Use Guided Conversations to Engage Virtual Attendees

The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association wanted a different kind of interaction for their virtual events but found offerings described as “virtual networking” could be hit or miss. Instead, they tried staff-guided virtual chats, which have received high marks from attendees.

Even though many associations have spent a good part of the last two years hosting virtual events, attendee engagement remains a hot topic. Amid Zoom fatigue and in-person distractions, keeping virtual attendees engaged is something many events struggle with. In a post on Collaborate [ASAE member login required] from earlier this year, Jack Coursen, senior director of professional development at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), noted that they’d found success with having staff-guided conversations.

Here Coursen shares more about how these conversations work and takeaways other associations might appreciate.

Chats Outperformed “Virtual Networking”

For ASHA, the move to virtual coffees and teas where participants had staff-guided conversations came about after the pandemic forced their main in-person events to become virtual. ASHA had been doing virtual events for some time pre-pandemic, and a favorite aspect of attendees was a text-based chat feature where they could interact. But, given that this virtual event would be held for attendees who would have attended in person had it not been for the pandemic, staff wanted to try something different.

“They said, ‘If you can’t be in person this year because of the pandemic, I want people to be able to see each other; I want to be able to focus on that visual connection, as a key aspect of the event, as a key experience,’” Coursen said.

ASHA decided to do virtual coffee sessions to get some live interaction among participants. They preferred this offering over ones described as “virtual networking,” which tended not to do as well for general attendees.

“In the past, we’ve had networking opportunities where it is more open-ended and there is less of an idea of the conversation that we want to have,” Coursen said. “Those have been less successful.”

While there were definitely niche member segments who attended virtual networking, a larger number shied away from such events.

“They don’t need to because they’re attending the event from home,” Coursen said. “They have other things they could be doing instead. Whereas at an in-person event, if you’re at a mixer, are you going to go back to your hotel, or are you going to hang out and strike up a conversation?”

Passion Topics Are Conversation

Coursen attributed the popularity to the chats to the topics selected. Staff pick topics that have been percolating and that members are passionate about and also ask volunteers who serve on ASHA committees to participate in the chats.

And to sweeten the deal, ASHA has begun offering continuing-education credits for attending. “We know that online attendees really prioritize CE credit opportunities,” Coursen said.

Although ASHA guidelines don’t allow sponsors for programming that is eligible for CE credits, Coursen said that other groups could consider offering sponsorships for the chats as a way to generate nondues revenue. But no matter the route you take, the key to making sure that these guided conversations are engaging is having strong seed questions, as well as staff and volunteers ready to take first crack at the discussion items.

“As long as you have a handful of people who are really actively engaged, they can pretty much carry the experience for everybody,” Coursen said. “We have enough material we know we want to talk about in those conversations and the group we’ve invited in are really passionate about it.”

Examples of topics ASHA has selected for conversations include common ethical violations; delivering services in rural and remote areas; and diversity, equity, and inclusion in schools.

For associations looking to do something similar, Coursen said the key is to really ensure the experience meets member needs.

“A takeaway for us is really connecting with what learners want from the experience and what their key motivators are,” Coursen said. “Then focus on how you can do things in ways that deliver on those values.”

(nadia_bormotova/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Rasheeda Childress

By Rasheeda Childress

Rasheeda Childress is a former editor at Associations Now. MORE

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