It’s 2022, and it’s unanimous: Virtual events are here to stay, and it’s not just because of the risk posed by the omicron varant. A recent global survey by Kaltura revealed that at least 48 percent of organizations plan to host virtual events in 2022. As technology continues to evolve and online events become more engaging, the future looks more hybrid than ever. And according to research by Inc., safety and convenience aren’t the only reasons their popularity has soared. Some attendees actually consider them more educational and conducive to professional development goals. Whereas in-person events give people free range to move about and socialize, making them great for networking, virtual events can offer more structure. For example, Inc. found that many attendees value the Q&A and one-on-one interaction with speakers that happen so smoothly at virtual events.
With virtual and hybrid events holding so much value going into 2022, event creators are feeling the pressure to make them as inclusive as possible. For event profs, one of the key benefits of remote attendance is the potential to reach broader audiences, niche or otherwise. Virtual and hybrid events are also likely to attract attendees outside of one’s usual audience, and thus need to cater to more diverse needs and preferences.
Virtual Events Are Inclusive By Design
As a rule, virtual events lend themselves more to inclusivity than in-person events. Think of all the people who may want to attend an event, but can’t- especially if it requires travel or is even out of the country! Consider parents with family obligations, people with illnesses or disabilities that limit mobility, or even just people whose full-time work responsibilities prohibit the extra time for travel. And let’s be real- we’re still in a pandemic. At this point, many people are too financially strapped to justify the cost of even a few hours’ travel. That said, virtual events create a less expensive, more accessible option for everyone. Not only that, but their global reach potentially connects people from different cultures across the world. Nothing creates inclusivity in the world quite like relating to and sharing experiences with people who live and work in different cultures.
The excellent news: By their very design, virtual events already foster inclusivity. Not only can they reach audiences across the globe, but they are accessible to attendees who might not be able to attend an event in person- especially if it requires travel. However, accessibility alone does not make a virtual or hybrid event inclusive. Cultivating true inclusivity takes research, planning, and innovation. But there’s more good news: Most of the things you can do to make your event more inclusive are both simple and inexpensive. In fact, eight out of ten event creators have already implemented a strategy for diversity and inclusion.
But before we give you some pro tips on how to make your virtual (and hybrid) events more inclusive, let’s take a look at some stats. Just how inclusive are today’s events in general, and how far do we have left to go?
How Diverse Are Today’s Events?
It’s not uncommon to hear complaints that the need for diversity is exaggerated in a world where “everyone has equal rights”. While everyone does have the legal right to pursue the same academic and professional opportunities, deeply ingrained structural issues within society make it easier for some people to reach their goals than others. Many people will counter that with, “I know someone who had all the odds stacked against them, and they still managed to achieve x, y, and z”. While ambition, personal responsibility, and a strong initiative take people far, those things don’t always eliminate societal obstacles that can get in the way of achievement. Just a few of these complicated issues: Poor quality education in some communities leads to less scholarships, and personal bias still impacts hiring across industries despite diversity quotas, many of which are still white male-dominated.
An enlightening study by EventMB analyzed over 150 global events between 2019 and 2020 to assess their diversity. Before we summarize the results, it’s important to make a note: As defined by this study, a “diverse event” meant that its speaker panel had at least one representative from any of three categories. The three categories were as follows: Black, POC more generally, and female. So if a speaker panel had even one representative from one of those categories, the event would be considered diverse.
As a whole, 35 to 40 percent of the events examined did not even have one black speaker. Keep in mind that a panel of 20 speakers with 19 white male speakers and one black speaker- or even one white female speaker- would constitute a “diverse” event! Taking the results into account, the survey presumably set the bar low because diversity would have otherwise barely registered.
In finance, 19 percent of events were considered diverse; the medical field yielded a similarly dismal number, just 19 percent. The tech industry was the most diverse, coming in at 35 percent- still hardly an encouraging number. Lastly, tech showed a 29 percent diversity rate, which may be partially due to recent, increasingly popular initiatives for women in tech. Overall, diversity in the event industry did not appear to be as diverse as many people believe it to be.
So what can be done about it? Virtual events have a lot of potential to enact changes on a community and global level. And doing your part has major benefits for your business as well. If you’re not sure where to start, we’ve got some simple pro tips.
Reach Out Beyond Your Target Audience
When you think niche audience, you probably think of directly reaching your target. But what if removing geographical barriers could also mean reaching the families and loved ones of your target attendees? Doing so can go a long way toward expanding your reach and cultivating an environment of inclusivity. One inspiring example comes from the Anti Diet Riot Club, a network that works to debunk harmful “diet culture” and beauty and body standards. The community’s Becky Young shares that virtual events open their events to the parents, partners, and housemates of community members. Obviously, this extended reach promotes their message to a broader audience, but it may also help attendees cultivate inclusivity in their own lives. If one’s friends, family, or intimate partner understand their struggle and goal to overcome societal pressures to embrace themselves as they are, that can be an all-around positive.
