Caitlin O’Malley of PCMA: “Design your experience in a way that encourages organic networking”

Design your experience in a way that encourages organic networking. At PCMA Convening Leaders 2021 — PCMA’s annual conference that took place recently, we built in networking opportunities in the online program including Conversation Starters around different topics, a ‘Battle of the DJs’ event as well as a Jeopardy night. These networking opportunities were so incredibly well […]

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Design your experience in a way that encourages organic networking. At PCMA Convening Leaders 2021 — PCMA’s annual conference that took place recently, we built in networking opportunities in the online program including Conversation Starters around different topics, a ‘Battle of the DJs’ event as well as a Jeopardy night. These networking opportunities were so incredibly well received that we had to add more to the program by popular demand.

As a part of our series about “5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Run a Live Virtual Event”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Caitlin O’Malley, DES, program manager, education products at PCMA.

Caitlin O’Malley knows what it takes to produce successful virtual events. Since joining PCMA in 2015, she manages the production of the hybrid broadcast of PCMA’s flagship annual meetings and 50+ webinars each year. Through coordination internally with the Education & Events teams and externally with speakers and tech vendors, she strives to deliver informative, engaging and meaningful digital experiences. Caitlin is actively involved in all aspects of PCMA’s virtual events including content development, engagement design, speaker training, livestream platform build-out, day-of production, online moderation and post-event measurement.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

I feel like I should be telling you about the productions I was putting on as a kid or teenager, but that was not the case. I was born and raised in Chicago, and playing sports took up most of my time through high school. I graduated from DePaul University with a degree in elementary education and went on to teach kindergarten for five years. I loved every second — kids that age are like sponges, so eager to learn!

Can you tell us the story of what led you to this particular career path?

I have always been drawn to events and planning. While I was teaching, I was also involved with planning a lot of events at school and oversaw creating videos for some of those projects as re-caps or promotion. When I decided that I needed a change, event management was a natural thing for me to pursue. Before joining PCMA, I got on board with planning the major community events in my area, which I still do today- or should I say will go back to doing once it is safe to do so. I was able to land a gig supporting the logistics manager for Riot Fest in Chicago in 2015, which was an awesome experience. Shortly after that, I interviewed with PCMA and the rest is history!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I became fully responsible for webinar production, we never had hosts on the sessions. Speakers were asked to begin at the start time and would then take questions on their own. I sat in a cube in a high traffic area, so I would always find an office to sit in for the webinar’s live session. On this day, there was no office for me to sit in and I figured no big deal. Wrong. Halfway through the speaker doing a Q&A on her own, she decided she did not like the format and called out “Caitlin, can you please read me the questions for the rest of the session?” I had to quickly shush everyone, and get on to do Q&A with the speaker on the spot. So nerve-racking! When the session ended and I was coming out of panic mode, my boss came over to tell me how much better the Q&A was with a moderator, and that changing it up was a wonderful idea. I, of course, spilled the beans that this was not a genius plan I had but the speaker called me out, so I jumped in.

Lessons learned:

#1 — ALWAYS be in an office or space with a closed door when producing live sessions.

#2 — Having a host/moderator is critical for online sessions. It enhances everyone’s experience, both the speaker’s and the audience’s.

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

I am someone that always watches the news, even if it’s only in the morning while getting ready for work. When a friend told me about the podcast “The Daily”, produced by the New York Times, I was intrigued. The episodes are daily and about 35–40 minutes long, a good length to cover a majority of my commuting time in the morning prior to Covid-19.

