Arianna Rehak is co-founder and CEO of Matchbox Virtual Media, a firm that helps organizations produce virtual events that foster meaningful conversations. As the former coordinator of a highly successful virtual event series—a topic we interviewed her about in episode 111—Arianna became passionate about how to effectively cultivate high levels of engagement while making meaning of collective knowledge in the online space.
And since we are currently in the midst of a huge surge in the demand for virtual events due to the coronavirus pandemic, she has been tirelessly working with a wide range of organizations to take their events online.
In this episode of the Leading Learning Podcast, Jeff talks with Arianna about what it takes to successfully transition events to virtual, the related benefits of doing so, and why (contrary to what many organizations think), you may actually gain much more than you lose.
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Listen to the Show
Read the Show Notes
[00:18] – A preview of what will be covered in this episode where Jeff interviews Arianna Rehak.
[01:48] – You might consider the reflection question below on your own after listening to an episode, and/or you might pull the team together, using part or all of the podcast episode for a group discussion.
- Matchbox is focused on virtual events as a way to foster meaningful conversations, and that’s a thread that runs throughout this conversation. So, we’d like to ask listeners to follow that thread and ask themselves, “How are we using or planning to use our virtual events as a platform for fostering meaningful conversations?”
[02:36] – Introduction to Arianna and additional information about her background and Matchbox Virtual Media.
Why Virtual Conferences?
[04:05] – You were doing virtual conferences before they became such a necessary part of the landscape. What got you so interested in them? I know you were running one and people were asking about it but that doesn’t necessarily mean you were passionate about it, so what clicked for you?
Arianna explains how the need that she was solving for within the original context was probably very unusual compared so some of the other reasons that virtual conferences are built. When building the online community and the publication (in her former role), she started to get really passionate about the notion of people coming together around conversations and using those to produce content.
She talks about how their virtual conference initially started as a virtual, Zoom-style meeting where they brought people together around what she calls, a “conversation that matters”—something they were all equally passionate about as professionals. And the virtual conference was a way of scaling that initiative.
Arianna says the in the early days, the very first sessions of that virtual conference were designed around those conversations. They’d have the speaker conversations, which were essentially conversation starters for an attendee chat. Then at the end they would go through and pull insights from the chat and sessions themselves and turn those into eBooks to make available for the community.
And they were finding really high engagement within those environments because there was an extra sense of purpose around coming together. Everyone knew this is what they were doing and that this was about the collective brain.
So Arianna got really passionate about that notion—engagement in the online space and about how the collective brain is always stronger than any individual. What drives her (intellectually) is that notion of how to make meaning of collective knowledge.
She notes that the early virtual conferences at Matchbox were generally centered around a specific industry challenge or problem. She shares an example of how they did this working with CPAs to address the challenges they are facing because of automation.
Virtual Events and Networking
[07:12] – I recently interviewed Rich Millington founder of FeverBee (for an upcoming podcast episode), a company very focused on online community. And most of what he was talking about had to do with Zoom and how historically we’ve thought of virtual meetings as “events”, and not so much as community or conversation. This is a major shift that you’re helping people make in thinking about the potential power behind virtual not just being an event, but virtual being a community or conversation and how so much can come out of that.
Arianna says that one of the unintended biproducts around virtual events designed to bring people together for these conversations is networking. When she transitioned to Matchbox, she spent time really trying to understand the phenomenon of what had been created (in her former role) to replicate it out.
She was looking at the data and the testimonials to really try to understand why they were having such powerful testimonials. And one of the commonalities among some of the really strong testimonials was the networking/relationship building piece, which the data supported.
They saw that about a third of the messages in the chat were directed at mentions to someone else, meaning there were these micro-interactions happening. And when they were following up on the stories, they were finding out that people were adding each other on LinkedIn, for example. So because they had this common, shared experience, it was actually leading to a continued relationship moving forward.
As a result of connecting on the chat, they found that some even got hired as well as met up at in-person conferences. For that reason, Arianna absolutely encourages virtual events being used as a lead-up to an in-person conference.
Virtual Networking vs. In-Person Networking
[09:57] – So often when talking to organizations about holding (or even attending) a virtual conference, the knee-jerk complaint you always hear is related to networking and how that’s going to be lost with a virtual event. But you just made it clear that networking can very much happen in that online environment. How do you compare the networking that goes on in that virtual environment versus what might go on in the hallway at an in-person conference?
Arianna starts by pointing out that if you are at an in-person conference and sit down at a table, you are interacting with those around you. And those can absolutely be deeper conversations, but it’s hit or miss.
One of the things that that’s cool about the online space is that in an attendee chat, everyone is kind of sitting next to everyone else. So there’s more possibility to identify those in the chat that you would like to have a further conversation with.
Also, Arianna notes that the online space is an interesting outlet for introverts who may otherwise be shy and quiet at a face-to-face event.
She admits that she is one of those people and how it’s hard for her to connect with people at in-person networking events because there’s nothing specific to talk about. Her most successful social interactions have been when there’s a sense of purpose around that interaction (and she shares an example of this).
She explains that if you have a chat room (virtually) and just tell people to meet each other, nothing is going to happen—or it’s very unlikely that will happen naturally. So they’ve found that when bringing people together around conversations that they care about, it’s really about the content that’s then driving the community—and it’s sort of a positive feedback loop.