If your goal is to reach the personal or professional networks of your target audience, you can implement several strategies. The most direct approach is to create a session within your event in which family members, friends, or associates are invited to join for a Q&A. You can incorporate this feature a free-of-charge part of your event in which outsiders can join remotely for free. You may even want to include a free product sample, service, or membership trial to entice people to join their attendees at the event. The possibility of remote participation makes people far more likely to dedicate a half hour of their time to seeing what has their friend, family member, or associate so excited. Throwing in an incentive such as a free product, event, membership, or even the chance to win a contest adds interest, too.
If reaching your attendees’ personal or professional network is a goal, choose speakers with broad appeal within your niche. That might sound like an oxymoron, but it’s a safer bet to invest in a popular speaker than someone with a more obscure audience. Even if you know the less conventional/popular speaker will be beloved by your niche audience, they may not draw in the people who are important to your attendees. This is especially true if your topic is a niche one, and your goal is to invite family, friends, or associates to learn more about it. For “outsiders”, a well-known or less eccentric speaker may be more attractive or digestible. Choose someone who is able to introduce the topic to beginners in a fundamental way, establishing the basics before going into more detail.
The Anti Diet Riot Club promotes an increasingly popular niche. The world of social media influencers, models, and entertainers offers a ripe selection of potential speakers for a myriad of topics related to their inclusive cause. The more universally relatable speakers are, the more new people your community stands to reach remotely. That’s why it’s important to hire speakers who not only know their stuff, but have the ability to engage an inclusive audience. That person who “knows how to talk to everyone” has more than charm, finesse, or even a persuasive quality. They have empathy for many different kinds of people, which is a key ingredient to inclusion. They have knowledge of and respect for different cultures without resorting to appropriation. First and foremost, they are genuinely passionate about connecting with others and are open and willing to learn from your attendees’ experiences. Real connections- and lasting networks- are cultivated when personal connections are made in a professional setting.
But remember: You don’t have to think too big. If there’s a wildly popular influencer on your radar, and you really resonate with their message and style, reach for that star. Just keep in mind that the more popular an influencer becomes, the longer it can take to reach them. Since they are typically inundated with requests, most of their messages are filtered by social media managers. It can take a while before they even see your message, so have a backup plan- preferably more than one. Social media influencers with moderate niche audiences are usually more attainable and respond faster.
Go the Extra Mile for Attendees in Need
Speaking of community outreach, it’s really not enough to just connect with friends, family, and associates of your niche audience. Reaching communities in need is a vital part of creating an inclusive culture, and that takes a concerted effort. Remember, the pandemic has been isolating for all of us, but low income families have been impacted in unique ways. Coping with financial losses can be scary and isolating, especially during a pandemic in which many businesses and income channels have been destroyed. And obviously, limited finances affect people’s ability to attend events and connect with others during a time when many need support most. That’s another advantage of remote events: They are not only cheaper, but they cut travel costs and can eliminate the need to take time off work due to the time it takes to get to the event. That’s significant, but creating affordable events takes more than that.
Many event creators have adopted a tiered pricing system. And because tiered pricing systems typically offer more value to people who can pay more, Anti Diet Riot Club goes the extra mile to offer discounts to people who need it. How do they determine who needs discounted tickets? They ask. They make it clear in their promotions that if anyone- for any reason- can’t pay full price, they simply need to reach out for a discounted offer that will hopefully enable them to still attend. While it may come as a surprise to some, Becky Young says the system is rarely abused. In her experience, people generally want to give when they can.
Since you’ve got to meet your financial goals for events, it’s simply not possible to give away free or discounted tickets to everyone. What may be possible is to create a system in which you give away a specific number of free and/or discounted tickets per event. You might do this by encouraging people in need of free or discounted pricing to sign up for a mailing list. Each time you hold an event, a certain amount of these people are gifted free or discounted tickets until everyone on the list has had their turn. Then start up the process again, prioritizing new members of the program. In this way, your events become more accessible to low income attendees, of which there are many these days.
Give Diverse People A Platform
Many larger scale events have begun to offer diversity scholarships. In 2016, Apple offered 350 scholarships to students and STEM members for its popular Worldwide Developers’ Conference. By making major events like this accessible for people who can’t necessarily spend a few thousand dollars in one sitting, scholarships give talented, upcoming professionals a platform they might not have otherwise have. These people will come from a variety of ethnic groups and cultures, thus diversifying future representation and leadership across major industries.
Hiring diverse speakers, especially industry newcomers, is one of the most effective ways to create an inclusive culture. If you keep relying on old standbys when it comes to employing women and people of color, you may be hitting a wall. To go beyond it and expand your network to be more inclusive, a little research goes a long way. For their third Code Conference, Re/Code hired a staffer and speciality communications firm to research diverse talent. The result was a wildly successful event with fresh new speakers and a broader, inclusive network.
