Making an event digital – fast

How the council is making staff events engaging and interactive, with a few simple digital tools.

“Deliver something digital and different!”

That was the brief given to the council’s communications team and Croydon Digital Service, just over a week before the 2019 leadership staff conference.

This internal conference takes place annually, bringing together the council’s leadership team, a selection of culture ambassadors and guests – around 140 people in total – to reflect on achievements and plan the next phase.

Typically we’d send out an agenda beforehand by email, and all the interaction would be limited to what happened in the room. But the theme for this year was thinking ahead to Croydon 2030, and we’re trying to foster a more collaborative and dynamic staff culture, so we decided not to do things the way we’ve always done them.

With just days to go until this year’s event and the date already held in everyone’s diaries, we needed to create something simple and quick, that would be easy for staff to use and would complement and (hopefully) add to proceedings. It also needed a decent shelf life – we wanted to develop an approach we could re-use for future events, so the time and resource would be justified by the return.

Avoiding a one hit wonder (pun intended)

We started by making the agenda itself digital.

This meant replacing the traditional static agenda with a simple event website at croydonleaders.com – creating a WordPress theme for council events that we can now use again.

The site offered a breakdown of sessions, running times and speaker biographies. Delegates could check the site from their phone (which was fully responsive, so it displayed well on any device), find out what was happening when and exactly who was taking to the stage as the day went along. All rather handy, and a lot easier than trying to dig out that email.

From the communications team’s point of view the agenda gave us a great hook to promote the event. The pre-event email – that in the past would have had a PDF attachment or table of timings – instead linked directly out to the event website. Curiosity about the day (and what time you needed to be there for coffee!) was the clear incentive to get people to click through.

There was no log in, no password, the site wasn’t gated in any way, so people could jump straight in. We figured the fewer obstacles the better. Making it a public website signals a new willingness to be more open and public about the inner workings of the council.

A hand holding a phone, viewing the mobile version of the Croydon Leaders website. It shows the title "Shaping our Future", a link to twitter with the hashtag #croydonleaders, a link to the feedback survey and the agenda at the bottom.

Making it engaging and interactive

Using the agenda as the focal point, we added numerous interactive elements to the event website that would make the day feel engaging and open, and create a record for those who couldn’t attend (and for everyone who did, to refer back to). These included:

  • A pre-event survey. A simple data capture form posed two questions that tied in with the theme of the event, one being ‘What will Croydon Council look & feel like in 2030?’ This was a quick and easy way to collect people’s thoughts in advance when they first saw the agenda, and get them in the frame of mind for the event’s content while also giving us a chance to align the content of the event with attendees’ expectations. Speakers were able to provide answers and responses to these pre-event ideas throughout the day, showing staff that interacting with the platform had a real outcome.
  • A Twitter hashtag. Front and centre on the event website, we suggested an event hashtag (#croydonleaders), letting staff know that they are not only allowed to tweet about the day, but that they are encouraged to do so. Bringing all comments together with a common hashtag is a simple way to make it easy for all attendees to check what each other are saying. The event compères were given updates on tweets during breakout sessions to refer to on stage – bridging the gap between the digital element of the event and the room itself – encouraging everyone to take part.
  • A live blog. As each speaker took to the stage, I took to the laptop and furiously live blogged the sessions in WordPress, publishing updates to the event site. This let us capture the content delivered by speakers as it happened. Pictures and soundbites were added to the agenda in real time (almost!). There was no long wait for a PowerPoint to be circulated days after the event finished – instead it was a sort of agenda/news feed mash-up, meaning people could easily check anything they missed and those unable to attend in person could follow along.
  • Live discussion on each session. Under each of the live blog posts, attendees could add comments or questions in real-time, providing another chance to share their thoughts, amplify or challenge what they were hearing, and engage in discussion together, without disrupting proceedings in the room.

And finally…

  • A post–event survey. At the end of the day we replaced the pre-event survey with a feedback form, which meant that delegates could go back to the event website to share their thoughts on proceedings, from any device. The paper trail of previous years was removed. A complete digital experience end to end!

It was a hard day’s blog…

The site build was tight, but for me trying to capture the pace and energy of the day, taking notes, keeping track of speakers and online engagement through the live blog was a challenge. Next time I think at least 2 people are needed on the capture side of things. But, all in all it was a great way to make a previously closed event open, visible and honest.

When asked (in the post-event survey) if the digital element of the day added value, 88.5% of people said they either agreed or strongly agreed. Plus, there was an impressive 88 tweets using the hashtag #croydonleaders.

By creating this prototype we’ve tested things, proven that this is something that can really enhance our future events, learnt how the logistics work, and seen first-hand the appetite for this sort of content. We’ll keep on iterating – making our future events “digital and different” whenever we can.

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