Building a Community for Virtual Events: A Conversation with Nikki Bell

In the past three months alone, Nikki Bell has helped 15 organizations go virtual with their events — she spun up a 4,000 attendee conference in just ten days!

Nikki sat down with Gather Voices CEO Michael Hoffman to discuss:

  • Best practices and expert advice re: virtual event, non-dues revenue, and associations
  • How to drive engagement and attendance to your digital event
  • The importance of building a virtual community
  • Increasing digital turn out and participation while gaining more sponsors

Watch the Complete Conversation

Read the Complete Transcript

Nikki Bell:

Hi, Michael, how are you?

Michael Hoffman:

I am very well. Thank you. So thank you for joining, Nikki. You are in the UK. Where are you exactly? Are you in Manchester?

Nikki Bell:

Oh, well close, Newcastle, so northeast England.

Michael Hoffman:

Newcastle.

Nikki Bell:

Yes. So if a lot of your attendees are from America, you may need subtitles. We talk really fast, so I'll try and I'm excited, so I'll try and slow it down.

Michael Hoffman:

Well, with these talks, we only have 30 minutes and it just blows by. So let's jump right into it. I invited everyone to introduce themselves in the chat and as well as ask questions if they have them there. So let's just start with introductions. People know me. I'm Michael Hoffman. I'm the co-founder CEO at Gather Voices. And I've been working also in the charity and philanthropy world for many years as the founder of See3 Communications, an agency that works with nonprofits. And Nikki, we met in the Netherlands, I think, and you were doing some teaching around different things related to fundraising, and that's how we met. And then we also bonded over Bruce Springsteen. So I knew you were okay when you told me you were a Springsteen fan. So you worked for a nonprofit and then a charity, and then you decided to go out on your own. And then you got into this Fundraising Everywhere thing with Simon, and now it's like this whole thing. So can you just walk us through that journey a little bit?

Nikki Bell:

Sure. So I've worked with nonprofits now for almost 10 years. So worked for small charities, large national charities. My specialism is peer to peer, community fundraising, corporates, individuals, that kind of thing. And now I'm a consultant and I work with charities to help them with support or relationships. How can we engage with people? And video and virtual obviously played a huge part in that for me before COVID and that's another thing we bonded over because you had a ring light and a smartphone on video. And I was there. You know I like to be in front of the camera. And then consultancy now, been doing that for almost two years. And I'm part of the Institute, Fundraising's National Convention board. I've organized in-person events. I run an event called Pizza for Losers, which is all about learning from failure and eating pizza.

Nikki Bell:

And we realized that in person events are quite exclusive. They weren't really accessible to a lot of people who can't travel and they don't have the money. They can't take time away from work. So we started Fundraising Everywhere last year, 2019, to bring speakers from all over the world right into the homes of fundraisers that really wanted to learn, but just didn't have the budget, didn't have the time. And then obviously, COVID hit. And in January we launched Everywhere Plus, which is a virtual service to host virtual events for other people. So in total we've in the past few months roundabout 50 virtual events from small engagement events, right up to multi-day, multi-track conferences for organizations around the world. So plenty of practice.

Michael Hoffman:

Wow. Yeah. And I think you have a really unique combination of something that has its own events and its own community, and then something that hosts other people in that same community. Right? That's different.

Nikki Bell:

Yeah. I mean, my whole business model has been based around helping other people and elevating them. Like I like to be behind the scenes, make the magic happen, but then they're the ones that get the results. And it's just, for me, it's addictive to do. I'm like, "Oh yes, that person's doing really well." So Everywhere plus to help people go virtual, it was just natural. It wasn't even a pivot because we were doing it before COVID. It was just a natural thing for us to say, "Right. Okay. Here's these charities. They haven't got time. They haven't got resources to go virtual, but why should they miss out on it? How can we help them?" So we're different in that we're not just a platform. We're the actual humans, the team behind it too. So we know the audience. We can work with them to develop experiences. We know what they're trying to do.

