While hybrid events at this magnitude might be a novel development for events, many church ministries have been expanding their reach to a remote audience for decades, and have upped their game online during the pandemic. What can event planners learn from their engagement tactics?
Churches may at first seem like an unlikely place to look for inspiration in hosting virtual and hybrid B2B events. With that said, churches share many of the same challenges that B2B event planners have faced over the past year. Just as business people often prefer closing deals in person, many Christians equate worship with being within the four walls of the church. We even use the phrase “the church” to reference the entire religious institution — so intertwined are the two concepts.
If any further confirmation of this preference were needed, research from the Barna Group suggests that only 2 percent of practicing Christians attended a church service via video or live stream in 2020. Barna’s research also shows, however, that members of megachurches (with 200 or more attendees) were more likely to have experience with virtual sermons.
Megachurches, of course, have the budgets necessary to produce high-quality content, and they also have years of experience in keeping live audiences engaged. And if church donations are any indication, they’ve been successful at pivoting to virtual and hybrid formats. Christian Washington, the pastor at the Upper Room Heights church in Houston, explained that most churches with 300 or more members saw very little decline in member contributions over the past year — and some have even seen increases. Many have also seen online attendance numbers that matched their past in-person levels.
In the process of adapting to online and hybrid formats, how have these megachurches leveraged their expertise in audience engagement, and what are the takeaways for B2B events?
Know Your Audience
Different audiences will have different expectations, and that is especially true for online and hybrid events. Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that the groups most comfortable with online engagement are also the ones with the highest expectations: the younger generations.
“For the X, Y, and Z generations, you have to create an experience in line with what you’re competing against for their attention,” explains Pastor Washington. If they’re used to online entertainment and TED Talks, they’re going to have high standards.
And while churches might be said to have an advantage over B2B event planners in terms of the loyalty of their followers, Washington points out that active participation can no longer be taken for granted: “There is at least one generation of folks who don’t see church as a normative, almost mandatory duty on Sundays.”
Boomers and the silent generation may have stronger feelings about the importance of attending in person, but they are also more likely to keep coming back even with the simplest of live stream setups. Washington’s own church has a large following from diverse demographics — including a sizable share of younger members — so it was necessary to up the ante.
Using AV to Amplify the Pace
By this point, it’s common knowledge that high production value is key to attracting and retaining online audiences. One component of that is mixing camera angles and shots to keep things visually interesting.
According to Washington, the pre-pandemic norm was to have only two cameras: one for wide shots, and one focused on the podium. Now, the norm is to have three to four.
“You’ll see one that’s handheld and another on a crane so you get the feeling of actually being there — not that you’re sitting in a chair but that you actually have the best view in the house.”
- Christian Washington, pastor, Upper Room Heights
Brandt Krueger, a technical producer for the event industry, believes that it’s not only important to have multiple cameras, but also to use them strategically. He points out that megachurches have long been masters of quick pacing, with experience dating back to their years of television broadcast sermons. And according to Krueger, they know how to make their AV setup enhance these transitions. As the service moves from a gospel song to a somber sermon, the camera moves too:
“If you watch those shows, they will take a long-shot for the high energy moments so you can see the preacher or the choir engaging the in-person audience. Then it focuses into a tight shot for the more sober personal messages.”
- Brandt Krueger, technical producer, speaker, and consultant for the event industry
Close-ups enhance the sense of an interpersonal connection, whereas longshots amplify the energy of the room. A well-paced event should have a good mix of these different content styles and camera angles.
Jarret Garber, a minister at Houston’s First Baptist Church, agrees on the importance of establishing the impression of eye contact. For this reason, he recommends separating in-person and virtual content into two separate segments. “I can’t look at the camera and live audience at the same time, and I don’t want the virtual audience to feel secondary,” he explains.
Setting the Event Stage for Maximum Impact
When the pandemic hit, many churches moved their services from big auditoriums to smaller spaces that functioned like broadcast studios. Once again, they used creativity to make this change in setting work for their audiences. And much like the camera angles, they are able to use their setting to alternate between amped-up content and a more intimate experience.
For the former, churches have been using LED screens. Washington says that California’s Monrovia Church has been using this technology especially well, with the screen used to project a variety of landscape scenery as well as song lyrics. “It’s like the concert experience you’d expect from Beyoncé,” he says.
Garber’s church has also been using an LED screen as a backdrop. He explains that, in addition to the versatility it offers, it is also technically easier to record high-quality video content with the bright lighting and the lower depth of field that a screen creates.
For more educationally-driven content, however, both Washington and Garber see value in using more personal settings that suggest a home-like atmosphere. Washington again points to the Monrovia Church, which has created a production stage modelled after the sitcom-era home from Family Matters for a segment called Ordinary People in which everyday issues are played out and then discussed through the lens of the Bible. Mixing references to different TV shows à la WandaVision both rapidly sets the tone and connects with the audience using a familiar, intimate space with which they'll have ready-made associations.
Jakora Snow, who manages the digital community for Houston First’s college members, used a similar approach for a remote Valentine’s Day panel discussion. Filmed from home, the panel focussed on the notion of love in everyday life. According to Snow, interactivity, an open platform for discussion, and a personally meaningful message are key to generating a sense of community online — but a homey backdrop helps to reinforce all of these components.
For B2B event planners, the lesson here is that personalized, intimate spaces can be the ideal setting for any content that’s designed to resonate with attendee values.
Keeping Online Audiences Engaged
Engaging online audiences has been a challenge from the outset of the pandemic. How do we keep them engaged as some events move to hybrid formats?
Garber feels strongly that an online host is essential to keeping virtual audiences engaged, especially in a hybrid context: “Once we went back to offering in-person services, the digital attendees began to feel like they were on the outside, and having a digital host became that much more essential.”
“Things shifted online from being purely informational to being more interactive, and now attendees have come to expect that,” Snow adds.
Washington’s church has also dedicated staff to engaging online audiences during live and simulive events. While choir performances can be filmed all in one day for the whole month (with a few costume changes), the online host needs to be available during each and every live stream.
Garber has also created intro and outro recordings for each of his sermons. He will begin by thanking them for joining while looking straight into the camera, and then end with a similar message of personal gratitude.
Online content can also be used for calls to action (CTAs) — and not just for donation requests. Washington said that his church has been successful at keeping engagement levels up with community activities like soup kitchen volunteerism and voter registration drives.
Physical packages sent by mail can also be an effective strategy. Snow, for example, mentioned a kit that they sent out in advance of a retreat. It included practical items like socks, as well as interactive items like a jar to store faith-based messages. A kit like this can create the kind of tangible connection that so many have been craving, particularly if it includes an item related to some kind of collective activity. The idea is to make the congregation (or the attendees) feel more connected to both the event and to one another.
Pastors, ministers, and other church leaders know how to keep an audience engaged and in-tune with their underlying message — whether it’s communicated in person or online. The most successful among them have mastered AV tactics, stage design, and online community management.
The church may not be the first resource that event planners think of when searching for effective online conversion strategies, but perhaps it’s time to take a second look.