The Key To Unlocking A Successful Virtual Event: A Conversation with Arianna Rehak of Matchbox Virtual Media

How can associations create meaningful and impactful virtual events? How do associations create webinars that capture the same in-person experience digitally for members?

For many associations, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many to transform their hold in-person events into completely online digital conferences. Michael Hoffman, CEO of Gather Voices, digs into the questions that association executives are currently asking with industry expert, Arianna Rehak, CEO of Matchbox Virtual Media.

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Michael Hoffman:

Hi everyone. It's Michael Hoffman, CEO at Gather Voices and I'm really excited today to be able to have a conversation with Ariana Rehack from Matchbox Virtual Media. Hello, Arianna.

Arianna Rehak:

Hello, hello. Thanks for having me.

Michael Hoffman:

Yeah, thanks for being here. You are in the virtual events business and you were in this business before everybody decided that they needed to be in the virtual events business. So you have some real perspective on the pre COVID world and the current world that we're in and you focus on the association industry, which is what we focus on and what a lot of our audience comes from. So I'm really excited to have you, because I am certain that you have some number of simultaneous events going on today and every day, because there's so much demand right now.

Arianna Rehak:

Absolutely. Four happening as we speak. I'm resisting the urge to check the notifications on my phone.

Michael Hoffman:

Yes. That's good. So, will you just give us a little bit about your background and how you got to this and a little bit about Matchbox? I also will say, I am so happy to speak to woman CEO of a company and a founder. I don't get to do that enough. And so again, thank you for being here.

Arianna Rehak:

Yeah. So a little about my background before starting Matchbox, I used to run an organization called AssociationSuccess.org. So, for those who are familiar, it is a digital publication and online community for leaders of associations. And so I was really lucky to get involved very early on in the project. So my first day on the job, zero readers of the publication, zero community members. I remember my noteBook, writing down notes on the first day and having to write down, "Look up what an association is." It's been quite the journey, but-

Michael Hoffman:

Yeah, right. And there's probably all kinds of acronyms that you were like, "What does that mean?"

Arianna Rehak:

Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, exactly. The acronyms. They were smart to hold back on that back. That came a little bit later, but yes, absolutely. And so, during this time, in building this community, I was really starting to get excited about the notion of collective knowledge and the notion of when you bring people together, their output, their collective brain is going to be much stronger than any individual. And so that really came to a head for me, it was a virtual meeting I was holding with a group of people and I hit the record button just out of curiosity. It was like a mastermind so people were bringing problems and the group was work shopping solutions. And the group together was just coming to really meaningful solutions. And so I was documenting them and finding ways to have those published actually in the publication. So that feedback loop of bringing community together to build content is what led to the first virtual conference that we held. So we were trying to hold a large scale conversation. So we were trying to see what would happen if you brought hundreds of people who are passionate about the same things, are struggling with the same challenges and creating a space for them to share, to ask questions and all the like. So, that was the Surge virtual conference. And so, within that context, the first time we held it, it was going to be a one time event, but we were met with such positive feedback, we saw a way to make it financially sustainable, which from my understanding is a big focus of this conversation. And so, after doing that for a while, we realized that this was really our passion. So a core group of us started Matchbox to bring this concept to other communities.

Michael Hoffman:

That's great. So you discovered a methodology of how to remotely get people to actually have a conversation and have meaningful connection. Is that a good characterization of that?

Arianna Rehak:

Yeah. So, our tagline is, "Conversations that matter, connections that last," and the conversations that matter part was really a big part of the eurekas. When you bring people together around things that they care about and things that where the problem to be solved is something that everyone has access to be part of the answer, as opposed to technical training, where you're coming to learn the 10 steps to do something. And then the person you're there to focus on is the presenter, or the speaker. In these types of events, we always have these video sessions, which are a conversation format and then the attendee chat. And if we were to track the eyes of where people are focusing their attention, it would be a lot more on the attendee chat, relatively speaking. We see the speakers as conversation starters.