One of the first episodes I listened to was about New York cab drivers and the medallion they must possess to be a licensed driver. The story highlighted the strict guidelines that cab drivers must adhere to and how drivers with companies like Uber or Lyft were not held to the same standards. One individual they interviewed had multiple cab driver friends who had committed suicide recently because of this imbalance of guidelines and their inability to maintain their medallion due to its high cost. From that day on, I was hooked on the podcast because it takes the time to look at stories that are not covered by the everyday news, or, they look into the issue further to find out the source of where stories you would hear about began. I love finding the truths and the real story behind the surface, so this was something that serves my interests.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I would call back to those kindergarten teacher years. The thing I would say probably daily, “You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit.” That simple quote, created for children to not fight about the flavor sucker they got or something, is truly a life lesson. Not everyone is born with the same abilities, opportunities, or just pure luck, and you cannot get stuck on it. It’s not fair that someone makes more money than you, or gets more recognition for a job you also do, but that’s life. And throwing any type of “fit” about it will not help. You have to take what you have been given and create your own opportunities, leaning into the skills that you do have to make your place in the world. Your life is whatever you make of it, and we must recognize that waiting for dumb luck to get us what we want is not a viable plan. “You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit”, then you make your own opportunities to thrive.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. For the benefit of our readers, can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing events in general?

I have been planning events for a lot of my life. If there was a birthday party or event that needed to happen with family or friends, I was always involved. I am a girl who loves logistics and planning and seeing the result of all the hard work with the reactions of the people I planned for. As we talked about, I planned events when I was working as a teacher for groups large and small, as well as being involved with planning community events to this day. I live for creating positive experiences for others.

Here at PCMA, I have been on the education team since I started, so helping to plan events for our audience is part of the job. In my eyes, every education session should be planned as a mini event, an opportunity to create that positive experience, whether it is at a face-to-face, large scale conference like Convening Leaders (our annual meeting), or a one-hour webinar on a Tuesday afternoon.

Can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing live virtual events? Can you share any interesting stories about them?

I have created and managed the digital event experience for our flagship events for the past couple of years, which was a great experience to bring to our team meetings when planning and producing our hybrid event this year. Due to COVID-19, we had a larger focus on the digital side of our hybrid meeting, with a lot more attendees only able to attend online. Having the experience that I do on different platforms and planning the digital component of these events in the past was a huge benefit for myself and the whole team when planning Convening Leaders 2021.

In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job creating live virtual events? What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?

I enjoyed attending PlanetIMEX, a virtual experience put together by IMEX. Instead of recreating their beloved tradeshow online, IMEX went way beyond their comfort zone and created a 3D floating island in an immense blue ocean. Attendees navigated to different areas of the island for different topics. It’s a drastically bold move especially as virtual events have begun to look increasingly similar to each other.

What are the common mistakes you have seen people make when they try to run a live virtual event? What can be done to avoid those errors?

It seemed like a lot of first timers in the digital event world were trying to replicate their face-to-face event and just throw it online. Same schedule cadence, same exhibition model, same … everything as much as possible. Putting on virtual events requires a lot of the same elements, but you need to think about them differently. People aren’t going to be in the same physical space, so they won’t have those serendipitous moments of running into an old friend or colleague in the halls or meeting new people because they happen to sit at the same lunch table. Planners need to create those opportunities in a digital world for their attendees, which a lot of times requires a little more intentional work, but the reward of seeing those connections happen is so great. Planners also need to think about how to make meaningful experiences for their sponsors and exhibitors online as well. There are not opportunities for attendees on a break to spend their time walking through a booth area — so how do you attract those attendees online to the sponsor and exhibitor areas? There has been lots of trial and error out there, and I am not sure that anyone has found the hands-down best practice yet, but we are all working on it!

Which virtual platform have you found to be most effective to be able to bring everyone together virtually?

At PCMA, we try to stay agnostic when it comes to virtual event platforms. I can’t tell you which platform to choose, but I can speak to how to choose it. To put it very simply, define your needs into two categories: must have and nice to have. When evaluating the range of platform options, write down how many must-have and nice-to-have requirements each option satisfies. That should help you narrow down your options greatly.

Are there any essential tools or software that you think an event organizer needs to know about?

I truly believe there is no one perfect system for all. There are, however, critical features that everyone should consider before landing on any tools or software. One such feature is accessibility:

  • For people who are deaf or hard of hearing, does the tool allow closed captioning, live description, and good audio quality?
  • For people who are blind or visually impaired, can they easily zoom in on elements on the platform? Do visual elements on the software come with alternative text descriptions?
  • On top of closed captioning and live description, for a culturally diverse audience, does the tool integrate with simultaneous interpretation services?

