If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us one thing, it’s how to flex in response to a rapidly changing environment. Here in the UK, universities responded in various ways: some of them moving their teaching online as early as September 2020 and others using the crisis to experiment with innovative ways to explain complex issues to a wide variety of audiences. Commentators asserted that the pandemic exposed an already broken scholarly communication system.
For the past 18 months, I have worked at the University of Essex on EIRA (Enabling Innovation: Research to Application). Funded by UKRI (UK Research and Innovation), EIRA aims to help local businesses to grow using innovative solutions by connecting them with funding, facilities, and academic expertise.
My job included supporting a series of ‘Hothouse’ events that provided a space for the business and academic communities to network. The events brought in inspiring speakers and benefited from using the facilities provided by EIRA’s partners BT, such as their new interdisciplinary graduate research centre.
In January 2020 we hosted our first Hothouse event at BT Adastral Park, Martlesham, focusing on new 5G technologies and how they can bring benefits to businesses in innovative ways. This event brought together local creative freelancers, artists, and organisations to enjoy the inspiring collaborations that EIRA has facilitated. These included fantastic demonstrations from local companies and individuals who have brought Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality and Mixed Reality (VR, AR and MR) technology into their world after accessing academic expertise. The academic and local creative communities were able to explore ideas for collaboration among the more than 25 attendees. Feedback was very positive from all sides, with participants reporting both ‘feeling inspired’ and the beginnings of a number of new collaborative projects, including a four-way collaboration between the University of Essex, Collusion, Dance East, and BT who are looking for grants to continue their alliance.
Two further Hothouse events were organised on the back of the successful pilot, but then Covid-19 arrived, and everything changed.
Adapting to changing circumstances
The arrival of the virus altered the landscape for many businesses from March 2020 – including their aims and priorities. It was increasingly important to maintain great levels of engagement and communication with our stakeholders to make the most of the upcoming events we had been planning. With physical events no longer taking place and many companies unable to work as normal, we adjusted our Digital Innovation: Libraries and Archives Hothouse event to become a morning webinar session delivered via Zoom – a new approach to many of us!
It was clear we needed to make major changes to achieve the level of success we had at the first face-to-face event. Without being able to be together physically in a room, how would we achieve organic networking, engagement, and conversations without sitting next to someone? How would we keep an audience engaged and interested on a computer screen for longer than 45 minutes?
The first, face-to-face, event promoted organic networking, placing the participants in a room together and encouraging them to network and begin conversations outside of the formal agenda throughout the day.
For the second event, we planned a webinar that tried to fully exploit the virtual world to our advantage. Unencumbered by the limitations of having to physically bring people to the venue, we hosted a range of great speakers to present to our audiences from the BBC, British Library, and more. We used Eventbrite to promote our online webinar, attracting over 1,500 views and more than 95 registrations. Using a mix of media and diverse presenters to capture our audience’s attention, we had a steady attendee count of over 65 for the majority of the morning. To keep their attention, we ran multiple Q&A sessions throughout the webinar enabling the audience to get involved and ask any questions they had.
We set up a LinkedIn group to encourage participants to keep talking to each other after the event itself. We promoted it to everyone who attended, and encouraged them to join to view content that had been shared on the day. We hoped that new conversations would be generated between the attendees and networking would take place virtually. We uploaded content and presentations from the morning onto our LinkedIn group and invited people to join: one third of them signed up. We sent out a google survey two months after the event and expected a lot of enthusiasm for further feedback, conversations, and collaboration.
To begin with, there was a slight buzz after the webinar, but this soon faded. Honestly? We were a bit disappointed with the follow-up, but took away lessons for doing virtual events in future.
- The event got rather lost amidst so many competing activities being launched in the virtual world and we didn’t actively follow up with the community we had formed.
- We had no solid strategy moving forward with our next steps to engage. Conversations in the LinkedIn group were not regularly updated and we lost the interest of our group. In future, I believe being consistent could improve this outcome.
- Clarify the resources (including staff time!) that are needed to achieve the success you are aiming for beforehand. This will create realistic expectations as to what is achievable. This will allow you to monitor the progress of your inputs, it could be that you require more resources and time than was first thought!
- Welcoming feedback immediately after the event would have encouraged a larger response from the attendees, consolidated relationships, and given us excuses to keep the conversation going.
- Developing new media and content from the event exclusively for the group and ‘drip feeding’ this back into the LinkedIn group might have been useful to continue the conversation and building a stronger group identity.
- Launching the LinkedIn group before the event, making it a mandatory part of participation, and posting details about it – including important admin information about how to join online etc. – would have increased the numbers on the group. But maybe a bit extreme? What about those who don’t have (or don’t want) a LinkedIn account, or are not familiar with the platform?
We’re still learning! We’d love to hear about your experiences of networking virtually – do get in touch, either here at email@example.com or via social media.