Nikki Bell:

And in some cases we even host it for them if they don't want to do that part. So we're just there as much or as little as we need. But the idea is that the user is the one on screen and attendees are going, "Oh my goodness, look how amazing this business is, this charity is, this person is." We're just literally in the background doing it all.

Michael Hoffman:

So I see more comments about how incredible all of these events that you run are than anything else that I've seen. I mean, it's incredible. It's just people come off of your events with a kind of a high. They're just really excited. It gets them engaged. How do you do that? I mean, I think we're all trying to pivot to these virtual events and we know that when you're in person, there's a certain engagement that just happens by being in the room. When you're online, that's not true. And the other thing I think related that I want you to just talk about is you're not using any fancy, super expensive technology thing. Because I think that's where everybody goes first, right? It's like, "Oh, I got to pay this $50,000 thing to get this technology that's going to create engagement and blah, blah, blah." You don't do any of that. So, but you create that engagement. So how do you do that? How does that work? And what does everybody need to know about that?

Nikki Bell:

So for me, it's all about starting with the attendee. What experience do you want them to have and what do you want them to take away? And honestly, for an event, it's the content and you're right. When people are moving to virtual, especially these big organizations that have a bit of budget to spare, they are like, "Oh, look at this big shiny platform that costs thousands of pounds. It must be great," but actually that's just making it... You don't need all of that. And so again, it's all about like this human connection. Our tech stack is like a combination of four or five different plugins that we currently use that we run through, and ultimately it goes to our site and what we work with people on is making sure that they have pre recorded content. I've seen that you're a big advocate of that. 100% have pre-recorded content for your event because it just makes it go smoothly.

Nikki Bell:

But with pre recorded content, you can do something that you can't do with normal events, which is you can view it and go, "Right. Okay. So these sessions need to go here. This is how we can literally take an attendee on a journey through our event. Here's a really energetic session. And now we're going to hit you with the storytelling one." And we combine all of that with live hosting that ties everything together, exactly what you were doing at the beginning, referencing people. So, "Hi, Shari, hi Emily," like that kind of thing, bringing them into the live show. And we have a variety of lengths of sessions that we run on our events as well. So, we have these power sessions, which are literally 15 minutes, straight to the point and it really leaves the audience wanting more. And we see that people are saying, "Oh, that was great. I want to know more? Where can I find out about that?"

Nikki Bell:

And the thing with your virtual event is that yes, that's your afternoon or your day. But what you really want to do is make sure that you've got a call to action for something to do afterwards. And what we love to do is create this community that jumps from the conference onto like a round table session or a Q and A, and people come with us on that. They really feel part of it. And we have like text chat boxes on our site as well. We have video networking rooms, so people can really connect with each other as they would at a physical event. And I think all of those little touches, like you say, can be done using existing tools. You know, you can have a breakout room in Zoom if you want to. You can just chat with people on the side. It's just about bringing them all together. It doesn't have to cost thousands of dollars.

Michael Hoffman:

So if somebody's in one of your events, they're watching a stream of content, which has breaks in it with a live host and then there's chat and then you can take them to some kind of room from there. Does that mean they go somewhere else, they leave your page or is that something you weave directly into that flow?

Nikki Bell:

So it's built into our site Everywhere Plus, so on an event page, you'll have like the video, which is autoplay. It has subtitles, it's got the text chat box and then depending on what the user wants, they can have video networking rooms and they can be switched on and off at various points. If you don't want people going into the network room straight away, we can turn that link off until it's ready. So we work within the program because we understand that if you send people to that networking room, you're probably going to lose them on the way back. So try and do it at the end of the day or during lunchtime, where there's a big chunk of time. And if you do use networking rooms as well, like have a host who can talk about a specific topic. It's really hard to get people to go into video networking rooms because it's quite nerve wracking, isn't it?

Nikki Bell:

You know what you're going to expect. So yeah, we do all of that as well. And it is just as a user and again, all it is is just a button with a link, going off to the separate. It just feels really slick and like, "Wow, what's happening?" But it is just very simple to just do.

Michael Hoffman:

Yeah. So it's really about that user experience more than it is about tech and it sounds like it's like, "Let's map the user experience and then decide what kind of tools that we can use for that without having the tools be the thing that's kind of dragging us into something."

