How Tara McMullin pioneered virtual conferences and built a flourishing paid membership for small business owners
Featured in this Story of Awesome: What Works Network
Launched June 2016
The What Works Network is a paid membership site for nearly 700 experienced digital small business owners.
Tara’s Mighty Moment: “We set aside time for people to connect the content they’ve just heard with what they actually need from that content, and they’re doing it in community with each other, so they’re making connections beyond the connection they just made with the speaker.”
Tara McMullin has served as a coach, mentor, and leader to thousands of small digital businesses over the past decade.
Yet, her truly unique strength is in how she adapts new technologies to both reach and connect her people.
Not only does she run a new podcast consulting and production company from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, but she’s come up with a unique approach to using virtual conferences, virtual retreats, and virtual co-working “spaces” to deepen and grow her other business, a thriving membership site called The What Works Network.
Where many of us today are playing catch up to all things virtual, Tara is an old hand. And what we see from her is just how dynamic (and, dare we say, fun) a virtual approach to a business can be.
Community trumps content
Early on in her career as a coach and curator of digital small business owners, Tara initially believed her value was in the content she produced and the personal brand that she was building to deliver her content.
Then, she discovered something surprising.
The business owners she was bringing together were getting as much if not more value from each other’s stories and experiences around what worked for them and what didn’t than the content that she was investing hours and hours in creating.
Her brand and content brought people to her membership site, but the community and connections between people were the truly important assets in her work.
For Tara, this proved to be a relief. An introvert by nature, what energized her was connecting people to each other to figure out what works for their businesses.
It also proved to be her path forward.
From community to virtual conferences and more
Virtual events have become a cornerstone of The What Works Network, Tara’s ever-evolving paid membership community that brings together close to 700 digital small business owners seeking to level up their businesses. (Membership is $49.99 per month).
In addition to leading countless online workshops, mastermind sessions, and coworking events, Tara and her community managers Shannon Paris and Kristen Runvik host quarterly one-day virtual conferences for members. Three years and 11 conferences later, they’ve learned a lot about what it takes to run a successful online event.
While many people forced into instantly creating virtual events may think they’re as simple as mapping a physical event to a Zoom meeting room, Tara and her team took a different approach to planning a virtual conference.
First, they mapped the big pieces–main stage, speakers, and breakout sessions–to their virtual conference plan.
Then, they began to ask the non-obvious questions:
- What about the hallway moments? How do we replicate those online?
- What about spontaneous or serendipitous meetings and connections?
- What could be our online equivalent of what happens over lunch?
- How are we going to keep it interesting for people to stay with us all day? Looking at a computer screen (and just listening to speakers) could get boring quickly.
Finally, they sought to reframe the whole thing to focus on the strengths of a virtual conference over a physical one. Specifically, they asked:
What’s uniquely possible (and valuable) in a virtual setting that’s impossible to get in a physical one?
As they got ideas, they were able to quickly test them in their Mighty Network. What they realized was the unique opportunity presented by having their virtual events grounded in a community.
Mapping physical moments to virtual ones
As Tara and her team began the creative and energizing work to introduce the virtual equivalents of physical moments into their virtual conference, they were driven by one overarching principle:
“We knew our virtual conference needed to be even more participatory and two-way than an event in real life. It couldn’t just be a content dump in a live online forum, or (gasp) an attempt at a virtual panel.
Instead, this needed to be the kind of experience where attendees could build relationships with each other, have great side conversations, and participate in surprising and unexpected ways that were better than a physical event.
After much trial and tweaking, running a successful virtual conference for the What Works team today boils down to three key elements:
- Provide structure and (over) communication during the event
- Strike the right balance between content and conversation
- Choose a reliable and uncomplicated technical setup
Provide structure and over-communicate
As Tara and her team mapped out the non-obvious elements of a physical conference, they captured a few things many of us take for granted.
With a physical event, organizers offer signals about everything from the event’s topic to how to navigate the venue. There are paper agendas, signs, and people pointing the way. Plus, you can always just follow the crowd.
None of these exist with a virtual conference:
“Without the usual social anchors and cues, even the structure of being in a conference room and then moving to a cafe or happy hour, people get a little unmoored and they don’t know what’s expected of them.”
For Tara and team, the solution was to be explicit and embrace a principle of over-communicating the intention behind everything they did. Specifically, every event would have:
- The purpose of the gathering
- What they want attendees to accomplish with the conference or session
- Questions they want attendees to be able to answer as a result of attending
This intention was shared ahead of time and revisited throughout the event.
From there, Tara and her team took a different approach to opening the conference. In her Welcome Session, Tara explains:
“We make sure there is a clear structure to our virtual events and clear instructions for how to participate so that we can replace the social cues, physical structure, and the expectations that we assume go along with in-person events, and create similar structure, cues and expectations in the virtual sphere. The stronger the framework is, the more people connect with each other.”
The Welcome Session uses slides to guide attendees, offering a visual cue they can follow. Plus, there are reminders during the sessions that follow, assuming attendees will pop in and out of sessions.
Once attendees have this information, Tara has found it gets easy for attendees to participate. They know why they’re there, have a sense for how the day will flow, understand how to interact, and have a guide for how to follow up after it’s over.
Best of all, the details are easily accessible at their fingertips inside the Mighty Network should they want to refer back to them at any time.
