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Webinars: The unlikely and welcome flicker of light in an otherwise dark year

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Fran Beighton is the Maverick Insider General Manager at Daily Maverick.

'Engagement': the most overused word in the membership corner of the Daily Maverick offices, what social media was built upon and the Holy Grail for any news media company. An arguably better word for it is ‘connection'. If your readers are engaged with you, or connect with you, they’re more likely to be loyal and to understand the value of what you produce.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

For us at Maverick Insider, our ultimate goal is to build a community around the best possible membership experience. A major component of our plan has always been live events. On 6 March 2020, we hosted Daily Maverick’s annual conference, The Gathering, at the Cape Town International Convention Centre. It was our most ambitious event to date – two rooms, 18 panels running concurrently, 1,500 attendees. What none of us anticipated was that the day before, on 5 March, SA’s first Covid-19 case would be diagnosed. It became clear that this would be the last live event for the foreseeable future; every event we had planned was immediately cancelled and a new word became our most overused: “pivot”.

Many sleepless nights ensued as we grappled with how we were going to remain connected with our members. With live events off the table, there was only one answer: webinars. Up till that point, webinars around the world had been reserved as marketing exercises or below-par educational “talks”. In other words, they were trumped-up, badly veiled infomercials. To add insult to brain injury, they charged their audiences to “attend”. For us the situation was further complicated by the fact that many of our readers had never even heard of “webinars”.

The one element working in our favour was lockdown: we literally had an audience unable to leave their homes and what we assumed was a short space of time to convince them of the worth of our webinars. We had to reinvent the medium into something akin to our journalism: quality interactions worthy of our audience’s attention.

So we started with them: our audience. Our readers, we know, are intelligent, and that was something we couldn’t take for granted. What did they want? They wanted up-to-date information on the pandemic. They wanted to hear from experts and they wanted to ask those experts their questions. They didn’t want to be charged to attend. They didn’t want their time wasted with a marketing spiel from our sponsor.

On 1 April 2020 we held our first webinar on the effect of Covid-19 on South Africa’s small and medium-sized enterprises. A total of 1,140 people registered and more than 70% of those attended the live event. A week later, 1,433 people tuned in to hear Mark Heywood discuss South Africa’s response to Covid-19 with Professor Salim Abdool Karim. More than 12,000 people watched the recording. We were onto something.

Since then we have hosted two to three webinars a week, with experts from around the world talking on diverse topics such as the climate crisis, cybersecurity and business. We’ve also had book launches and a memorable Zapiro PowerPoint presentation.

Our webinars became live journalism events valued by our readers, who made attending them habitual. Sponsors came on board and even agreed to our policy of not having speakers from the sponsor company on the panel: we respected our audience and they respected that.

All webinars are recorded and uploaded to YouTube to watch free of charge, extending the life of the content. For those who aren’t able to watch, every webinar is also reported on and published on the Daily Maverick site.

In a couple of weeks we will reach our 100 webinar milestone – all curated and hosted in just over a year. Not one has run smoothly: load shedding interruptions to tech failures, loss of sound, loss of picture, loss of sanity… And yet our audience returns because they’re invested, connected and engaged.

About 30,000 people have attended our webinars. Will they continue to in a post-pandemic world? Who knows? For now, we’ve got many more live journalism events planned beyond number 100. And the belief that if we have to pivot again, we’re up for the challenge. In fact, we won’t just pivot, we’ll pirouette. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.

Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c), it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address Covid-19. We are, therefore, disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information we should know about, please email [email protected]co.za

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"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

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