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Virtual events: A focus on audience development and engagement

As we’ve all learned in the last 18 months, there are many benefits to virtual events. From an expanded experience to higher ROIs, nonprofits have found virtual events to be a now permanent addition to their lineup.

And while we’re all onboard the virtual event train, I wanted to share another reason why this format is so great: audience development.

Let’s think back to pre-pandemic times, say two or three years ago. Picture your biggest event. Maybe it’s a gala or a fur ball. Now think about the usual demographic in attendance.

Mostly older major donors and society people, right? While the in-person format is great, and we’re all missing a little face-to-face interaction these days, it only caters to a certain audience.

What makes virtual events so much better is that these audience demographics immediately begin to expand. In fact, at almost every virtual event I’ve worked on in the past 18 months, we’ve found that approximately half of the attendees are donors who never go to in-person events.

Why is that? A few reasons make virtual events an ideal format for many people – especially those coveted younger donors:

  • The lack of geographic barrier
  • Fewer causes for health concerns
  • None of the social awkwardness
  • The convenience of not having to commit the entire evening to an event

However, this doesn’t mean you can just plan it and they will come. The strategic audience development and engagement that goes into an in-person event still has to go into a virtual one. Here’s how you can make that happen.

Start building your audience ahead of time

Just because it’s virtual doesn’t mean the timeline is shorter. The key to successful audience development is starting early.

Begin working on planning your event at least six months in advance and building your audience soon after. Ahead of the event, there are few things you should focus on when it comes to audience development:

  • Set ticket prices
    Invite the usual faces, but also open it up to wider audiences through ticket sales. When it comes to virtual events, people tend to think that cheaper ticket prices are better. More people will come that way, right? In reality, we don’t find this to be true. Ticket prices should be the same regardless of whether it’s in-person or virtual. You’ll see a higher ROI in the long run.

  • Use AI to expand your audience
    AI is an excellent tool for building lookalike audiences based on your typical event donors. A lookalike audience can help expand your reach, getting your event in front of potential attendees who may not have seen your marketing otherwise.

  • Activate your major donor network
    Call on your major gift officers, major donors, board members and volunteers to invite their network to attend. This is also a great opportunity to plan mini watch parties hosted by major donors or board members to reach high-value donors and their networks.

  • Get it on their calendars
    Send calendar invites and printed invitations to make sure that attendees get the event on their calendars.

Invest in the experience

Once you’ve done all the legwork to get your audience lined up, you must have an immersive experience to keep them engaged and make the event feel valuable.

With virtual events, you have to be prepared to spend money on production and things that make the donors feel special. Now that donors are used to virtual events, they expect the same level of production as one might see on the Academy Awards or the Oscars.

In the weeks leading up to the event, send out resources that clearly outline how to access the event on the day of.

On the day of, we typically recommend a run of show that includes a short pre-event experience, the actual event itself and a post-show experience like a concert or keynote speaker.

Most importantly, bring the fun! Consider mailing experience boxes with fun content such as props for social media photos (including the event hashtag), themed cocktail recipes and printed programs. This will bring the event into the donors’ homes and helps them feel connected.

With virtual events, you have an incredible opportunity to reach a huge audience with your mission – so have fun and plan a memorable experience that will leave them coming back for more.

Fiona Cunningham

Born, raised and educated in the UK, Fiona commenced a successful 13-year career in international business with Fortune 100 Corporations, resulting in serving as president of a wholly-owned subsidiary of a major global corporation. With a life-altering event, she adjusted her career aspirations toward the nonprofit sector.

After 18 years leading distinguished partner engagement with local and national nonprofits, including Arthritis Foundation and American Cancer Society, she joined RKD Group. Her expertise spans leadership development, strategic planning, corporate partnerships, major gifts, cause campaigns, distinguished events and volunteer leadership recruitment.

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