Catalyzing Conversations in a Chat Environment
[13:40] – Like you just mentioned, you can’t just put the chat room there and hope for it to happen. Does it come down to facilitation? How do you help catalyze that within a chat environment?
Arianna shares what they do generally is work with chat animators who are usually volunteers of the association or the group that’s hosting. So these are folks that are connected in that community and who will also have relevant knowledge on the topics themselves.
Some responsibilities of the chat animators are to:
- Build momentum early on to get people excited.
- Be a positive beacon in the chat.
- Make sure any questions are being answered.
- Look out for new names in the chat (the data shows that if someone writes in the chat once, they are the least likely to ever write again unless they’re somehow reinforced).
Arianna adds that moderation is also important because sometimes people will say things that can derail a chat or something of the like. Although that’s a risk you take when opening up the chat, she says they haven’t experienced that problem (yet), something she attributes to creating a positive, constructive environment.
Making the Shift from Face-To-Face to Virtual
[16:22] – We’re in the midst of this whole COVID-19 pandemic, obviously impacting so many people in so many ways. And definitely impacting a lot of organizations who had their major face-to-face events planned for the near future and are now thinking about whether to take them virtual. How are you helping organizations make the transition and what helps to ensure they’re going to be successful in doing that?
Arianna discusses how the conversations related to this are shifting over time (and quickly), and then coming into them much more educated around what to expect. The early conversations all followed a very similar tone where people were quite panicky about it and were also assuming they had to maintain the same dates and schedule while also transferring over all of their sessions.
But now she’s seen more of a mindset around thoughtfully thinking about the outcomes of their event, and how to deliver on those outcomes, rather than simply transferring the content over virtually.
Arianna acknowledges there is still some panic going on (and rightfully so), but now people also recognize it as an opportunity. It’s a way to introduce a whole new way for their members to engage with them and each other.
This is a time when associations can demonstrate their value to their community.
She says they’ve seen a lot of associations that have been impressive about responding to the emerging need and delivering just-in-time content. Arianna recognizes that just-in-time content isn’t going to be as produced and thought out as a big virtual conference, but it’s important to recognize that the emerging needs sometimes are now.
[20:08] – Do any organizations jump out in terms of how they’ve been innovative, scrappy, or just risen to the occasion in using virtual as an option?
Arianna highlights their partnership with two psychiatric state societies whose event is called PsychSummit. And one of them is the New York County Psychiatric Society so their members are right on the front lines of what’s happening right now.
She talks about how she worked with them to put their event together in a week as a pop-up summit. The way they produced that was using three session types in one. The first one was prerecorded videos from some of their psychiatrists on the front lines in NY. That set the stage for breakout video chat conversations and the end there was a live recap where everyone came together.
Arianna says they realized this needed to happen right away so there was some sacrifice of production quality as a result. But their registration numbers were about three times the amount they expected so this was proven to be really poignant to their members.
How Virtual Will Fare When Things Get Back to “Normal”
[22:08] – When the current pandemic subsides and we are back to whatever counts as “normal” at that point, what do you think the state of virtual conferences/events will be? Will they be an established standard common phenomenon? Will they recede and maybe be a contingency option, but at least one that people are truly thinking about and planning for? What’s your prediction around that?
Arianna predicts that the organizations who do it well are going to get such good results that they’re going to continue doing them. And the worst-case scenario is that everyone talks about the year that the event went online and it didn’t go well. She says she’s spoken to some associations who tried to have their event virtual before where it didn’t go well and now they don’t even want to risk it.
Arianna’s advice around this is to narrow in on something you can do really well and do that thing. She also shares an example of a just-in-time webinar she was a part of and how there was some static when she started talking. She just addressed it and pointed out this will happen if the webinar is going to be just-in-time in this way—but this is needed information and it’s better than nothing.
And the associations that are making themselves vulnerable and calling it out as an experiment are getting a really positive response.
Arianna recommends that everyone really make this part of the narrative. And of the associations they’ve worked with thus far to do a virtual event, she says 100% of them want to continue doing them.
Jeff concurs with this statistic noting that in recent surveys, well over 90% of the people who have done a virtual event responded that they’d do it again.
[26:05] – This is the point where we usually ask about one of your most powerful lifelong learning experiences, but we already asked you about this last time we interviewed you. So instead, what are you learning right now that’s powerful? What is the silver lining that we’re getting out of this in terms of growth and development for ourselves and for the people that we’re serving?
Arianna talks about how there has been such rapid innovation. Now that they’re doing so many events simultaneously, they are able to understand the best practices across the board of what works and what doesn’t work.
They’ve had to adapt and add a lot of different session types to account for the fact that there are so many reasons why people are convening online (other than what they initially had been targeting). But now they’re able to test them and iterate so quickly.
And that’s not just in the session content itself, Arianna says a whole area of development for them is in sponsorship integration, which has been a major shift in conversation for them.
She says these innovations can now carry forth as best practices for associations across the board. They are documenting them as they go so it can be useful and relevant to their clients, but also to others out there in the community.
[28:58] – How to connect with Arianna and/or learn more about Matchbox:
*Matchbox is currently hosting a weekly session on creating engaging virtual events which Jeff will be co-hosting (and Arianna will be in the chat). Learn more at https://matchboxvirtual.com/going-virtual-weekly-event/.
[30:10] – Wrap-Up
- How are you using or planning to use your virtual events as a platform for fostering meaningful conversations?
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[31:56] – Sign off