As the first wave of Covid-19 lockdowns swept the globe, Toby Daniels and his team at Social Media Week had to very rapidly transform two large face-to-face conferences to something that would suit a world in which large gatherings were prohibited and home working became a universal norm. And so SMWONE was born – one of the first ever large-scale conferences globally to pivot from an in-person format to all-virtual.

MPG, as Social Media Week’s marketing partners, were given the challenge of coming up with and executing a new marketing strategy – fast.

In April, two weeks before the virtual doors were due to swing open on SMWONE, Toby and MPG’s Helen Coetzee, Kirsty Joynson and Alicia Drew joined forces to deliver a ‘pivot to virtual’ webinar series to share with MPG’s community the SMWONE event product and marketing strategies, and the lessons learned to that point.

7 months on, Toby has kindly agreed to share more insights on how SMWONE performed, the full set of lessons learned, and most excitingly – what Toby and team have been working on since.

Here is our Q&A piece – we hope you find it valuable!


Why did you decide to pivot to virtual so rapidly, instead of waiting to see if in-person events could be postponed?

There were a number of reasons, informed in part by the Governor of New York’s executive order, which forced our hand in having to cancel one of our two US based in-person conferences. We also believed that the second half of the year, regardless of whether we could host something in-person or not, was going to be saturated with competitor events postponed to later in the year.

We were faced with cancelling two huge events and knowing that if we were going to pivot to virtual, we needed to do it fast and early to get out in front of the competition.

We also felt a great obligation towards our attendees and partners to launch a virtual event and bring our New York and Los Angeles Social Media Week communities together for one virtual experience that would create a sense of unity and togetherness, at a time when we were all feeling isolated and apart.

What went well with the hard pivot to virtual?

From the point where we made the decision to pivot, to launching SMWONE was around 4 weeks, and about 7-8 weeks prior to actually kicking off the event. Despite how challenging a period that was for everyone – the adjustment to working remotely and with everything going on around us – I was very proud that Social Media Week team, together with MPG, was able to move so quickly and execute at a pace and level of quality that really stood out to so many people. In addition to speed, I was especially pleased with the quality of the program and how we were able to refactor almost every single session to cater to what was happening in the moment.

In total we hosted over 170 hours of live programming over four weeks, featuring some of the most senior, inspirational, and leading minds in our industry. The virtual format and nature of events like these also afforded us the ability to reach more people, and by the end of the event we had over 10,000 people register and participate in the event.

Scaling virtual events while driving audience engagement is not necessarily new to us, but it represents a different set of challenges from a marketing standpoint, and we would not have been able to achieve these numbers and reach so many people if it wasn’t for MPG’s ability to help put in place the operational and executional pieces that really drove much of our marketing efforts.

What would you do differently if you were to run another large virtual Social Media Week event?

Creating meaningful opportunities for people to connect and engage around live events is always a huge priority for us. We believe that content provides the context that in turn drives conversation and connection. In addition to having a thirst for new knowledge, our audiences are also inherently social people and seek opportunities to meet and develop relationships with their industry peers.

We have found this to be much more challenging in virtual environments. This was certainly the case during SMWONE. While this proved to be hugely difficult for us, we have invested considerably to figure out how to create a better and more engaging experience for our attendees and look forward to rolling out some new initiatives in 2021.

Do you see Social Media Week running virtual events in 2021 and beyond?

Since SMWONE in May we’ve hosted a number of virtual events, from private executive roundtable events to a large-scale event series we’re hosting with Facebook, called The Business of Empathy, as well as a huge client appreciation party we’re hosting later this month. During this period, we have quickly developed a capability in executing virtual events at almost any scale. When we think about the next 12-18 months we are fully committed to continuing to develop this capacity and to serve our industry in as many different ways as possible. We believe that virtual will be the primary means by which we do that, at least through the end of 2021 and perhaps beyond.

If we have learned anything this year it is that virtual events bring with them a ton of new and exciting ways in which to convene and engage audiences, and that they will continue to be an important part of our programs and offerings in the future.

In August, you launched a new subscription service. What is SMW+ and who is it for?

SMW+ is a streaming platform that provides marketers with opportunities to connect to and learn from some of the smartest and most accomplished leaders within our industry, through live and on-demand programming. The content is designed to educate and inspire and help marketers level-up in their careers.

Think of it as the ‘Netflix for Marketers’, or the ‘Peloton for Professionals’, with an incredible library of shows, content series and educational programs which members can consume live or in their own time through the on-demand experience.

Why did you decide to create SMW+?

SMWONE taught us that people consume content and participate in virtual events in a range of different ways. Some tune in live, some have it on in the background and some are binge watchers and prefer to watch/attend in their own time.

I felt that virtual events didn’t really cater to all of these different user behaviours, and that there was a whitespace opportunity to build something that had the look and feel of a premium streaming service but that catered to the needs of marketers who are looking to advance themselves and their careers.

We also felt confident that we had the team in place to do this. MPG’s contribution here again was very important – with the martech and data work they have done an essential part of the mix, along with the contribution they’re making to all other aspects of marketing SMW+.

What’s gone well with SMW+ that made you really feel the investment was worth it?

Too soon to tell, but we’re excited to now be rolling out a new version of the platform, together with a range of subscription options for users who are looking to invest in their professional education and learn from the smartest minds in our industry.

One thing we’ve learned – which we’re incredibly excited about – is that our presenters are loving the opportunity to create episodic content series rather than giving one-off talks or participating in one-off panel discussion. Our audiences in turn love this approach also as they can tune in each week, really get to know a particular host or presenter and also go deep into a particular show’s topic through the on-demand experience.

What are the biggest challenges you face with SMW+?

Building audiences and capturing people’s attention, especially today, is a huge challenge.

Professionals are completely overwhelmed at this point, experiencing Zoom fatigue and are probably waning in their enthusiasm for virtual events. This is our biggest challenge. How do you cut through the noise and reach, engage and truly enrich people with these challenges in mind? Our general approach has been to make the content feel unique, to invest in the production quality and overall experience and to provide people with something truly unique and valuable.

We obsess over how to best serve our stakeholders and I believe SMW+ stands out as something that all marketers should experience and enjoy.

What can we expect from Social Media Week next?

We’re about to launch our 2021 program of events, all of which will be virtual, together with some new updates and announcements on SMW+.

We are also about to announce the global theme for 2021, which I am feeling very passionate about as the topic feels urgent, important and incredibly timely. More on this and our 2021 program very soon!


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Social Media Week case study: lessons from virtual events, launching the ‘Netflix for Marketers’ and what’s coming next…

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10 NOVEMBER 2020
08:30 GMT
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