Nikki Bell:

Exactly. I think with the internet and virtual events, the possibilities are endless and we try and reign people back in, because we've had people saying, "Oh, we want three days and seven tracks and we want these breakout rooms." And it's like, as a user, that's going to be so confusing and so overwhelming. And we overestimate users' confidence with virtual. This is a new world for a lot of people. So just keep it simple, keep it slick and honestly go for content over like razzle-dazzle. It's all about having that opportunity to engage with people and you can do that through the methods I've talked about already.

Michael Hoffman:

Yeah. I think that's a great point . You don't want to just take that thing you did offline and just go, "Let's put it on zoom for three days." And that actually relates to something. So in another one of these talks, somebody said, "Part of why we go to events is to get out of our day to day. And if on our day to day we're on Zoom all day, then how is this event different from the things that we're already doing?" What do you think about that? How do you make it special? How do you make it feel something that's not the thing that they're doing all day long in this virtual world that we're in?

Nikki Bell:

Yeah. I mean, we like to do additional things that aren't as easy to do in a physical event. So at the Fundraising Everywhere Festival in may, we held a music showcase. So we had fundraisers film themselves playing instruments, and we edited them together so that they were like doing this musical number. We had fundraisers doing things like parody songs and relating it to donor love. And the whiny donor was in a frame on the top of the piano. So we do all of that and using Gather Voices actually, which this wasn't set up and it's totally genuine, we had people in previous events just really quickly record what you wished that you'd known at the start of your career and in the breaks, people are just expecting a blank screen and then go off and make a cup of tea. But this'll pop on the screen and it's Tom Mahone or Keshauna Palmer saying, "Look, when I started fundraising, this is what I wished I knew," and you were like, "Wow, I wasn't expecting that." So we kind of like to keep a few non-program surprises.

Michael Hoffman:

Yeah. That's interesting because I think that's what we're seeing with a lot of our clients with Gather Voices is that if those names that you mentioned, these big names in fundraising ask that... First of all, to ask them to be on live is a much bigger ask than to ask them to record on their own time. So that's something that Gather Voices makes possible, but also you don't want to be in charge of the tech of your thing and the tech of everybody's home at the same time. When we do pre recorded stuff, we sleep better because we know it's all set up. We can have them do it again if we don't like it. We can, and as you said, you're kind of putting those building blocks together beforehand and you know what you're going to get.

Nikki Bell:

True story. We ran an event today for another organization and the speakers refused to do a pre-record, refused to do a demo. And when they went live today, they just walked off and were rearranging their wardrobe. And we were just going, "You're live. You're live. Come back to the computer." So definitely, prerecord, please, as much as you can.

Michael Hoffman:

Oh, that's funny. So when you talked about these networking rooms, that reminded me of an idea that somebody had around sponsorship saying, "Hey, you could have a sponsor be the host of these networking rooms and that could be one way to increase revenue." So one of the, in addition to sort of how we do it, the question I'm getting all the time is about dollars. It's that these organizations that planned in person events often had sponsors. Either they had trade show floor booths and things like that or they just had different kinds of sponsors. And there's lots of sponsors at some kind of events. You have the wifi sponsor and the coffee sponsor and the lanyard sponsor and they're worried about how do I do that online? And there's also this question of ticket prices versus sponsor revenue. So we see, an in person thing might be $1,500 events that you're going to go to for three days or something.

Michael Hoffman:

Most people, it seems like mostly, mostly, not all, that are saying, "Hey, we can't ask for those kinds of ticket prices on a virtual event, that people don't understand it. And our sponsor is going to still be there." And how are you approaching that with what you're doing and kind of how do you see that landscape and what would you tell those people that are asking that?

