Virtual event success with Liz Cohen

Episode aired Nov. 4, 2020: Virtual Event Success

Liz Cohen knows all about planning, coordinating and managing successful virtual events. Just because it exists doesn’t mean people will attend. In this episode Liz discusses

  • the advantages a virtual event has over an in-person event
  • the need to use video before, during and after the event
  • the importance of having the right people in the virtual room
  • why having tangible benefits for attendees is crucial 
  • tidbits and teasers leading up to the event and
  • how to crystallize your brand story by simply talking to people.

Below you can listen, watch or read this podcast episode.

Ephraim: Welcome to this edition of the Your Weekly Dose of Nonprofit Podcast, the podcast that delivers actionable items you can implement at your organization right away. I’m your host Ephraim Gopin of 1832 Communications. Today I’m really happy to have with us a marketing, digital and communication specialist, Liz Cohen. Liz, how you doing today?

Liz: I’m good. Zoom school is out, so I am free for the rest of the day to hang out with you.

Ephraim: Let’s introduce you to our listeners, watchers and readers.

Liz Cohen has built her career on the belief that words matter. From activism to journalism to marketing, Liz has been involved in the Israeli startup scene for 15 years, working on branding, messaging and comms and community growth. In 2005 Liz joined, a top 100 award-winning website and platform, later running its global marketing efforts and working closely with its volunteer editor community. Liz has worked with dozens of startups and companies, both in Israel and abroad, consulting brands at the very early pre-funding stage, as well as established revenue generating companies. 

Most recently Liz spent six years heading to marketing at OurCrowd, a leading global VC and startup investing platform based in Jerusalem. She currently sits on the board of 50/50 Startups, a nonprofit startup accelerator joining Israeli and Palestinian entrepreneurs to build social impact companies. Prior to her marketing career, Liz trained in journalism in New York City. She has an MA in Conflict Management and Negotiation, with a strong interest in the field of mediation and dialogue.

Virtual vs. In-Person Events

In today’s episode we’re going to discuss virtual events and marketing. Let’s dive right in. Liz, you’ve managed numerous extremely large and complex events. What advantages do virtual events have over in-person events?

Liz: It’s a great question and I’ll say that there’s an obvious advantage which is the logistical aspect. So they cost less if you’re doing it online. That’s not to say there are no costs, depending on the scope of what you’re trying to do, but they do cost less. And the other part that I particularly enjoy is the issue of getting people to register, because there’s more of an open-mindedness around there’s no location to get to, there’s no logistics to figure out, how do you get there kind of thing. It’s really is the time right and can I make it and is it interesting to me. So that’s a very simple piece of it.

But an even kind of deeper and better way to look at it is, with a virtual event you have more possibilities to capture data around the experience. So if you’re going to do repeat events, you definitely want this kind of data and even in the follow-up to the event, you’re going to want this data. What I mean is if there are breakout sessions, you can track who went to which sessions, who left it and went to a different one, how long somebody tuned in for, if they’re commenting, reactions, ratings, you can do interactive polling in real time throughout the event. So there’s a lot of ways to actually capture experience so that when you’re actually doing event follow-up, you have a better way to kind of target the follow-up, get really specific with certain people about what your call to action is and what’s appropriate for them. For me that’s the fun part. 

Pre-Virtual Event Planning

Ephraim: Fantastic. Let’s look at today’s actionable item. I know this is a very very long list. Could you please tell us three to five  things an organization must fully plan out and prepare before they can start  discussing the invites to their virtual event? 

Liz: Yeah, this is extremely important and it’s something I do see a lot with other virtual events. It’s really critical to get your messaging very straight, that you know exactly what you’re doing and why. Like the theme of your event is clear and you are portraying that clearly. You have to actually agree internally what your goal is for putting on the event. if it’s fundraising or if it’s just making money or if it’s thought leadership or whatever it is. That’s something you guys need to know internally.

Then externally, your registrants or your potential registrants need to know what they’re going to walk away with. Make sure that’s clear, the benefit to them for attending should be absolutely crystal clear more than anything else. I would say in your invitation, on your landing page etc. and then also this is more of an internal question: Who your audience is. Make sure you’re being really clear because I think there’s a pitfall that people think: well, it’s a virtual event, it’s cheap to put on, anyone can come, it can be open to the public. But actually that’s just noise for you and it’s noise for everyone else, especially if you’re having an interactive networking component, you want to really target who you want there and make it clear that this event is being put on for that audience, so that people feel that they’re supposed to be there.