Michael Hoffman:

Okay. So it's really that back channel, or it's not a back channel because it's right out in front, but the idea that that main event, if it's a speaker, is giving ideas that then a whole community can be interacting and reacting to in real time.

Arianna Rehak:

Yeah. That's a really good way to put it. I would add that that's where we came from. Our first year of Matchbox, we were entirely hosting events for this purpose. So a lot of the associations we were working with were doing this because they were looking to make meaning of a specific issue. So one of the very popular use cases would be a conversation about the future of the profession or the industry, for example, because that's something that everyone has something to say about. And there are some environments and contexts that are being very significantly impacted by factors like automation, for instance. So we did a whole project around making meaning of where that community was at in terms of the future. So that type of interaction, though that's where we came from, we now recognizing that the needs have shifted quite a bit, we've pivoted significantly in terms of our session offerings.

Michael Hoffman:

And just doing more variety of what people need to move their offline conference online, those kind of things. But I think that you're coming from that place, that conversation is really valuable because the tendency for people who have no background in virtual events is to basically do a webinar for eight hours. And that's what people are on these Zoom calls all day long. So you need to have events that really mix things up and get people thinking and not tuning out. So I think that, tell me if I'm right, that you bringing that insight into those conversations with your clients and saying, "How do we insert some of this stuff that would really get people excited and contributing?" That that really helps make a better product in the end.

Arianna Rehak:

Totally. We actually, in our events, we recommend the first session of the day being one that's a little bit more geared toward drawing people into that attendee chat conversation, because you're getting their buy in for the online experience. You're having them participate right away so our data shows you're more likely to participate later on, if we get you early, kind of thing. And this has been a really cool time in the virtual events space, not just for us, but really for everyone in it, because there's just such an opportunity for rapid innovation. We're coming up with new approaches and strategies and we're able to immediately apply them and then take that and turn that into best practices. We have a growing library of resources that, when we're seeing something work really well, once it's turned into a PDF of instruction, that is the best practice definition.

Michael Hoffman:

That's great. And so at Matchbox, you do some things, or everything for folks who need to do virtual events, right? So if somebody had their programming all down, but they needed somebody to figure out the tech side, you could do that. If they needed a collaborator to figure out the content, you could help them with that. You're doing production on the video side to make the content great. Is that right? All of those things that people can come to you for.

Arianna Rehak:

Yeah. So we're unusually involved, I would say. So what happens when you work with us is you're immediately matched with a client success team. So it's a team of three and our teams of three, each one is bringing a certain strength into the whole. So for example, one of the three is being trained on engagement best practices. So their role in helping bring the event across is seeing it from the attendee perspective, in the best outcomes. Now, what happens is that client success team and working with you will draw the relevant expertise within Matchbox for a given event. So the video production side is the biggest example. Another major one is sponsorship and revenue generation. That's a major part of what makes these events go. And our previous problem to solve was how to help associations source sponsors. Now, of course, it's how to retain into the virtual space. One of our first onboarding meetings is entirely a consultation about this transition and really helping set them up for success in that area.

Michael Hoffman:

So, with sponsorship, are you helping them determine the types of sponsorship packages that would be appropriate and those kind of things, or are you talking directly to their potential sponsors and trying to close those deals? What level do you get involved in that?

Arianna Rehak:

So it's definitely different depending on need. This is an area actually we're very interested in bringing more resource, because we just see it as such an important part of the whole. The, I guess, minimum viable is a consultation around the packages, around what's available virtually. And honestly, one of the main goals of that initial conversation is to shift the mindset a little bit. I think that in moving virtual, for some there's been this fear of scarcity. This concern that we're actually offering less than we were originally going to offer. And so, one of the things we're really trying to help convey is that actually there's a lot to be gained virtually that you can't do in terms of data, in terms of direct connection and relationship. There are so many opportunities there to provide additional value to sponsor. So that's the main focus of the first conversation. What we've found actually, to answer your question, at the end of the day, it is the associations that are going back to talk to their sponsors. But there have been cases where, one of our clients has said, "Hey, we hear you, but we don't know how to convey that to the next step." So we've actually sometimes stepped in and even held info sessions for the sponsors of an event. If that's what's needed to get it across the finish line, we're there to help as needed, basically.