Nikki Bell:

Yeah, you can't charge in person ticket prices for a virtual event. I mean, that's just the bottom line, but with the virtual event, it's all about higher numbers, lower volume, kind of like if you're a fundraiser and you're thinking about regular giving because what you want from these people, it's an online community that you're building. And the idea like I mentioned before is that it's not just this event. You can springboard. We get people to springboard then to other events. Become a member and you get access to everything and it's free. So just bear that in mind, when you're recruiting attendees. When it comes to sponsors, I mean, I was going to say prior, I am still a fundraising consultant, but it's exactly the same as it was working with corporates for me. Not everyone is going to care about my event and that's okay because I want to spend my time looking after the people that do and that are aligned with it.

Nikki Bell:

And I think it's really about positioning it as a positive. When everything went to go virtual, people were apologizing and they were like, "Oh, we'll have to go virtual and isn't it a shame," but it's brilliant. Let's flip the mindset. Virtual, you can reach more people. You can reach people overseas. There's a lot of businesses that are wanting to move internationally and now you can do it and you can gain so many more people. And a sponsor's great. They can sponsor the coffee, the wifi. But the reality was when it came to a physical event, they still had to stand behind a desk while everyone for the full three days was avoiding eye contact. But with a virtual event, you can literally put the sponsors on the screen. They can introduce a session, be part of a session, host a round table in the networking room.

Nikki Bell:

And it's about going back to them and saying, "Right. Come with us on this journey. Now that we are going to change how we do things, how would you like that to look? What can we do together? What difference do you want to make with your involvement? And how can we achieve the same goals?" And it's really important as well to list out it personally, internally, what items really that they can sponsor and not just say to people, "Here's a level," because it's not right for everyone anymore. That's not how we should be doing things. And instead tailoring it to what they need. And you'll find that the more personal approach that's really tailored to their business goals is the ones that are going to help you. Bursaries, for us personally, have been a huge success for sponsorship, saying to a business, "Your money will fund places." But the places don't change because you're not limited by physical venues. So the money's technically sponsorship, but then you get extra promotion by them [crosstalk 00:17:49].

Michael Hoffman:

Bursaries. So I think we mostly call those scholarships or something.

Nikki Bell:

Oh, okay. I like scholarships. That's nice. So yeah, that's a really good one because you're opening up your event to more people. It's great marketing.

Michael Hoffman:

So you're saying we're going to invite this group of people who normally wouldn't pay or couldn't pay. And that's going to be Salesforce sponsoring that and making that possible for them to come.

Nikki Bell:

Yes. Yes.

Michael Hoffman:

And that has a dual impact, right? It helps the sponsor. It creates gratitude to the sponsor as well. Right? And it makes it possible for more people to participate.

Nikki Bell:

Exactly. One thing that I would be careful to point out is don't let a sponsor shape your event because we've seen that happen. And it's flat. It doesn't have the same reach. Sponsors should be involved because they want to help the people that you're trying to help. So they need to really support you by investment, sharing with their networks, helping with speakers. But once they start telling you what platform to use, when to do it, who to have, it's losing that benefit of a virtual event. And so if that starts happening, you've got to think long term because those people that will come, will they come to your next event? Probably not. And it's the online community that you're trying to build.

Michael Hoffman:

Right. I want to just take a quick break and do a very quick poll to see who's with us today because we often in these conversations, we have folks from charities and nonprofits, folks from associations, businesses, agencies. So I want to just get a sense of who's in the room. So launch the poll. I don't think you see it, Nikki.

Nikki Bell:

There's lots of charities. Yeah. I can see. Lots of charities. Yeah. I'll not touch anything in case I turn it off.

Michael Hoffman:

No worries. You're a co host. So I'll let this run for another 30 seconds or so, but I think that point is really... I just want to reemphasize that point about working with a sponsor to build something that works for them. So if I went to an organization, I went to you, I'd say, "What we really want is one-on-one conversations with people. That's what we need." And then you would say, "Oh, well, here's how we can do that, that fits in our event." Right? And it's not just saying like, "Here's this level PDF thing that you got to pick some generic thing from."

Nikki Bell:

Yeah, exactly. And I mean, that's how I used to do corporate sponsorship before, corporate partnerships. I've always been a strategic, proactive fundraiser, working towards the people that want to make the same difference in the world that I do. And that hasn't changed with Fundraising Everywhere. Each event that we have and that we run for other people, it's different sponsors that we would chat to about each of those different events.

