Seven things we learned when we moved our public events online

Taking our event programme online when COVID-19 hit was a steep learning curve, but one which brought rich opportunity for exploration and learning.

Juliette Tunstall's picture
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13 April 2021

Juliette Tunstall is IIED’s external events officer

Four people on a video call

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, we moved our 'IIED Debates' programme online (Photo: IIED)

A year last March we were six months into delivering IIED’s ambitious new external public event programme ‘IIED Debates’ when the coronavirus pandemic hit.

We had only one option: move our events online – and quickly. The challenge was daunting, and the learning curve steep. We invested in new online platforms, skilled up quickly, and tested, tested and tested some more. From there it was trial and error – executed from our kitchen tables.

Now, with a year’s experience under our belt, we’re sharing some key lessons from moving our events online, including what it meant for participation and engagement, particularly with our audiences in the global South. Taking a deep dive into our webinar data, this is what we found:

1. Biggest audience ever, widest reach yet

IIED Debates were previously convened in our London and Edinburgh offices where space permitted 60 participants. We knew the shift to online events would enable larger audiences; still, we were staggered at the scale and speed with which attendance increased – 300% on average.

We also saw a huge upswing in geographical diversity: between March and December, participants from 118 countries joined our online events; pre-COVID, our audiences were almost entirely UK-based. Almost overnight people worldwide could now access IIED Debates at the click of a button.

2. Online and more inclusive

Of course, greater reach brings greater responsibility to design accessible and inclusive events. As our confidence with online conferencing platforms grew, we were able to experiment with multi-language events and live captioning. We are now exploring options to offer audio description and sign language interpretation.

We’ve also been examining our choices around the online tools we use and the support we offer to maximise access to our audience, as our data shows 30% of our online participants are based in the global South who often face challenges around connectivity, internet infrastructure (PDF), and the cost of internet and devices.  

3. Why planets don’t need to align for a stellar panel

IIED Debates operates on a small budget so, prior to the pandemic, the series made the most of moments when international speakers were ‘in the right place (London or Edinburgh) at the right time’. But these opportunities were far and few between, and 75% of our speakers were UK-based.

Moving our events online opened the door to international speakers: we have welcomed government officials, civil society and community representatives, researchers, youth activists and more from all over the world. Overall, we saw the representation of non-UK based speakers on our panels double.

4. Short, sharp, and engaging

‘How long should this event be?’ – the question every event organiser grapples with. Luckily our webinar data told us that the average amount of time participants remain in a webinar-style event for is close to 55 minutes. We’ve all experienced Zoom fatigue, and we know it is challenging to stay engaged online, so we aim to keep our events to an hour where we can.

We found interactivity keeps participants engaged and we maximise the use of webinar tools including chat, Q&A, polls or Mentimeter to create a more dynamic experience – but this is an emerging space and there are many options to explore.

5. Security, security, security

Two of our early webinar events were disrupted by a participant sharing offensive content. As an event organiser, it was a nightmare come true! We learned a hard lesson but quickly tightened up our security procedures and have had no disruptions since.

Many online event platforms have security tools (registration, passwords, waiting rooms) and ways to control participants posting comments anonymously. It is important to fully understand these tools and be aware they may compromise how your audience engages – there is a trade-off.

It’s also key that everyone involved – speakers, co-hosts and participants – understands how to prevent a security breach, such as keeping log-in information private, and the plan for dealing with a breach if it happens.

The shift to online events enabled larger audiences as participants could attend from their own home (Photo: Juliette Tunstall/IIED)

6. Building relationships

While there is no denying we miss the networking opportunities that come with in-person IIED Debates, we have found many new ways to build relationships through our online programme with our speakers and partner organisations.

For example, we’ve boosted engagement with youth leaders such as Ineza Grace, founder and CEO of The Green Fighter. Ineza spoke at several online IIED events last year which led to her joining the panel on an IIED Make Change Happen podcast.

7. A hybrid future?

Now we’re looking ahead at the shape of our events programme when in-person opportunities resume. Will there be the same appetite for in-person events? What might a hybrid event – with online and in-person participants and speakers – look like? Will remote participants online have the same opportunities to interact and engage as those in the room? And what technology will support that?

We are thinking about innovative ways to create inclusive and accessible events for everyone and will be exploring these challenges and opportunities in a number of upcoming blogs.

About the author

Juliette Tunstall (juliette.tunstall@iied.org) is IIED’s external events officer

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