Finding the right format for a party convention or large campaign event is challenging during the coronavirus pandemic. I get it. Conventions and events are supposed to bring people together.
Last year, more than 11,000 Granite Staters filled an arena for our New Hampshire Democratic Party convention. But for many state parties like ours, we knew this year had to be different.
Unlike our Republican counterparts who chose to downsize their event and credential all its Zoom attendees, we still wanted ours to have the same energy and feeling of community as an in-person convention. To help do that, we made all our live speeches available for anyone to tune in on Facebook.
We also knew that people needed that connection — especially now. So we went full stream — sorry, had to — ahead with our first-ever virtual state convention. Here’s how we did it and how others can get the most from a virtual event or convention:
Start small, dream big.
At first our entire plan was just to post pre-recorded videos of Democratic leaders and candidates. But we really wanted to give people a place to “gather” – so we added a Facebook Live address from Ray Buckley, our party chairman.
Then we reached out to Stacey Abrams who agreed to be our second live guest speaker. All of a sudden we had a full convention planned.
The program looked like this: After a welcome by Chairman Buckley, state Sen. Melanie Levesque introduced Abrams for her keynote address, and then our convention co-chairs, the Honorable Maura Sullivan and state Sen. Jon Morgan bracketed the pre-recorded videos segment with calls to get involved in our efforts to elect Democrats up and down the ballot.
Practice, practice again, and make sure that nothing is happening for the first time on the big day.
Normally, the perks of these big events are seeing familiar faces and being in the same room with thousands of Democrats. Things can go wrong, but Democrats are together, and that's all that matters. But with an online event like this, everything hinges on the technology.
We ran through the program multiple times to get every transition right. We stayed up late the night before to do one final practice stream. We had backup plans for everything. By the big day, we were as ready as we could be.
One staffer was chosen to stream the video because he had a gaming computer that could carry the live stream. Another staffer spent hours dropping off New Hampshire Democratic Party signs outside the homes of our speakers for them to use as their Zoom backdrops. We also mailed some New Hampshire Democrats swag to Abrams.
Make it interactive.
The Facebook comments and reactions on the livestream made attendees feel like they were together and part of something big. Throughout the hour-long stream, attendees shared where they were tuning in from, introduced themselves, and engaged with the speakers and with each other.
They were shouting out which corner of the state they were watching from, and meeting audience members who were also from that area. And they added a virtual “thumbs up” or “heart” to the stream whenever they were moved by a speaker's words. To watch those 1,000-plus comments come in seconds apart really made everyone feel like they were watching together.
Make it accessible.
Just like you’d never hold an in-person event that wasn’t inclusive, the same is true for virtual events. We made sure there was American Sign Language interpretation of the program so that Granite Staters in the deaf and hard of hearing community could participate.
The Facebook livestream was public and open to all no matter if they use the social networking site or not, and we also posted the program on our website for those who wanted or needed a different format. And just like there are people in the convention hall to answer attendees’ questions, we had a staffer in the Facebook comments to do just that – helping people troubleshoot any issues and directing them to relevant resources in real-time.
Make sure it’s secure.
We’ve all seen the horror stories – a rogue participant commandeering a Zoom call they were never supposed to be on in the first place. To make our event secure, we used the blueprints from our in-person conventions: our “backstage” was in a Zoom call, which streamed to an audience that was on Facebook. To get backstage the speakers needed a password and audience members weren’t able to come backstage – just like in real life.
It doesn’t have to be perfect.
Yes, the stream lagged sometimes. Yes, a speaker missed his cue. But people are just so happy to be together and that you made the effort.
Embrace the perks of going virtual.
While New Hampshire is a pretty small state, some people still have to travel hours to get to our conventions, or they choose not to come because of the weather — it actually snowed on our May 9th convention day this year — or the distance.
Bringing the convention to Granite Staters’ living rooms meant that more people could attend. In fact, more than 3,000 people watched the video live, another 4,000 watched it in the week after, and it’s been shared with more than 19,000 people and counting.
Yes, it was a risk, and my “what could go wrong” list was 30 items long. But to see how happy attendees were to connect with each other, to see the smiling photos of people watching in their pajamas, and to get that Zoom notification that said "Stacey Abrams has entered the waiting room for this meeting," I would do it all again. Hopefully next year, we won’t have to.
Savannah Woolston is the digital director for the New Hampshire Democratic Party, Before joining the NHDP, Savannah worked for three years as a strategist at Chong + Koster, a digital communications firm in Washington, D.C., and as a field organizer for Mark Begich's 2014 U.S. Senate campaign in Alaska. Savannah graduated from Loyola Marymount University with a degree in Political Science.