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How Guardian Live Fully Pivoted to Online Events in Just One Month

Thought-provoking conversation is the foundation of many strong events. Indeed, it has always been the backbone of the Guardian newspaper’s live events programme, which has seen a wide variety of guests from author Margaret Atwood and actor Viggo Mortensen to the founder of investigative website Bellingcat, Eliot Higgins, take to the stage. But thanks to COVID-19 restrictions, Guardian Live‘s diverse roster of guests has switched from a live experience to appearing on attendees’ screens at home.

Managing to transform a busy live events schedule into a virtual one happened in less than a month for the Guardian Live team. Now, with almost a year of experience at the forefront of the online events space, they reflect on how it all came to be. We caught up with Lyndal Reed, head of strategy and development at Guardian Live, to tell us more about the team’s experience of both the logistical challenges and unexpected advantages of pivoting to virtual events.

Making the big decision

Before the UK’s first national lockdown was even announced, the Guardian decided to cancel all of its live events. Despite this involving “notifying and refunding thousands of ticket-holders,” the team’s virtual pivot only took a weekend to think through, says Reed. On Friday, March 13, live events were cancelled. By Monday, March 16, “we had made the decision to move our programme online.”

Reed notes that this was “largely driven by a desire to continue to serve our existing audience and deliver – in whatever way possible – our very popular live events programme.” Even more impressively, the first online Guardian Live event, a COVID-19 Q&A session with Guardian health editors, took place only 23 working days later.

Getting to grips with the logistics

“The core purpose of Guardian Live events is to bring big stories, award-winning journalists, leading thinkers, and audiences together in an interactive space that promotes conversation and questions,” Reed says. And although this was “all achievable online,” the team still had to find a suitable livestreaming platform that allowed thousands of people to join in an interactive discussion.

Before the pandemic struck, “we had not explored online streaming in great depth,” says Reed. “The main challenge we faced in the beginning was the speed at which we were required to source, test, and procure an online streaming platform. It was a steep learning curve that required a huge effort from our whole team.”

To speedily kick off their new online event programme, the team chose to take a “divide and conquer approach.” They worked simultaneously on everything from competitor insights and market research to accessibility optimisation and data protection.

Eventually, they decided on a livestreaming platform that could support tens of thousands of attendees. Interactive features included chat boxes and custom polling – an ideal fit for Guardian Live’s discussions and debates.

When it came to selling tickets and communicating with attendees, the media company’s events team had always used Eventbrite, so chose to exclusively sell tickets for their new online events in the same way. Reed says that the platform’s ability to schedule multiple reminder emails has been “very helpful,” and she hopes to be able to fully integrate Guardian Live streaming with Eventbrite “for an even smoother user experience.”

Realising the untapped potential

The added benefits of virtual events – particularly the “huge potential to ‘go global'” – were soon realised by the Guardian Live team. Previously, the majority of the company’s live events had been presented in the UK, but the pandemic gave Guardian Live the opportunity to expand its reach far beyond those borders. In the past year, Reed notes, attendee numbers have increased by 300% with people joining online from more than 120 countries across the globe.

Audience numbers for individual events have grown, too. Without the limitations of a physical venue, Guardian Live has been able to welcome almost 15,000 people to a single event – a look back at the political goings-on of 2020 with columnist Marina Hyde and parliamentary sketch writer John Crace. The record attendance at their live events had been 2,500.

Interestingly, Reed noticed another significant boost in the number of guests putting questions forward to speakers. “It is nice to see more interaction from people who would find asking a question to the speakers in a big auditorium too intimidating,” she states. In fact, this immediate and accessible interaction has led to a hunger for the live session, rather than a desire for a catch-up video. And, adds Reed, “the drop-out or no-show rate for our events is very small.”

Listening to the audience

Guardian Live’s focus on its audience’s needs has played more than one role in its event strategy. As well as proving that interaction is crucial, it also led to an innovative ticket pricing scheme. By analysing the market and garnering audience insights, the team had plenty of data to build and reinforce its inclusive Pay What You Can model. Attendees can currently choose to pay £5, £10, or £15 per event, with add-ons like newly published books available for select author discussions.

This desire to be accessible has also led Guardian Live to use innovative Eventbrite features. Recently, says Reed, “we have been making better use of the HTML feature on attendee emails. Being able to customise these to fit our brand ensures our reminder emails are more visible in attendee inboxes. This has led to a reduction in customer enquiries following ticket purchase via our call centre about how to join or participate in the event.” An easy-to-read FAQ page on the Guardian website has no doubt helped, too.

Paving the way for a new future

With “overwhelmingly positive” feedback about the “increased intimacy and accessibility” of the online programme along with “indications of a strong appetite for online events to continue,” it’s safe to say that there’s a shiny future ahead for Guardian Live virtual events. “Exactly what that looks like is impossible to say right now,” notes Reed, “as digital and livestreaming technology is evolving so quickly.” But, she adds, “we are beginning to see that online events stand apart as their own distinct offering, rather than simply as an alternative to, or substitute for, venue-based events.”

Her one piece of advice for other event creators looking to make the virtual move? “Don’t delay. In this fast-changing landscape with ever emerging opportunities and technology, it feels like early days yet for online events. There is so much more to be imagined and developed.”

With easy setups and built-in marketing tools, we can help you pivot to the virtual world. So why not start the process of hosting your first online event today?

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