The right balance between content and community
The next key area for the What Works team to focus on was carving out space for attendees to connect with each other, and process what they’re learning.
For starters, Tara knew she needed to create a balance between content and conversation. Too much content and attendees would feel overwhelmed. Too much conversation and they would be unsure how to plug into what’s being covered.
Tara found that in an attempt to provide maximum value, most virtual conferences went too heavy on content. To counteract this, she and her team structure their events to embrace connection and interaction:
“One of the reasons people prioritize going to in-person events is not for the content but for everything that happens around the content.
We’ve been adamant about building buffer time into our virtual events for people, whether that’s processing on their own, out loud with the whole group, or on the side with a smaller group.”
Beyond the Welcome Session, the rest of a What Works virtual conference is filled with four main stage sessions, an integration session, and a closing session. Plus plenty of breaks for stretching, refueling, and, uh, powdering one’s nose.
The speakers share their processes and recommendations and then answer questions from Tara and the attendees.
Here’s their conference schedule:
11:00 am – Welcome Session with Tara McMullin
11:30 am – Interview #1
12:15 pm – Break
12:30pm –Interview #2
1:15 pm – Break
1:45 pm – Integration Session With Tara McMullin
2:45 pm – Break
3:15 pm – Interview #3
4:00 pm – Break
4:15pm – Interview #4 & Closing/Integration Session
Tara’s Integration Session is another example of building a virtual alternative to the non-obvious elements of a physical conference. In it, she asks specific questions related to what’s been covered. This gives people the chance to not only process but also to share and participate in the event:
“We’ve found that even though it feels like we’re taking up time with something that’s not content, setting aside this time is actually incredibly valuable for people.
It’s where they’re connecting the content they’ve just heard with what they actually need from that content. And they’re doing it in community with each other. The connections they are making aren’t just with the speaker, but with each other.”
During the Closing Session, Tara offers further questions to prompt reflection and sharing. This provides the chance for processing as well:
“We’re always looking for ways to get people talking to each other. At a physical event, when we get away from the main stage, we’re out in the hall, in a breakout room, a hotel lobby, and we’re talking through what was important to us. This is where the conference starts to become a dialogue instead of a monologue or broadcast.
In Tara’s experience, it can even be helpful to set aside time for people to sit in silence and collect their thoughts:
“Most people need a little time and space to feel comfortable chiming in on a conversation or answering a question, especially over video.
If you're asking for participation or reflection from the group, give people the opportunity to jot down notes and collect their thoughts before you actually ask for that participation.”
At the end of the conference, the conversation continues in The What Works Network.
Tara encourages attendees to post questions, reflections, and insights, as well as thanking the speakers, who are granted membership in What Works (many are already members):
“I say throughout the day, “This is only the beginning. If there’s something you want to follow up on, something you have to add, a story you want to tell, head back over to the network and keep the conversation going, tag the people you’ve been talking to about it.” This allows people to feel more like they’re a part of the experience and not just a passive consumer of content.”
Finally, Shannon or Kristin put together an event wrap-up article in their Mighty Network, capturing key takeaways from speakers, contributions from attendees, and resources shared during the day.
From there, they take these highlights and video recordings during the day and package it up in a course they call Resources which serves as another membership benefit of The What Works Network.
Software does matter, but make it uncomplicated
The final piece the What Works team makes sure to nail down is the technology and logistics.
As anyone who has researched running an online event knows, there’s a dizzying array of technology available, from equipment to video streaming platforms.
Tara’s response is to keep it simple.
She starts by scheduling the virtual conference using an event in her Mighty Network.
Then, she creates a “Meet the Speakers” article and adds more details to the event, which takes place on the CrowdCast or Zoom video platforms.
To drive strong attendance, she continues to remind members about the conference in the week leading up to it, 24 hours ahead, and on the morning of, via email, posts in The What Works Network, and Mighty Networks’ Message All Members feature.
For larger events with more than 25 people, the What Works team uses CrowdCast. They prefer it to Zoom for its easy-to-use interface for both hosts and attendees. The whole event can be hosted at a single link using Crowdcast’s “multi-session” option:
“With Crowdcast, there’s a question function that allows people to actually participate with our speakers as well. So it levels out the conference room and gets people involved with the content as it’s being shaped and presented by the person 'on stage.'”
For smaller events, Tara uses Zoom, tapping into the ability to create breakout rooms of 3-4 people. With clear instructions and a moderator, these breakouts give everyone a chance to talk.
As with anything, Tara is a big believer in dry runs, especially for a virtual conference. It’s the best way to make sure everything runs smoothly, from screen sharing to microphone testing. Plus, it helps everyone go in feeling more prepared.
3 key takeaways from the What Works Network’s Story of Awesome
- Provide structure and reinforce it throughout the event. Being clear about the purpose, agenda and how to participate makes it easier for people to follow along and stay engaged.
- Offer the right balance of content and conversation. People attend events not only for the content but for everything that happens around it, so create opportunities for people to interact and process what they’re learning
- Be prepared with an uncomplicated technical setup that helps people connect. Make technology work for you by finding a platform you like and taking advantage of the features it offers to get people talking to each other.
It’s your turn
Inspired by Tara’s story? Then you’re going to love our new Guide to Hosting a Virtual Conference. We worked with Tara and her team to offer a step-by-step playbook you can use to plan your first or next online event with confidence.