Pre-Event Marketing

Ephraim: Perfect. Pregame marketing, marketing done prior to the virtual event to encourage people to attend and participate. What does that involve?

Liz: For sure I would say that again, knowing who you want there is key, so that you can target well. Don’t waste your time or money on advertising in the wrong places and again, no point in attracting irrelevant eyeballs, just because it’s online and it seems easier to have more people show up. I’m definitely a person who thinks better to have the right people in the room than five times the amounts that are not going to actually do anything for you. That’s one thing.

The other thing I alluded to before is again, be really clear what they’re going to get out of it. There’s a lot of virtual events and webinars and just stuff going on right now. Everyone’s trying to fill the gap of putting on events however they can and the fact is, that there’s a lot of competition. If they understand I’m going to get a, b and c and as tangible as possible, that’s going to be a huge help for getting them to actually show up.

I would say another thing that a lot of people don’t realize when they’re putting on events in general but also virtual events is I think it’s really important to lead up to the event with updates about what they can expect or exciting tidbits and teasers. For example, at OurCrowd, we do this annual global investor summit. We start promoting it six months in advance. There’s a whole campaign to get people to sign up. But it’s not enough for people to sign up, especially with virtual events. You want them to actually show up. You put on this thing for a reason. So if you want people to actually make the commitment to either show through the door or click the link to get in, you have to get them excited. Again, because there’s so much competition. So I put out maybe once a month, leading up to the event, depending on what the length of time and promotion is, here’s the new speakers announced, here’s some teasers about what you’ll see, here’s again what you’re going to get out of it and I would just kind of ping with these little reminders not too often. Again, it really depends on what you’re doing and for how long but get people to actually show up. Because if you’re throwing a party, it’s the same thing. People could say they’re coming but if they think it’s not worth their while, it’s very easy to make an excuse and not show up.

Video Before, During And After An Event

Ephraim: Excellent advice. What role then does video play before, during and after a virtual event?

Liz: Video is critical. It’s an arrow in your quiver, whether you have a big budget or a small budget. There’s so much out there right now when it comes to video. You can become a do-it-yourself video editor. I have taught myself half, got a consultant to teach me a bit and now I can cut my own video.

So I definitely recommend thinking in terms of video especially for online events which are going to be very visual by nature or should be. A lot of people don’t make them visual. So before your event, you want to definitely use video to get people excited and kind of basically taste what they’re going to feel and experience at the event. Even if you use snippets of past events and even if they were in real, in person and you’re doing a virtual event now, it helps to just give people a tangible idea that there’s going to be resources put into this, it’s going to be a high quality event, I’m going to get something out of it. Use old video to kind of get the message across of what you’re doing now. That’s one way. There’s a million ways to promote your event but I would definitely consider short teasers to get people excited about showing up, because I think the visual cue of having a video will really make them feel this is a real event they should be attending.

During the event I would say that again, these virtual events need to be visual. It can’t just be a Zoom panel where you’re looking at people. It has to be more than that. You have to come away with real takeaways that are going to be kind of emblazoned in your brain that. You saw them and you understood them or they were exciting to see. So I would use video to kind of set the stage. If the event… when the event starts, you could play a video to kick it off. In real personal events by the way, we do this too There’s a big theme video that sets the stage for what we’re going to talk about. Even per session we have little videos to kick it off. I would definitely look into creating, even if it’s a short, easy to do montage of something, depending on what you’re in, just to kind of get people pumped about what they’re gonna see, just like how a TV show opens up with something like that.

Then afterwards is kind of when it gets really fun, because you just did an online event which means the whole thing was recorded. It better have been and if you now have at least an hour of content or however long it is- it does not matter- so even if somebody came and watched your whole thing, that’s great and that’s one kind of experience. They tuned in, they tuned out, they paid attention to this, this caught their eye, they definitely missed that. Fine. But now you have the opportunity to take that chunk of video, cut it up and use that wherever and whenever you want. If this speaker made a really great point about X, cut it into a one minute snippet and post it on your social media to a) anybody who missed it can now see it if they tuned out in that minute, b) there’s a different context when you see a one minute snippet versus an entire event. So if you’re kind of sitting and scrolling and you see this one minute point by this speaker, you’re like, ‘oh’ and then you start to think about it a little more and it’s a totally different way of consuming the content. So don’t waste this opportunity to take that video you created, that giant recording and cut it up and use it wherever you want throughout the year.

