August 24, 2023

From Digital Street Teams to Commitment-Phobia: Post-Pandemic Audience Engagement Strategies

Insights from the National Digital Roundtable event on pos-pandemic event and engagement strategies

Marketing & Communications

By Anthony Shop, Chairman, National Digital Roundtable

On the surface, a modern art museum, a European policy think tank, a financial services association, and a synagogue don’t seem to have much in common. But organizations of all kinds are embracing innovative ways to serve their communities through in-person, virtual and hybrid events. In this post-pandemic, remote-work environment, yesterday’s playbooks and benchmarking data are being replaced with new approaches to engage audiences and drive attendance.

The National Digital Roundtable brought together leaders and innovators from various industries at the historic Sixth & I synagogue in Washington, DC for a he wide-ranging conversation that revealed some trends and opportunities. The event raised new questions and rehashed old ones. Each providing insights useful for a post-pandemic landscape. 

What are the national and local post-pandemic engagement trends?

Live event attendance is generally rebounding, but smaller, independent venues and organizations are having a harder time. Concerts are especially experiencing a renaissance: 2023 live music sales are expected to surpass 2019 performance (Pricewaterhouse Coopers). 

However, more events means more competition for attention. Digital advertising investment by nonprofits increased by 28% in 2022 (M&R Benchmark Report). 

Locally, DC had the highest rate of remote work in the country in 2022. As of spring 2023, downtown economic activity was estimated at 65% of pre-pandemic levels (2022 Downtown BID Report). In the arts and culture sector, recovery is uneven and varies by industry. 

The team at Sixth & I reported that their biggest challenge since reopening has been that past event attendance is no longer a reliable predictor of audience behavior. When it comes to content, appetites have changed. Talks about politics or current events have been harder sells compared to pre-pandemic. Escapist content is most popular, including concerts and talks based on cookbooks, lifestyle topics, and celebrity memoirs.

What will make my audience want to change out of sweatpants?

Over the last few years, many have gotten used to staying home - not just for work, but also for entertainment. “Is it worth changing out of sweatpants?” is the question on many people’s minds.

Carrie Hutchison of Re:wild, an environmental nonprofit founded by actor Leonardo DiCaprio, reminded the group that while some people are extroverts and thrive on live events, introverts may come from a different place and feel out of practice. In fact, they may be looking for a push. She suggested that event venues may do better selling subscription packages that feature,  instead of cost-savings, a message that the series will help you “keep your promise to yourself to get out of the house!”

The Freedom Forum Institute is organizing the upcoming First Amendment Festival in Washington, DC, to engage thousands of people. 1A Fest will even feature an immersive experience to showcase the freedoms we take for granted, said AJ Neuharth-Keusch, Digital Director. “This fictional world will offer free food – but no other First Amendment freedoms,” he said.

Whether your event is in-person or on-demand, always tell the audience “why it matters,” said Brian Sansoni, Senior Vice President at American Cleaning Institute. He shared that making live events available on-demand shows respect for your audience’s time. In the world of corporate leaders, LinkedIn has become a key platform for his organization to engage the right people.

Are you using social media to create parallel experiences?

The National Gallery of Art leans into opportunities on social media to create parallel experiences, said Christopher Abanavas, Public Affairs Specialist. As an example, rather than just showcase photos of artwork, a recent Instagram Reel showcased Fred Brownstein, one of the last people in the United States trained in Antonio Canova’s neoclassical techniques. Followers are enticed to visit the museum when they watch Brownstein take on the challenge of copying Canova’s renowned sculpture “Venus Italica.”

National Gallery Nights and Jazz in the Garden are both on track to beat 2019 attendance numbers. This is the result of the events marketing themselves, according to Sydni Myers, Social Media Manager. These events also create opportunities to reach communities that may not have been targeted by the National Gallery previously - for example, the upcoming Block Party event celebrates the 50th anniversary of hip hop with a sound and dance adventure, and features The Missing Element, Chalk Riot!, Ladies of Hip Hop Dance Collective, DJ Bizzy and DJ Little Bacon Bear.

Do you have a (digital) street team?

Musicians have often enlisted street teams to promote their events. Today, digital street teams can help get the word out without getting off the couch, according to Jake Diamond, Marketing Director at Union Stage.

While Facebook Events used to be an effective way to promote events, several participants reported that this feature has drastically fallen in its effectiveness. Diamond described the importance of instead building a digital street team by finding authentic fans and trading free tickets for social media posts. While the goal is mostly awareness, links can be used to track conversions from specific street team members.

This approach has also been used by corporate brands and tech companies, from Red Bull to Bumble.

Can your events turn audience members into influencers?

Sixth & I has found success with a simple tactic: an in-person giveaway raffle announced at each event, which requires following the organization on Instagram to win. “We regularly get hundreds of new followers by doing this,” said Michelle Eider, Assistant Director, Marketing and Communications.

Of those audience members who follow the account, many go on to engage with content and share their own. In effect, these audience members become influencers who showcase Sixth & I’s programming.

Spur Local, which helps raise funds for hundreds of local nonprofit organizations, has found success by enlisting hyperlocal influencers to amplify their message, said Executive Director Matthew Gayer. But it takes a lot of research to identify and connect with the right ones.

Influencers need not have a huge following to drive results. Jen Hallaman, Marketing Associate at Politics & Prose, shared that the right Bookstagrammers can help drive event attendance and book sales.

Are you accounting for commitment-phobia?

While a subscription may seem overly burdensome for some, others embrace it.

Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company created the Golden Ticket instead of a typical subscription, said Rebecca Calkin, Director of Marketing. Holders can not only see any show - they can see it multiple times. The Golden Ticket is available at a standard price point, as well as a discounted accessible price. “We don’t want cost to be a barrier to anyone joining us for this season,” she said.

This is also a welcome approach for those who don’t want to commit to a specific schedule in advance of the season.

“Even for a three-week series with 12 people, we are seeing a reluctance to commit,” said Alexandra Tureau of GatherDC, “the one-stop shop for everything 20s and 30s need to live their best Jewish life.”

But while some may be reluctant to commit, others may just be dealing with more complex lives, Myers reminded the group. Event planners and marketers have to keep this in mind and adapt. For example, they can account for more no-shows in their capacity numbers.

Does your audience crave a virtual success?

While some organizations have struggled to maintain attendance and engagement with their virtual events, others reported that this has been a boon for them to connect with audiences.

Eric Nguyen, Director of Social Media for the Society for Science, shared that the pivot to virtual for the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Festival has been extremely effective. This is also true of events targeting alumni - or those who previously competed years or even decades ago. Reducing the barrier to travel has driven increased attendance.

While in some cases, audiences love virtual offerings, in other cases, these offerings fall flat. This is especially true when there is strong, high-quality competition for other virtual events.

Are you meeting the moment with what you have?

While it may not seem like a physical venue can adapt well to changing consumer demands related to traveling and working from home, we were reminded that there are always ways for organizations to meet the moment with what they have.

The Phillips Collection, a well-respected modern art museum in Washington, DC, added a new virtual program focused on guided meditation. This 30-minute weekly meditation led by local yoga teacher Aparna Sadananda via Zoom each Wednesday is inspired by an artwork from the collection. “We practice techniques for mindful looking and thinking that we can carry with us wherever we are,” said Emily Ames, Marketing Manager.

Whether your audiences are still trying to decide if they’re ready to get out of sweatpants or are eager to meet you face-to-face, there’s no question the events landscape is changing. Thankfully, there are incredible leaders charting the course who we can learn from.