Michael Hoffman:

Right.

Nikki Bell:

Because we know the businesses have different goals. So we ran an event for Salesforce in America last week. So of course we spoke to the UK businesses who want to break America and obviously they came on with that, but they might not come on with the BAME Fundraising Conference that we have next month, because that's more global and they might not do business global.

Michael Hoffman:

Right.

Nikki Bell:

So it's just what's right for them.

Michael Hoffman:

And so where are you taking this empire that you're building here? What are you trying to accomplish and how are you taking this platform, and it's called Fundraising Everywhere, so it's clearly in this charity lane? Are you going to stay in that lane? Are you going to help people who are coming sort of from other places? Where do you go from here?

Nikki Bell:

So Fundraising Everywhere is the event platform. So those are our own curated events. Everywhere Plus is the virtual event and project management service. With Everywhere Plus basically, if there is an organization, a person, a charity, that wants to connect with people online and they either can't be bothered to do it themselves, because it's true, some people don't want to or they just don't have the time or resource, we will do it for them. An event on our platform starts from as little as 500 Euro and we had an event on our site a few weeks ago and that 500 Euro, they raised 20,000 Euro because it was a fundraising event and just an hour. So it's those kinds of things that we live to do, but we've done brand relaunches for marketing agencies in the charity sector. Where we want to take it is we want to make virtual events an exciting, acceptable, and normal addition to physical events, which hopefully will come back in 2021.

Nikki Bell:

They will be different. We want hybrid to be the norm now. There's no excuse. We've shown it's possible. We showed them it's great. And we want to provide affordable, accessible, networking, learning tools, resources to fundraisers predominantly everywhere. But eventually, we might branch out of that, but we love the charity sector because we know what these users are trying to do, because they're our audience too, but all the different events within that space can vary massively. And we're getting a new website next month, which is really exciting. Everything we've built, we've literally done from scratch with our own hands. And now we're getting the pros in to make it look nicer and give us a better font because it is terrible, the one that we're using.

Michael Hoffman:

So we actually have a question. I'm going to go back and share my screen and let's listen to Jason here.

Jason Rogers:

This is Jason Rogers from Argonaut Productions. My question is in the world of virtual meetings where the meetings themselves are happening at a fraction of the cost, are nonprofits still going to be in a position to want to spend money on video collateral? And if so, will the budgets be higher, or do you think that they'll diminish based on campaign attrition?

Michael Hoffman:

So I think what Jason's asking is as somebody who probably produces video and a certain amount of video for in-person events to collect content for later and to have content to play at these events, how has that changed with these virtual events? Is there still... The expense level of the virtual event is way lower. So is there still a need for that kind of video production? And in what way? If you're talking to a professional video producer, where does that go and how do you think that shifted?

Nikki Bell:

There will always be a place for both. I run sessions through CharityHowTo for charity organizations to capture, use and share content on their smartphone and just help them to look better in fundraising. I think with the lockdown in the UK, it's been handled atrociously. So we've been in lockdown now for about three months. And what we've seen is a shift from the online content that we see. So obviously I'm still in my home office, as you can see, I'm in this tiny corner in my bedroom. And I think people are more accepting of that. And actually it's really improving the authenticity because there was that study done and I can't find it, but I'll share a link so you can share with your followers about backgrounds and people felt, like the Zoom backgrounds, and they felt like it was hiding something, so then people stopped using them.

Nikki Bell:

But personally, I think if you go, for my audience especially, engaging people, trying to connect, the more over the top you go and the more overproduced it is, people switch off from that because they're like, "I just want to know the person. I just want eye contact. I want to be part of this." Again, it goes back to that experience. Your background is beautiful. That will do. You don't need loads of lights and fancy expensive things.

Michael Hoffman:

Right.