So don’t be afraid to take chances on smaller names. By doing this, you’re not only creating a bigger platform for up and coming diverse talent, you’re also extending your own network. Big names are great for obvious reasons, but newcomers can bring a fresh perspective and new ideas to the table. The event industry is fluid, and keeping up with it means thinking outside the box and evolving.
Shine a Spotlight on Inclusivity
While trying too hard and focusing more on inclusivity than the quality of the event is counterproductive, this whole process is a learning curve. Incorporating a session on diversity gives people a space to share their experiences and what has worked for them. Providing that diversity panels are actually diverse, they can shed light on problems and creative ways to overcome them. Hosting or being part of a diversity panel is also a great way to share resources and network, especially when it comes to virtual events.
Although virtual events are becoming a mainstream fixture, we are still relatively new to them. Although technology continues to rapidly evolve and become more accessible to small businesses, not everyone can afford to hire a firm to scout diverse talent. A more realistic option might simply be devoting an event to inclusivity and looking to social media for fresh talent.
When it comes to social media, cultivating an inclusive network happens over time. Interestingly, 70 percent of consumers say it’s important for brands to take a stand on social political issues; in 2017, just 66 percent of consumers felt this way. So while it’s bad practice to take the most popular stand on as many issues as possible, giving rise to what critics call “woke-washing”, consumers want you to care. And get this- a whopping 47 percent of consumers want brands to take a stand on social media. So one way of creating an inclusive network is to decide what you’re passionate about and post/blog/Tweet about it. Don’t feel pressured to cover every topic, even those you don’t have a lot of knowledge about. Yes, it’s important to always be learning, but make sure you’re being genuine when you post.
Remove Obstacles to Inclusivity
At in-person events, removing barriers to inclusivity might look like accessibility, gender neutral bathrooms, having American Sign Language interpreters on hand, including Braille on all signage, and more. Virtual events eliminate obstacles related to physical accessibility. Any potential barriers are usually related to technical matters. For example, you may want to use closed caption for people who are deaf or have limited hearing. For those who are blind or have low vision, you can employ audio visual descriptions, which narrate the visual images on the screen.
Another common concern with virtual events is technological proficiency. Unless yours is a tech industry event, it may be a good idea to assume people will have varying skill levels when it comes to using technology. While millennials and Gen Zers tend to rely heavily on technology for both work and leisure activities, some older attendees may not be as adept. Our advice is to keep it as simple as possible. Try using a popular live streaming platform that many people are familiar with, such as YouTube, Facebook Live, Instagram. These platforms are fairly simple to use and accessible for anyone with internet access.
Because many people are new to virtual events, you may want to make participation optional- at least to some extent. Keep in mind that people learn in different ways; this is true in an in-person setting and online. One perk of being a virtual wallflower? If attendees are shy or not yet confident using technology to communicate, virtual events offer multiple options. For example, some participants may feel more comfortable typing into the chat box than using the video chat feature. On the other hand, you may have attendees who enjoy the spontaneous, direct contact afforded by face-to-face sessions. It’s more similar to in-person events and helps break the ice.
Bear in mind that interactive technology can be immersive and engaging, setting the stage for real connections to be made. But having options for people who feel more comfortable with social distance and written communication is important, too. A surprising number of professionals- especially introverts- actually dislike in-person networking. For these people, virtual events offer a less intimidating, sensorily overwhelming experience.
It’s also a good idea to either act as or assign a moderator to monitor the chats. This way, you can be sure that your virtual event is a safe space for everyone. While informative discussions may lead to healthy debates, keep an eye out for red flags such as bullying, inflammatory language, or long-winded arguments that do not resolve in a timely manner.
The moderator should be someone different than the presenter. Their job should be to specifically guide and monitor communication. If an argument is consuming too much time or becoming distracting, the moderator could redirect the conversation toward a resolution. Part of the moderator’s job is to ensure organization and keep it flowing in a timely manner. If someone is stuck on or showing extensive interest in a specific topic, but the session needs to move on, the moderator could use the chat box to connect the interested party to an expert. Speakers, exhibitors, and representatives should be prepared to set up time slots for further questions and discussions post-event. It’s natural for attendees to have special areas of interest, and you can’t possibly expand on all of them during one event.
The most important thing to know about cultivating an inclusive culture in your virtual space: It’s a process! No one hits all their goals on the first try, or even the first few. If you don’t have the resources to professionally scout diverse talent, building an inclusive network on social media is enough. In fact, this ongoing effort is actually more important than scouting when it comes to community-building. Forging real connections based on inclusive values has a ripple effect: It spreads a positive message and opens your network up to fresh new talent. So even if all you do is take a few pro tips from this post, you’re well on your way to being the change you’d like to see in your industry.