Michael Hoffman:

Right. No, that's great. So, let's dive into that subject a little bit, because there's so many different things people are thinking about with that. One, for example, I'd love your thoughts on, I hear a lot of conversation about sponsorship versus ticket revenue, right? And so a lot of the in-person conferences have fairly significant ticket prices. $750, $1,200, $1,500, something like that. And there's a nervousness of like, "Can I do an online thing and charge anywhere near that?" And so we see most organizations lowering those prices dramatically, not all, almost all that we've seen. And then we see others that say, "Look, you can make it free. You could quadruple your attendance and you could charge more for sponsorship." And then there's others saying, "Hey, we can offer a lot virtually, so why are we discounting the pricing?" Because we want to project that there's real value here. There's a lot of different angles to this. So how do you think about those different revenue models?

Arianna Rehak:

Yeah. I will give the very strong caveat that we have found such a dramatic difference in different industries and professions and dynamics. And so I'm always nervous to give blanket advice for that reason. Some industries-

Michael Hoffman:

Well, let me cut you off here because how do you assess that, initially? Right? Because a new client comes, how do you know? Because I hear that. It's not one size fits all, it sounds like. And you say that different industries have really different approaches. How do you get that information? Is that something that they tell you about, their hunch or do you have some other way to reveal that?

Arianna Rehak:

So a lot are coming with their existing approaches in terms of their pricing, most of them are discounting from their original price, usually about 50%.

Michael Hoffman:

In terms of ticket pricing or sponsorship?

Arianna Rehak:

Yeah, in terms of ticket pricing. In terms of sponsorship, the majority that we've worked with are trying to maintain the same sponsor dollars. I'll add that the nature of the events that we've been doing have been more around fewer sponsors who are investing relatively a lot more money. The events that are continuing education events and very much have credits involved, those ones tend to maintain their price points much more than others. The ones that are very education focused. I'm trying to think of

Michael Hoffman:

No, that makes sense because if you're getting credits, you need those credits and you have a budget to get those credits and you're willing to pay for those credits. Right? Different than some other kind of event.

Arianna Rehak:

Yeah, absolutely. And some had already sold tickets, right? And so, this was about maintaining those existing. So it's also dependent a little bit on the timeline of the events. One thing that we've seen is that the associations we've worked with have had a very hard time predicting what their numbers are going to look like attendee wise, just because this circumstance is just so different than anything we've dealt with. I can say that a lot of that has been on the positive side, which is very cool. We just had a recent event, their attendance was something like three times the size. The big advice that I would give is if you're investing in your virtual conference, if you're investing in the production value, if you're investing in the experience, if you're investing in the education there, I really recommend against offering for free, because then you will create that expectation that it's going to continue to be free. If you are charging, there is a... For that reason, in terms of maintaining the value. One thing that we've seen for some events where there's the decision to make the event free and that it's primarily going to be sponsorship driven, as far as the revenue goes, a mechanic we've seen that works really, really well is anchoring at a price for the event, but offering a discount or even bringing it entirely to free, but tying it directly to that sponsorship. this event was X dollars, but thanks to such and such sponsor.

Michael Hoffman:

Okay. So giving credit, giving the gifting of that to the sponsor, which creates this reciprocal feelings and emotions that get people maybe to check out their wares or do something. That's really interesting.

Arianna Rehak:

Well, and the coolest dynamic we saw actually was before COVID. This started as an experiment. It was a successful experiment. It was an association that, one of their stakeholders were students. So they had significantly decreased the price of their event for students, but recognized very quickly that there still wasn't a willingness to pay. So very likely they were going to have very few students at this event. So we gave them the suggestion and it worked, in their prospects, they created a sponsor package called student benefactor. So, if you paid X dollars, a fixed costs, you are making the event free for all students. And it was the first one that sold. Then the association got to reach out to all of the student groups and offer the tickets. And because the event was so interactive, the sponsor was seeing the result of their sponsorship. And actually interesting to note, this was the first time that that sponsor had ever sponsored anything with that association.

