Hosting Digital Events in the Era of COVID
The 61st Scholastic Achievement moved online and reached its biggest audience
Virtual Events are the New Norm
We have seen a lot of changes over the last couple months with COVID but one of the most noteworthy has been events. Even as Virginia reopens to the world it will be much longer before business as usual returns and crowds of people come together.
Virginia Media and The Virginian-Pilot recently hosted the first virtual Scholastic Achievement recognizing high school students and their academic accomplishments. While nothing can replace in person togetherness virtual events can add value and fill a different role.
The virtual Scholastic Achievement reached over 34,700 people, fostered an online community, and brought together the voices of community leaders across the Hampton Roads region. We are excited to share what we learned from hosting our first virtual event, including all the road bumps along the way.
What is Scholastic Achievement
The Virginian-Pilot Scholastic Achievement Scholarship and Recognition Program is an annual salute to the best and brightest high school students from South Hampton Roads, Western Tidewater and northeastern North Carolina. We weren’t going to let a pandemic stop the tradition so, after 61 years of hosting an IRL event, we went virtual.
Supporting our community is at the heart of what we do and moving the event online was an easy decision. Creating a virtual event that delivered value to the students, schools, and sponsors – less easy.
How we did it
Every event has a behind the scenes team and this year every aspect of Scholastic Achievement got a major facelift. Working closely with our events, special products, digital, and marketing teams, we created a landing portal to house all of the content for the event, utilized Facebook to “air” the event, and promoted it all with a comprehensive ad campaign.
What was once a newspaper only and a live event initiative, Scholastic Achievement went digital first with the promotion and event platform, with a special section of The Virginian-Pilot, showcasing the winners in print after the event.
The Scholastic Achievement portal was created on VirginiaMedia.events, which allowed us to streamline the submission, data base and content. Each school had its own unique landing page, that housed links and individual pages for each student, providing details on each student.
The social page
There are many hosting platforms popping up for online events, but we decided to keep things simple and host the event itself on Facebook. The Facebook event page contained the standard content for any event page, including a branded cover, description with hyperlinks for all the sponsors, and a series of posts leading up to the event. The content that was added to the thread of the page contained:
- an opening video from our Vice President
- recognition posts to our sponsors and scholarship donors with their logos, links, and details about the level of their commitment
- videos from sponsors
- individual posts for each of the schools, with a selection of photos of the students and logo from the school – linking back to virginiamedia.events
- and over 46 family congratulatory messages with photos for the students (we monitored and approved all messages before going live)
While we knew we had a great deal of content to post from our end, our biggest surprise came from the engagement from the parents and families of the students being recognized. It was overwhelming and added the sincere, two-sided engagement we had hoped for.
This online page became a great community outlet leading up to the online event. The community made the most out of this new experience and practiced gratitude in such a public way.
The promotional campaign
The promotional campaign was robust, and the message was consistent. The content centered around giving these students the opportunity to experience what many were missing – public recognition for their hard work in lieu of canceled graduation ceremonies.
The campaign consisted of:
- an email campaign to the market, inviting people to join the Facebook event early, and to promote sponsorships
- a print campaign that ran in The Virginian-Pilot with the same messaging
- and a series of organic posts and social ads informing people about the event and encouraging them to join
The virtual event
The virtual video event contained messages of support from alumni, judges, sponsors, and community leaders. While the event looked much different than years past, we were grateful it allowed us to reach more people than ever before with over 1,000 views on the video between Facebook and YouTube.
The Print Component
One thing stayed the same, the special section of scholastic achievement was published on Sunday, June 7th in The Virginian-Pilot to a readership of over 250,000. The sponsorship winners were recognized, along with brief profiles of each of the students nominated for their academic efforts.
Yes, there was an unexpected downside to this virtual event that none of us predicted. While our Facebook page allowed us to reach nearly 35k people and create an online community where The Virginian Pilot and parents posted organically – it also attracted the attention of spammers.
Right before the event went Live, spammers took advantage of the open comment section and an engaged the audience to post a false link of the event. We worked quickly to delete the spam and shut down the comment section, but it did cause confusion for the audience. We share this to let our readers learn from our experiences and hope to see more great virtual events in the future! Next time, we’ll be ready.
What we learned
The results for this new way of doing events turned out better than we expected. The in-person event normally brings in the 72 students and their parents, plus sponsors and a speaker, topping out at an attendance of only 200. The move to a virtual platform grew our community of supporters outside the immediate family and attracted visitors from all over the region. What was once an event that attracted the attention of the 200 attendees, expanded to over 35K with more engagement that we could have imagined.
We would like to thank the teachers for all they have done this year. We would also like to thank our sponsors for supporting the community and supporting our first virtual event. Thanks to their support we were able to recognize great students and reach its biggest audience yet.