Lessons on Running Virtual Events From Nonprofit News Organizations Building Online Community and New Revenues

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When COVID-19 began sweeping across the United States, the editors at Scalawag, a nonprofit magazine serving marginalized communities in the American South, knew they needed to convene a forum to help answer readers’ anxious, practical questions.

The magazine launched a socially distant series of virtual gatherings called “Solidarity Over Distance,” inviting labor organizers and legal experts to share advice during free Zoom sessions on workers’ rights and housing security. Then, a few weeks later, figuring people needed a catharsis, Scalawag hosted its first-ever “virtual jubilee,” featuring poetry readings followed by a members-only dance party.

Attracting new members originally was an afterthought when planning the virtual series, said Alysia Harris, Scalawag’s engagement manager. But the trio of events, which cost less than $1,200 to produce, spurred about 30 people to sign up for paid memberships, which start at $5 per month. “They become members because they have an experience,” Harris said. “They feel they’ve been seen or heard.”

As coronavirus continues to curtail in-person events and the face-to-face “experience economy,” nonprofit and independent news outlets around the country are turning to online gatherings not only to engage the public in civic dialogue, but also to spark financial support.

Nonprofit media organizations have aggressively experimented with events over the past decade as the sector has grown rapidly to fill a void in civic information left by the shuttering of local news outlets. With the pandemic forcing civil society groups of all types to take fundraisers online—from walks to telethons to concerts—news outlets’ efforts with virtual, discussion-based events can provide additional ideas for any organization seeking to foster community and maintain financial viability.

I’ve kept a close eye on news outlets’ event strategies while conducting research on how audience engagement is changing journalism in the digital age. During the early stages of fieldwork for a book project, I was struck by how every newsroom I visited was embracing in-person events as a vital tool to build loyalty and spur financial support.  

Virtual events, it turns out, can serve the same purpose. Even if free to attend, virtual interviews, panels, and forums can draw new members, encourage donations, and generate revenue through sponsorships. If your organization is looking to give virtual events a try, here are some tips to keep in mind:

  • Prepare thoughtfully. By now, many of us have gotten the hang of virtual conferencing platforms such as Zoom, Facebook Live, Cisco Webex, and Crowdcast. Still, producers and participants need to think through several key factors in advance, including camera setup, lighting, sound, and, of course, the content and format of the event. During a four-part webinar series earlier this year hosted by RevLab, a new research and training center based at The Texas Tribune in Austin, Tribune staffers shared internal tip sheets they provide in advance to event moderators and guests, as well as a template for an overall run-of-show document. (RevLab, funded primarily by the Facebook Journalism Project, is a $4 million, three-year initiative created to identify financial sustainability strategies for the local news industry.)
  • Keep it short. With attention spans dwindling and Zoom fatigue looming, limit virtual sessions to between 30 to 60 minutes, including time for audience interaction. “A panel of people yapping for 60 minutes might not be that great,” said Rodney Gibbs, executive director of RevLab, which ran a free, eight-week online events boot camp for 14 news publishers.
  • Don’t overlook security. Zoom meetings are collaborative by default, which means they can be hijacked if an unprotected link gets into the wrong hands. EdNC, an independent education news site in North Carolina, found this out when it was “zoom bombed” during a virtual event with educators, students, and parents. After meeting with consultants, the newsroom tightened its Zoom security settings, switched to a webinar format instead of meetings, and assigned security roles for future events.
  • Think beyond the one-off. A multi-part series can drive more momentum than a one-time event, as Scalawag discovered with “Solidarity Over Distance.” And a sequence of virtual events may have more appeal to sponsors. The Texas Tribune, which draws roughly one-fifth of its annual revenue from events, has found that many sponsors prefer the continuing brand appeal of a multi-part event series. (Disclosure: I spent a year studying The Tribune’s business model as part of a Knight Foundation fellowship.)
  • Be flexible, with an eye toward the future. Instead of simply sending potential sponsors a standard rate card, offer them flexible options now to build a deeper relationship in the future. An Institute for Nonprofit News case study on The San Antonio Report found that virtual events can be part of a nonprofit’s “long game” approach when courting sponsors during the pandemic. Emily Roseman, the study’s author, wrote: “Ask them: How have their marketing budgets been affected? How have their objectives changed? Try to understand how you can continue to help them reach their intended audiences with a virtual event with a range of sponsorship or advertising options, such as a shoutout at the beginning of your event, logo recognition, or a visual on screen.”
  • Circulate your event after the live session ends. The real-time event is the main show, but you can extend the impact by circulating video replays, transcripts, and other recaps after the event. Jessica Weaver, The Texas Tribune’s events director, said many of The Tribune’s event video replays get roughly the same number of views within 24 hours as the original live event—and that continued exposure is another selling point for sponsors. “The live piece of it is just the beginning,” Weaver said. “It’s not the only piece of the event for us.”
  • Try converting attendees into members or donors. Virtual events can broaden your reach and, perhaps, create a pipeline for future support. Richland Source, an online community news outlet in north-central Ohio, hosted a series of 15 virtual lunchtime “coronavirus conversations” in late March, drawing more than 500 Zoom participants and 45,000 views on Facebook Live. While Richland Source is a for-profit company, it operates a membership program similar to public and nonprofit news media. By the end of the series, the news outlet had signed up six new paid members and collected more than 400 new email addresses. “Those are warm leads to talk about becoming a member and supporting our journalism,” Richland Source publisher Jay Allred noted during another RevLab webinar.
  • Look for silver linings. Since attendance isn’t limited to those who show up in person, you can reach a wider audience and better track participation. And high-profile speakers who may not have traveled to deliver a keynote during normal times might be game for a virtual appearance. The 19th, a newly launched nonprofit news site that reports on gender and politics, originally hoped to draw a crowd of 500 to 1,000 people to a Philadelphia museum for its in-person inaugural event, CEO Emily Ramshaw said. Instead, nearly 180,000 viewers tuned in across various platforms last month for a week-long virtual summit that included performances by The Go-Go’s and the New York Philharmonic, a dramatic reading by actors Meryl Streep and Zoe Saldaña, the first interview with Kamala Harris since becoming the Democratic nominee for vice president, and a closing conversation with Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex.

There are plenty of drawbacks to virtual events, of course. Networking is a hallmark of any in-person event, and while many virtual platforms offer breakout rooms for personal interaction, they can be awkward and cumbersome, especially for new guests. Video meetings can be mentally draining and are becoming less novel each day the pandemic progresses. And virtual events inherently pose a challenge to organizations that serve communities with low access to technology.

Still, while online events are unlikely to ever fully replace the pandemic’s jolt to earned revenue for civil society organizations, nonprofit newsrooms are discovering that a creative and deliberate approach can deliver value — both for the broader mission and the balance sheet. Virtual events aren’t saddled with the usual overhead costs, like renting a physical venue or catering a meal. That lowers the financial risk, even if they don’t draw huge sponsorships or lead to a major bump in memberships or donations.

“You can fail really small,” Scalawag’s Harris said. In June, the magazine hosted a virtual film screening and Q&A for a suggested donation of $5. The screening, which drew more than 100 attendees, cost less than $300 to produce and generated roughly $1,100 in donations. On a larger scale, Texas Tribune executives reported that this summer’s virtual gala fundraiser lowered costs by nearly 75 percent compared to last year, which effectively quadrupled the event’s margin. The fundraiser also served as a trial run for The Tribune’s annual ideas festival, featuring a virtual lineup of more than 250 speakers.

Even assuming face-to-face events eventually return to pre-coronavirus levels, nonprofit leaders say virtual events are proving their value and will remain as an enduring part of the mix for engagement and revenue strategies. “Virtual events are here to stay in some fashion,” Gibbs said. “Even if the virus is cured next week.”