time zones to find sessions that fell into their workday, whenever that was. Those logging in from the UK could easily join our morning sessions, while our afternoon sessions were better for those in Alaska and Hawaii. This also made it easier to invite the ideal speakers for the topics we wanted to cover, no matter where they resided.

Here is the note of caution. In 2019, when all our GridFWD 2019 attendees gathered in Seattle, 11am was 11am Pacific time for everyone. But with virtual attendees logging in to GridFWD 2020 from across continents and oceans, Pacific time was unclear to many of them. On the one hand, once any participant had signed up for a session, the session leader would send them a calendar invite, and let Google keep all the time zones straight. But on the other hand, we could have done a better job within our event website to list session times in multiple time zones to help our international audience plan their attendance.

4. Be flexible with speakers and sessions

As we noted above, a virtual event gives you significantly more freedom to go after the speakers you really want. After all, they are only making a commitment for an hour (or less), and during this pandemic, they are just as eager to engage in real-time discussions as the rest of us. And get this: If a speaker has a last-minute conflict, finding a substitute who is available at that time is much easier without a travel requirement.

Here’s one thing you probably can’t do at a live event: rerun your most popular sessions. Let’s say, during the first couple of days of your conference, one of your sessions is wildly popular. Why not run it again later in the conference? Your speakers and/or panel will probably be jazzed about the interest, and only need to agree on an hour later in the event. Add the “Encore” session to your website, send out another email to registrants, and make many more people happy.

When the session “Expanding Energy Network Resiliency” quickly filled up in the first week, Grid Forward arranged with the session leaders to rerun it during the second week. After Publitek announced the encore session to the registrant database, it also filled up!

5. Plan a mid-point check-in with the team

During a two- or three-day conference, there is little time for eating and sleeping, much less to bring your team together for a check-in. Spread the event out over a week or more, consuming only a few hours per day, and you now have that luxury.

Schedule a team check-in meeting to see what people are learning about the topics, event platform, and audience needs and feedback. You may be surprised at what you learn about your audience’s base level of knowledge or their interest in the event topics. This check-in may be when you find out about a session that was popular enough for an encore. You can advise session leaders on how to run their sessions for the best outcomes. And at the very least, it helps re-energize the troops during the midst of an exciting and tiring event.

6. Invite friends and friends of friends

Here’s another way to empower your speakers: let them invite friends. Since each session may have its own login credentials (depending on the platform you use) there’s no harm in having a prominent speaker invite in a customer, business partner, or peer who can add to the conversation. This person could even be a “plant” to encourage audience participation since their friend on the podium could call on them to ask or answer a particular question.

In fact, you could structure a panel around this concept of a featured speaker and her guests. We did something like this at GridFWD 2020, in which each of our three case study sessions featured a pair of speakers: one the utility customer/user, the other the technology provider.

Different, but still effective

The eight days of GridFWD 2020 went by quickly, during which we received many positive suggestions and comments from participants. A week later, our exit survey revealed just how much they appreciated it. The broadest measure, our Net Promoter Score, was 38, an excellent score and a big jump up from the respectable score of 8 from the in-person GridFWD 2019 a year before. If asked if they would attend GridFWD 2021 this year, 79% said yes and 19% said probably.

98% of respondents said “yes” or “probably” about attending the next GridFWD

There could be several explanations for this. For example, after six months of webinars, we believe that people’s expectations of virtual events may be somewhat low. Plus, with the steady cadence of high-quality sessions in multiple formats was refreshing, GridFWD was easy for people to fit into their workdays.

This doesn’t mean that Grid Forward’s events are going to be virtual from now on. After a chaotic, scary year of the pandemic and its economic fallout, we all acutely feel the need to meet again in person. Grid Forward and Publitek are currently preparing for multiple online events during the first half of 2021, including a summit, town hall, utility roundtables, socials and annual member meeting. In the fall, perhaps we can meet in-person at GridFWD 2021. But until then, we know how effectively we can bring the community together, and maintain momentum, virtually.