Michael Hoffman:

Yeah. That's really great. So, you're saying that there are lots of opportunities in these virtual events and that it doesn't necessarily have to shake out the same way, the same number of sponsors, but you can maintain your dollars if you're have good content, if you're creative about it and you put together the right packages that appeal to those sponsors. I want to just ask about another piece of this, which is, I had a conversation like this with Edward Wendling, who is with ASI, the makers of iMIS. And he said something I thought was very insightful, which was, them as a vendor goes to events, gets a booth space, stands on the trade show floor for the purposes of meeting actual people that they can follow up with later.

Michael Hoffman:

And what he said was, "I don't need to do that. I just need the results of that. I don't enjoy standing for eight hours, in this booth while they're trying to herd people through these spaces, but I need to walk away with those conversations." How are people solving that in these virtual events, given that a sponsorship where somebody's name is on it, or it says your free ticket was made possible by this brand. That's great. But is there a way to appeal to the people who really need somebody to check them out, check out what their product is, maybe have a conversation?

Arianna Rehak:

Yeah. So in my previous experience, the first spiritual conference that I had built, it was entirely monetized through sponsorship. So I really went through a evolution, basically, over time of trying to understand need, and also have to communicate the value of virtual. And this was a time when there were other options rather than just the virtual. And so really it boiled down to three main value propositions to be offered virtually. One is lead generation, which I think is really the one you're hitting on. Two is brand differentiation, obviously. And the third, thought leadership. And so, what I was doing in those initial events was every event, we would offer a certain number of benefits, but we would experiment with a few additional just to see how it went. And so the one that has been the most impactful, which is something I would give as advice to consider for anyone listening is on the lead generation side. So one of the things that we experimented with is that at the beginning of sessions, we would offer space for a short video ad, less than two minutes. Over time we actually built best practices because we'd seen good videos and not as good videos. And so we were able to distill down what really works online. And so at the end of one of these video ads, we would put a popup and the popup would have some sort of call to action. So maybe that that call to action is, "Would you like to be contacted to receive a demo from this company?" Or "Would you like to download this eBook?" And so, over time that was really the way we were measuring successful versus not as successful videos, is we were looking at the conversions. And so, one of the things that we found is that the ones that converted well were the ones that were really authentic and human. There was an interesting process over time with each virtual conference is that the sponsors wanted to one up themselves and really increase the production quality and put music and do all this sophisticated stuff. And it, actually, those ones did not convert as well. And it was the authentic ones where somebody is talking as a human and that human is somebody that's been in that attendee chat the entire event and has really been part of the community. Those were the ones that were converting.

Michael Hoffman:

Wow. That is the Gather Voices story in a nutshell, right? Which is, why do we exist to be able to video like that from regular people? And especially that vendor thing, which is like, "I'm one of you, I'm in this industry, I have something to offer. I'm a person you would want to talk to." And when you see something that's super polished and brand voice, you're like, "That's not a person to talk to." It actually creates distance, I think. So that's really interesting to hear. So are you still doing that where you would put something in front of sessions as a way to drive lead generation?

Arianna Rehak:

Yep, absolutely. So we've been encouraging the associations that we work with to go this route. And one of the things we've done is put together best practices for their sponsors. And so literally it's a PDF that we're sending to them that they can send to their sponsors to prepare and that came out and with some example ads and some example calls to action and explaining the pros and cons of one versus the other. And one of the things that we found that's been very useful of that approach of the, this is the best practice advice from this partnered organization, is that it says some of the things that the associations may not feel super comfortable saying themselves. The, "Hey, you should keep it within two minutes," while we're saying, "Hey, it's actually better for retention." Because it's true. You go on for five minutes, you're going to lose people. So that separation and the guide, we have found to be really useful.