Developing A Strong Brand Story

Ephraim: Perfect. You are fond of saying there’s always a story to tell and we kind of just touched on that with video. What elements are part of developing a strong brand story?

Liz: I would say that I think some people maybe who are not in marketing get a little intimidated by this but I think because storytelling is actually very human, there are things we can all be thinking about constantly. So one of them is know yourself, who are you, what’s your brand, what’s your mission, what is it and let’s define it so that you can kind of feel out what your voice is, your brand voice and that way you’ll get to a point where you can start sharing it with other people.

Something very tangible that helps is to create a brand bible. This is a Google doc, a Word document, nothing fancy. Just open it up, stick your logo in there, your colors, your tagline, your mission statement, your boilerplate, benefits to your customers or who you’re involved with and just put it all out there in some sort of master document. When you have new hires or volunteers joining you, they can read it. It’s an internal document that keeps you all focused. So that’s for sure something people should be doing. Practice talking about it.

Just talk about it with people, friends, family, people online at the supermarket, just kind of like get that word crystallized, so when you’re telling your story of your organization, your brand, you’ve got it, you know it and you can kind of like evolve it as you see how people react. I think that also talking to people makes you realize you have many audiences and depending on who you’re talking to, you tell your story slightly differently So like at OurCrowd our story changes. It’s still the core story but it changes a little bit if I’m talking to a startup versus an investor versus a corporate. So that’s something else just to keep in mind.

Learn More About Liz

Ephraim: Excellent. I love that term brand bible. Never heard that one before. It’s new. Cool. Let’s move on to the lightning round and learn more about you. Smaller, large company. Which environment do you prefer?

Liz: So I would say that as long as I can be somewhat of an impactful figure, which tends to veer towards small, medium-sized companies. I have not worked at a large corporation ever. I just like to know I’m making a difference and I can actually make a tangible difference. So I’d lean towards on the smaller side probably.

Ephraim: All right. If you could shake up one thing related to the makeup of the current workplace, what would it be?

Liz: Yeah this is a big one. I’ve been thinking about this a lot in the last couple years.

Team building, which is maybe is like a tired phrase or whatever sounds like a cliché but honestly, when you strip away everything else and let’s say you’re some big shot corporate exec and all you care about is the bottom line, I guarantee you, if you have a strong team with good chemistry, everyone on the same page, priorities in order, feel good with each other, feel productive with each other, you’ll get that bottom line. I think that’s a huge tragedy that not enough people heading organizations are really thinking about that and it goes from the most junior to the most senior. I would invest heavily in just making sure your team is rock solid.  

Ephraim: I hope that all our listeners and watchers in the nonprofit sphere heard that, because that’s huge and I totally agree.

Liz: And in the for-profit sphere.

Ephraim: Exactly. Having followed you on Instagram for awhile, I know how creative you are. So for example we’re right now in the middle of what you call “Dinovember.” When no one’s looking, what’s your favorite hobby?

Liz: I would say that I’m a very curious person and I’ve been kind of dipping my toes in things. So for example, recently I’ve been getting really into crafting. I’ve always been into arts and crafts ever since I was a kid but lately I’m looking around my house, I’m finding things that might look like garbage and trying to upcycle them. That’s like something I’m actually really into for various moral reasons, as well as fun reasons. But yeah that’s one thing. I actually… I’m in an ongoing game of Dungeons and Dragons, which is freaking awesome. So anyone who does not understand what Dungeons and Dragons is or missed it completely as they were growing up like I did, I would totally look at that, especially when we go back to the team building point.  It’s a great way to spend time.

Ephraim: Excellent. Twitter, love it or hate it?

