How virtual events can build extraordinary levels of member engagement

Himalayan blue poppies are unusually beautiful, their iridescent blue hints at the thin clear air at the top of the world. Can you propagate them in the UK, though, and where can you get the seeds?

This question was raised in a National Trust for Scotland ‘At home with the Trust’ webinar recently.

Taking it on, Jim Jermyn, National Trust for Scotland’s head gardener at Branklyn on the outskirts of Perth, explained the propagation technique he uses at the enchanting hillside gardens. Then, he added, “I’d be very happy to put a few seeds in the post if our guest would like.”

This kind of warm, direct connection has helped make ‘At home with the trust’ a spectacularly successful member-engagement programme. Guests attend from all over the world, many loving the opportunity to see familiar places once again. The chatroom is alive with comments and questions. At this last event, where three trust gardeners shared springtime garden tips, one 86-year-old guest shared in the chat that he’d been given Trust membership for his 21st birthday!

The events feel special, in part, because of the sense that you’re getting privileged access to the trust’s experts – people such as National Trust for Scotland archivist Ian Riches, Kellie Castle curator Antonia Laurence-Allen, or the rangers who maintain its Highland footpaths (which are under pressure this past year from exceptional numbers of walkers).

Critically, at a time when Covid restrictions mean that many properties and places are closed, members are able to spend virtual time in some magical places and learn from subject matter experts. “I really feel I have escaped from lockdown to visit these beautiful gardens!” one attendee commented.

Success factors

Our team have worked alongside the National Trust for Scotland on ‘At home with the Trust’. We’ve learned some important lessons about conceiving, filming, hosting, editing and promoting virtual events that could be useful to membership organisations that want to build deeper emotional connections with members:

  • The subject matter experts are the stars. In membership organisations, the pandemic has brought subject matter experts into the spotlight, sometimes reluctantly. When they do this kind of outreach activity, they can feel nervous or be uncertain about the objectives and context. Good briefings get everyone on the same page and make sure you get the best out of your real stars.

  • Use a solid webinar platform. We’ve been using Webinarjam, which is excellent. (By contrast, we’ve had a few ‘mares with other platforms this past year.) It happily hosts big numbers and is super-easy for sometimes nervous panellists. Really, they only need to use three buttons – Audio on/off; Video on/off; and Chat. It really is that easy. (We’ll happily share tips from our webinar briefing template if your membership organisation wants to try something like this out.)

  • Captioning video is a good idea, especially when the films are made outside, there’s background noise or the audio may be patchy. Tools such as Otter make this easy to do and it’s invaluable for any attendees with hearing issues. In general, it’s important not to overlook audio quality.

  • Always do rehearsals. However many times you might have done these things, it ALWAYS pays to have a rehearsal. At our last event rehearsal, we picked up technical issues (the videos hadn’t uploaded properly) that would have been a problem on the night. Rehearsals also help put panellists at ease.

  • Balanced panels. We’ve tried hard to have balanced, diverse panels across the series. It’s best to avoid all-male panels if you can. Another good idea is to mix in younger experts: there was very positive feedback about young gardener Owen Harlow’ in our most recent event. “It’s inspiring to see the next generation of gardeners and horticulturalists coming through,” said one attendee.

Other key success factors are: great content (obviously!); solus email promotions; timing (the trust runs its webinars at 6.30pm BST on Monday evenings). Working with National Trust for Scotland, we continue to monitor guest feedback and audience analytics in order to develop the series.

Communicating the work of the trust

After the recent ‘Celebrating spring’ webinar, the renowned Scottish gardens expert (and National Trust for Scotland vice-chair) David Mitchell contacted the team to say: “The popularity of the event, the quality of the three films and the presentation skills of the team, as well as the audience engagement [via comments and questions throughout the hour convince me even more about the power of gardening and its potential in aiding the National Trust for Scotland’s recovery from the pandemic. It also strengthened further my belief about the potential it has and the benefits that it brings around increased engagement and the wellbeing of individuals and communities.

“I am certain that this evening is only one of many way points in a longer ongoing journey, each designed to truly release the full potential of the Trust’s gardens during the next ten years as never before.”

At home with the trust – impressive numbers

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