The eduWeb Digital Summit is consistently one of the premier higher education marketing conferences. But like every other major in-person gathering for 2020, its original plans were derailed by Covid-19. So, instead of hundreds of higher ed marketers flocking to Utah’s beautiful Snowbird resort, as originally planned, this year’s eduWeb shifted gears and was held as a weeklong virtual event from Aug. 3-7.
As other higher education professional development organizations have discovered, making that shift is no small feat. Only a few weeks from the event, the eduWeb team had to inform speakers, tweak our marketing strategies, communicate with sponsors, implement a new event delivery platform, sell conference tickets, train and test the system and adjust the entire program to be compatible with the new virtual format. Our scheduled team meetings were invaluable to get the event up and running in time.
Before long, we had a virtual product that could deliver a high-value experience to reach people wherever they could log on, complete with five integrated tracks, workshops, and master classes.
“The goal [of eduWeb] is to build community because that is where you find your people, your support system, the things that sometimes aren’t provided by your institution. eduWeb is there to fill in the gaps,” said Joel Renner, the chair of eduWeb.
How It Went: Virtual Conference, Real Professional Development
Knowing that institutional budgets would be slim, the individual ticket price was set at an affordable price of $20, group tickets for up to 15 attendees were sold for $250. With additional hours and continued commitment of the entire crew, the conference successfully launched with 850 tickets sold across over 150 attending institutions. 44 US states were represented and international participants joined the live streams from Canada, Hong Kong, Egypt, France, Ireland, Trinidad and Tobago.
Overall, the various eduWeb Digital Summit 2020 events with its mix of live and pre-recorded sessions, chats, polls and Q&As went smoothly. Attendees could reach the conference team anytime through a help chat who quickly addressed any questions. Apart from a small technical issue with an Adobe server that supported video streaming that was quickly resolved, the online delivery with Accelevents went smoothly throughout the entire week.
“What struck me most about eduWeb this year is the fact that our industry is fueled by the relationships we have and build with each other, regardless of the medium through which we engage,” said Megan Miller, eduWeb’s chair of operations. “We’re all looking for opportunities to connect and be understood, and the most gratifying moments for me were the ones where those needs were fulfilled by the members of our community, either in the chat, our table topic discussions, or via dialogue on Twitter.”
What We Learned: The State of Higher Education in 2020
Jon McBride, director of digital communications at Brigham Young University, kicked eduWeb 2020 off with an emotional and uplifting keynote lecture in which he outlined how much in our professional lives has changed in the past months – where we work, how we interact with others, how we communicate, and ultimately, how entire roles in digital marketing and communications shifted.
Referring to the pandemic and the recent Black Lives Matter protests Jon advised that “maybe it’s time to change our definition of normal content.” Instead of posting pretty pictures and generic copy, he recommended that higher education communicators pair content with empathy and humanize their brand to add value to the global conversation.
A major highlight of the conference that directly responded to this appeal was the powerful presentation “Keeping it 100: Black Lives Matter in Higher Education” by TaQuinda Johnson, social media strategist at Eastern Michigan University and Jamila Walker, social media manager at Old Dominion University on August 4.
Both professionals described their roles in supporting their respective institutions (one predominantly white and one a minority serving institution) to take a stand on the Black Lives Matter movement. TaQuinda and Jamila established impactful communication strategies including statements on racism and injustice by university administrators, campus departments and police, faculty speakers, community conversations, a physical participation wall on EMU’s campus, a student-led March for Justice at ODU, and more. The speakers emphasized that Black Lives Matter is not a trend, and the importance of consistent messaging, ongoing conversations about social justice and the need to add more diverse stories to social content is crucial to recognize this movement on campus.
With everything that has happened this year, one topic table discussion was so popular that a second session was added spontaneously: The 2020 Survival Group Therapy, in which participants could join and express their feelings about current world events and the impact on their profession. Attendees voiced frustrations, fears, and anger in this safe environment (the sessions were not recorded), and encouraged each other and built community.
The importance of creating supportive communities was a consistent theme throughout the week, and the conference named Kasandrea Sereno winner of the 2020 eduWeb Summit Award for Industry Excellence for the founding of the Higher Ed Social communities on Twitter and Facebook. These collaboration spaces have consistently grown and count more than 9,500 members combined.
As eduWeb’s Content & Email Marketing track chair, I have been involved with eduWeb since 2017. What always attracted me to the event was the balance of educational content and personal interaction with the conference team, speakers and attendees. At first, I was unsure how our usually strong and enriching community could be built in this virtual conference format. I was stunned by the way participants quickly and seamlessly utilized different channels like the conference platform, Twitter, Facebook groups, as well as email to connect about eduWeb 2020 topics and maintain personal contact.
eduWeb 2020 was a full success and a relevant example to showcase how higher education professionals are able to exchange best practices, have relevant conversations, find support and maintain community in these turbulent times.