Liz: Ah Twitter. So I actually… I think we probably both joined at the same time back in 2007 I think when it started and back then it was so good because I met so many people and I’m pretty sure including you that way, where like I know them in real life and social media did its job and it created community and conversation. It was awesome. Obviously the whole world has changed since then. It’s ages ago. It’s a swamp. The Internet in general is a swamp and I still love what Twitter is supposed to be and we still do have that to some degree. But obviously it’s become this giant monster and so you know it’s not the healthiest habit, that’s for sure.  

Ephraim: Like me you travel to the U.S. in the summer. Favorite place or spot to visit?  

Liz: Yeah, for sure. We’re always kind of going back and forth. We’re always there at the same time. I would say, as cheesy as this sounds, living in a small country with not that great of a highway system, being on a five-lane highway and just driving is awesome, assuming there’s no traffic and I have trees on either side of me. I honestly just love the drives. We spend most of our time in the northeast, so it’s just a lot of going everywhere and the trees are almost at the point where they’re gonna change and that’s something that I miss. That’s something I look forward to when I go to the States.

Ephraim: Fantastic. I love that. Last thing. Let’s turn the table. You get to ask me a question. I have no idea what’s coming. Go ahead.

Liz: Okay. I would love to hear what you find the most inspiring about working in the nonprofit industry, being associated with this because being on the other side, I kind of… I have this romantic idea about being a nonprofit. It’s something that I’m involved in nonprofit but I kind of want to hear from your perspective what is the kind of inspiring romance in it or maybe there isn’t but I’d love to hear what you think about that?

Ephraim: I’ve also… I did time in the high tech world and I worked for three different high tech companies and I came away saying, wow, high-tech companies are exactly like the nonprofit world. Everybody’s disorganized and I worked for high-tech companies that had… one company had tens of millions of users and the  other two were like startup startup startup. I walked away and I go,  yeah it has its pluses, it has its minuses. I don’t know about romance because if you ask anybody who’s actually working at a nonprofit, there’s very little romance in being underappreciated, overworked and underpaid.

Liz: Fair, fair.

Ephraim: Inspiring. You know what? It’s the bottom line and it’s not it’s not the money and I tell everybody, you’re a CEO, it doesn’t matter who you are, I understand there’s a bottom line. It’s the same in the for-profit world, there’s a bottom line. But at the end of the day that’s not your bottom line. Your bottom line is your service recipients and the fact that you are allowed the opportunity to go to people, ask them for money they don’t have to give you- they’re not getting a product back, they’re getting a good feeling back- because they are helping those service recipients and you become that middle person from that donor to… that’s where the inspiration comes from and that’s why people love the nonprofit world. Because they see the end product. You’re dealing with a lot of sadness, you’re dealing with a lot of potentially depressing topics and people who have been through a lot of crap in life and some of them are only kids and they’ve already been through 10 lifetimes worth of crap. The opportunity that you’re given to be able to go in and make a difference in just one person’s life- I’m not talking changing an entire community, which is on its own great- the opportunity to find that one kid, that one homeless person, that one woman who’s been abused and you can make a change, find them a job, get them shelter and food, get that child set up with whatever they need to be successful in life, that’s where it is.

The rest of it is the same crap you have in any work environment. I don’t care where you are. In some places you can be very happy, in some places you can be really not happy. But in the nonprofit world, to me it’s always been that. And then the second thing which doesn’t happen in the nonprofit world often enough but I’m gonna go back to something you said, was the team building. Nonprofits don’t do team building for the most part. It costs money, it’s time, energy, who has it? But I can tell you that within the camaraderie, because you’re all in that same tank as it were and you’re fighting for the same thing and you’re laser focused on the same mission, there’s that sense of… and those  friendships that you make, those are genuine and they stay for a very… they potentially can stay for a very long time. So that to me is the other half of what I guess we would call inspiring.

Liz: Okay, nice!

Ephraim: But like I said, the rest of it, oh man. No, that’s a totally different podcast and I need to go on my ranty podcast in order to get that out of my system. But that’s what inspires me, let’s put it that way.

Thank you very very much for appearing on the podcast today.

Liz: You’re welcome.

Ephraim: I urge all of you to connect with Liz on LinkedIn at Liz Cohen. She’s one of the more talented, creative, innovative, smart marketing and communications professionals that I know. Definitely connect with her and learn more from her. Liz, have a wonderful day.

Liz: You too, thanks.