Michael Hoffman:

Yeah. That's terrific. I know I'm going to get asked this, so I got to ask you, which is, our medical association clients tell me that they cannot mix sponsor content and educational content in any way. There's really strict rules around that, which challenges them on that sponsorship side. Have you heard of that? And how have you thought about work arounds, if that's something that's come up for you.

Arianna Rehak:

Yeah. So, absolutely. I'm worried because there are slightly different legal... I'm worried to touch on something that might not be completely accurate. One thing that's been useful for sure is differentiating spaces where certain things can happen. So for example, we have certain sessions that we run in a certain way and ones that were the demo product ones. You clicked completely out to a different screen to go and do that. And then you would come back into the event.

Michael Hoffman:

So there's definitely ways to segregate that content, then. You just need to be creative and not say, "We can't do it because of those rules," I think. Right?

Arianna Rehak:

Absolutely. And-

Michael Hoffman:

Go ahead.

Arianna Rehak:

Oh, I was just going to say that the online has definitely created new gray areas in that sense. I've seen a lot of conversations in online communities of interpreting the rules. So, I say that because-

Michael Hoffman:

Yeah. Different organizations have different comfort levels about different setups, right? So it's got to be a good fit. It also has to fit their brand. Right? Feel organic to who they are and all of that.

Arianna Rehak:

Yeah, absolutely.

Michael Hoffman:

So that was great about revenue. And I think it's very positive. Don't walk into your virtual event thinking you're going to lose. That's not the way to go into it. Right? The way to go into it is to say, "We can add all kinds of new value here that we weren't able to add in person. And we're going to keep the overall value at the level or above, is what it was." Right? Some way to think about it so that you are creative and you are figuring that out.

Michael Hoffman:

One of the things we've been talking a lot about with our organizations is that if you're a membership organization, the event is like a peak of engagement, but you really need to be engaging your members all year long. And some of these things, like that short video from those vendors, can live elsewhere for longer periods of time, right? Don't have to just live in that event. So the sponsorship opportunities actually can be more expansive than the three days of the event. You're going to email out that video from the sponsor to your membership after the event, or you're going to put it on your social media platforms to thank them and all kinds of things like that. Are those things that are coming up with you as well?

Arianna Rehak:

Absolutely. And we're excited to see the organizations that are thinking strategically in a longer term way. The other part that we've seen in our events. So I can't remember actually, if I brought this up in this conversation so far, but one of the things that we do and can do, is take the collective knowledge that's shared within a given session and create an eBook that is made available to the attendees. And that space is definitely a culmination of insight from a lot of different people. So those eBooks tend to perform quite well because there are so many quotes from attendees and it lives on. And so that space would be example of space that, often these eBooks get sponsored, or there's this continued piece. The other thing I would say about virtual is that, there's a reason why once a year, you might fly to a specific location and all convene there, but virtually, timing is much more fluid. So we've seen the more sophisticated sponsorship relationships are actually looking over time at the next year, let's say. I've seen some very cool programs of a sponsor involved in sponsoring a content stream. So they might have a presence in a virtual event, but they might have a presence in a podcast and in an article and-

Michael Hoffman:

Right. Tie those things together because it's all talking to the same community. And, don't think of it as a banner hanging in some hotel that disappears.

Arianna Rehak:

Exactly. And I would say that that requires, for a lot of organizations, a pretty significant paradigm shift from what they're used to, but now's a good time to switch things up. This is an old message at this point, but, we're embracing change more than ever. I can tell you the first organizations that came to us when COVID hit were the ones that were looking for an excuse to do this, were looking for an excuse to start moving virtually. So-

Michael Hoffman:

Yeah, that's interesting. An organization we've been talking to that has a huge event in Chicago every year and their expenses are extremely high because they're in the convention center and all this stuff, and they're looking at revenue loss, but they're looking at cost reduction that's so dramatic that they can actually build a more sustainable program, in some ways. So I think, one door closes and other doors open. Right?