Nikki Bell:

I've got a webcam. I've got a floor light. I've got a Yeti mic, which I couldn't get working for now. And that's literally it. And that's my level up. When I started, I had a smartphone mic. I was as close to the window as I could possibly get. And I was using the camera on my laptop. And that was okay because what people care about, it's what you're trying to achieve. Like the work that's going into pulling everything together, what they're sharing. That's what matters, but there will be a place for pain if you're putting something on, that's going to go on telly, if you have a big campaign that you want to run. But again, I still believe in the smartphone, just rough and ready elements that can just make people go, "Oh my goodness. They've made this just for me. Their beneficiary's been given a phone and recorded a story or a thank you just for me." I don't think we need to go over the top.

Michael Hoffman:

Yeah, that's interesting. I think, for us, obviously Gather Voices, the whole purpose is to enable collecting of content that's authentic, that's on people's phones and their laptops and things like that. I think where we see our clients still using some professionals is in that edit, being able to maybe piece together certain kinds of things in a little more polished way and some things like that, just to make those transitions really good. But I agree with you. I think, and that's actually leading into sponsorship as well because we're saying to sponsors, "It's much better for you to talk to the people than it is for you to have some overproduced thing about your product. This isn't that environment. People want to connect with people." Are you finding that as well?

Nikki Bell:

Totally. My friend Wayne Murray, he says humanity over hierarchy. And I think people, if you're a sponsor and you're quite blatantly a sponsor and you put this really fancy, expensive advert on, people know it's an advert, whereas if you said to attendees like, "Look, we've polled what you need before you come to this event. And we've actually worked really hard to pull you these resources together. Here they are, and come and chat with us. Have some free time with us." It's not free obviously because they pay for it in some way by coming to the event. "And we want to take the time to help to get you through," because we all know giving something away for free is going to end up with that support and that increment later on anyway.

Nikki Bell:

But it's really important as well for event organizers to not make your events free because you need to put value on that as well. But yeah, I think it does come down to the opportunity now to chat with people. You're not chasing people with socks or pick and mix at an event anymore. It's all about authentic conversations and now we can do without [crosstalk 00:28:51].

Michael Hoffman:

Yeah, that's great because none of us like to stand in a booth at a trade show for eight hours on our feet, waiting for people to come by and trying to grab them. Nobody likes that. There's nobody that's like, "Oh, that's what I love to do." So if we can create these alternatives, it's really successful. So, it is amazing, but we are already at the end of our time. I can't even believe it. I could talk to you all day. And so let me just tell everybody where they can reach you. So, and if you haven't, I'm telling everybody who's listening here, if you haven't checked out Fundraising Everywhere and the things that Nikki is doing, you've got to check it out. These are really great events. I think even just signing up and participating in events is a great way to see and experience that, right?

Nikki Bell:

Yes. Oh, absolutely. My first question is have you been to an event? And we do have the BAME Fundraising Virtual Conference on July 29th and it's pay what you can. So if anyone wants to come to that, I highly encourage everyone.

Michael Hoffman:

BAME is not a term that's used in the US, so can you describe what that's all about?

Nikki Bell:

Oh, sorry. So it's like black, Asian and minority ethnic. It's not a term that I like because I don't like abbreviating it, but our curator, who is a person of color, she chose it because just for ease of understanding, but the conference is for people of color. It's a complete lineup of people of color and they're sharing strategies and resources for BAME-led organizations and individuals to grow in the sector. But also for white people as well, it's a place to come and learn and be better in the sector also. So it is for everyone. And like I say, it's pay what you can. So if that's nothing, that's absolutely fine because it's all about learning here. So do come and check that one out because it's going to be phenomenal.

Michael Hoffman:

Excellent. Well, Nikki, thank you again for taking time out of your incredibly busy day. You said you already had an event today. I know some days you probably have more than one, so thank you again for taking the time and I hope we get to do this again.

Nikki Bell:

Oh, me too. And thank you everyone for coming and thanks, Michael, for inviting me. Lovely to see you again. I'm going to go off and listen to some Bruce now.

Michael Hoffman:

Okay. Sounds good. All right, bye everyone. Have a great rest of your day.

Nikki Bell:

Bye.


Read more like this:

Video at scale is here — request a personalized demo of Gather Voices today!

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.