Another critical feature is the ability to facilitate organic connections between your attendees. The reason why people love going to events and why it has been missed so much is not because of the fear of missing out on the educational opportunities; it’s because they miss the serendipitous connections formed when they run into someone in a hallway, have a small-group discussion with those who happen to sit with during a session or at a lunch table. Bringing that opportunity to your attendees is so important.

Ok. Thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our discussion. An in-person event can have a certain electric energy. How do you create an engaging and memorable event when everyone is separated and in their own homes? What are the “Five Things You Need To Know To Successfully Run a Live Virtual Event” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Design your experience in a way that encourages organic networking. At PCMA Convening Leaders 2021 — PCMA’s annual conference that took place recently, we built in networking opportunities in the online program including Conversation Starters around different topics, a ‘Battle of the DJs’ event as well as a Jeopardy night. These networking opportunities were so incredibly well received that we had to add more to the program by popular demand.
  2. Have the right content delivery format for your audience. Some audiences respond to interactive sessions where they can turn on their camera and get on live with a speaker. Other audiences respond better to passive, lecture-style delivery. And there is everyone in between. This comes back to knowing your audience and picking the appropriate delivery format for them.
  3. Staff communication — keep your team in the loop! Before each event, we always host a pre-conference meeting and run through the entire event with team members in the room (or in the Zoom these days). In addition to frequent chat and email communications, we also do something called “Break Week” where team members log into the platform before it goes live to the public and locate any issues they can find. We sometimes joke among ourselves, “is it time to go in and break stuff yet?” It’s better that we encounter issues first and resolve them than letting our attendees find those issues for us. After the Break Week, we’ll usually have gathered a long list of Frequently Asked Questions that we can quickly copy and paste when attendees come to us with questions on the day of the event.
  4. Speaker preparation is critical. Presenting online adds new layers of complexity for speakers, especially those who may not be comfortable with technology. For our annual meeting Convening Leaders 2021, we provided our speakers with comprehensive training including a live training session, an on-demand instruction video, FAQ sheet, best practices on general online presentations and the livestream platform, as well as one-on-one support by request. On the day of their session, we staffed at least one moderator for each session to lead final tech checks and answer any last-minute questions before the session began. All speakers had my phone number in case any unexpected incident came up. Thanks to this seemingly crazy amount of preparation, I only received one phone call from a speaker during the event who had trouble getting onto the platform. It turned out she couldn’t access her session because the session wasn’t open yet — she arrived too early!
  5. Over communicate with your attendees. In an in-person event, getting lost in a convention center may result in impromptu conversations and new relationships with other attendees, but in an online environment, feeling lost will most likely only cause anxiety and frustration. Let your attendees know what to expect once they enter your event platform and intentionally shape their experience. Tell them very clearly what they can do next, how to fill out their profile, where to attend sessions, how to interact with each other, etc. Include information in emails, social media, FAQs webpage, and even chatbots if that’s a tool you opt for. The platform we used at Convening Leaders 2021 allowed for push notifications which gave us the ability to direct people’s attention to different sessions or areas on the platform. Communicate early and often.

Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a live virtual event that they would like to develop. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?

The first step to take to plan a virtual event is actually the same as an in-person event- audience analysis:

  • Who are your audiences?
  • Why would they attend your event?
  • What are they hoping to take away from your event?

Many people immediately jump to choosing a platform but do keep in mind — your platform is the means while your audience’s need is your end. Search for a platform that accommodates the needs of your audience, not the other way around. It will make your life much easier that way!

Super. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Acceptance. Everyone is different, but we are all alike in so many ways. It’s hard for me to understand some of the hate that is present in the world, especially when the hate is focused on something that does not directly affect you in any way. Why does it matter how someone dresses or looks? If we could accept one another for who we are, focus on the positive, and recognize the ways we are the same, I think we would all be much happier.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I’d love to talk to Hasan Minhaj. I love how he uses satire to educate others on important issues. A colleague once said he and I have a similar sense of humor.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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