Arianna Rehak:

Absolutely.

Michael Hoffman:

So, the last thing I want to talk to you about. I have a hundred things I want to talk to you about, but for this conversation, the last thing I'm going to talk to you about is technology. I think that in my world of video, people get hung up on the technology. They're like, "You need to do more video," and it's like, "I could use this tool and this software and this thing and that thing." And it's like, "Just start. Just start and then optimize. Just start and optimize." Gather Voices gives you opportunities to scale video, but you should be doing video anyway, you should be take out your phone and do stuff. And that's how you're going to learn and do. And there's a paralysis because there's so many choices and things out there. And I see with virtual events, who knew there was so many different platforms? Everything's come out of the woodwork and we know there's these large platforms. When I say large, lots of functionality, trying to mimic the trade show experience, things like Intrado, which was in expo, and others. And then you have things like Zoom, which are really basic kinds of webinar software and things like that. How should people be thinking about it? Have you settled on three different tech stacks depending on the type of events, how do you wade through that whole thing?

Arianna Rehak:

So, in our case, that has been the case, is that we have certain tech that we like to use for a specific use cases or scenarios. And sometimes in a given event, it'll be a combination. Having said that, I would give two pieces of advice for this question. The first piece of advice is that my experience has been, it's really not about the tech that's used. It's about how it's being used. I have seen the same functionality creating such different outcomes. So the best example that I have, this was in, not one of our events, this was in someone else's event, a box that I would have called an attendee chat because it had the functionality where every user could write in and see the other's messages. But at the very beginning of the event, somebody wrote into the chat saying, "Hey, I'm having an issue with my browser. Help." And the staff person from the association wrote back and said, "Oh, here's how you fix that." And then somebody else asked a tech question, and then again, "Here's how you fix that." And so that signaled to everyone that that was a technical support box, and that's all. It just wasted that real estate, the entire event. And I just looked at it and I was like, "Man, such lost value." So, that's the first piece is, really be mindful of the desired outcome that you're trying to achieve and think about how you might do that. people have a tendency with tech, the way that it's being signaled early on for how to use it, is generally what sticks. So a quick piece of advice in that area, if you are wanting a vibrant attendee chat per se, then ask a few volunteers to write in at the beginning and signal that that's how it's going to be used. If you want to start moving away, if you're getting the, "Hi from Illinois," "Hi, from California," and you're wanting to move in to do real conversation, ask somebody to put in a substantive question in there. Signal to others that they can and should do that as well. So that's my first piece of advice about the tech. My second piece of advice is that, right now people are needing connection more than ever. So I would encourage in building events to be very mindful of that fact. And one of the cool things about all of these innovations in the tech space is that the current need for what an event does is so much greater than ever before. When we first went looking for a platform that optimized for community conversation, we couldn't find one. The one that we ended up working with, we actually asked them to build out functionality. It just wasn't one of the use cases for virtual events. Typically, they had always been a very broadcast out style. And so that's what was available to us. So, that would be my other consideration, when looking at tech, is to optimize for that community and that connection piece, because that's-

Michael Hoffman:

Sometimes that's not one thing, right?

Arianna Rehak:

Yeah.

Michael Hoffman:

I've seen an event where it's YouTube Live and then it's some other chat program, like minute chat or something where there's a really vibrant chat going on. And that's really inexpensive stuff, those things. So it's not necessarily some, all you can eat thing that has every type of functionality in it.

Arianna Rehak:

Absolutely. Absolutely.

Michael Hoffman:

Yeah. Great. Well, Arianna, thank you so much for taking the time out to talk. I know how busy you are. This is a really important topic for the association community and everybody else right now. And I hope you'll come back because I'm sure we can have another conversation like this, I think, in a few months and really see where have things gone, since now.

Arianna Rehak:

Yeah. Thank you for having me. Great conversation.


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