Last week, I had a chance to sit down with Carl Mavromichalis, a management consultant for Converso Engagement Services. For the past few years, he’s been focused on bringing the Converso Virtual Town Hall Technology to Canadian organizations. It helps them turn phone systems into personal, interactive radio broadcasts that engage stakeholders.

A phone? Yes you heard me say phone.

My first reaction was probably like yours. In this day and age of computers, text messaging and mobile technology, why would we even use the telephone to communicate with stakeholders? Seems so yesterday…. until I heard Carl’s story about his work during the Fort McMurray Wildfires in Alberta, Canada.

When Carl heard about the Alberta wildfires, he knew he had a solution that could help. During the evacuation until it was safe again to move back to their homes, virtual town halls were the connection between the Government of Alberta and evacuated residents. They held 17 events in five weeks providing updates on the status of the fire and community, what was being done, and when it was safe to return.

Driven by the Public Affairs team, the communication effort was a best-in-class example of the role communication plays in integrating efforts. On a regular basis, a team of experts including government officials, the Alberta Emergency Management Agency, the Red Cross and even the Insurance Bureau of Canada, provided information and answered questions from residents.

Let’s talk about how it works.

Tool Talk
Communicators should use the Converso Virtual Town Hall technology if they need to reach 500 or more stakeholders, especially if the audience is dispersed. The technology dials out to all lines quickly, puts them on hold until the town hall begins, and then allows participants to ask questions and receive answers during the town hall itself.

Imagine using the tool for:

  • A crisis or evacuation situation. Perhaps a back up to an existing crisis plan where access to computer technology could be limited, but access to phones are not.
  • Government relations where officials want to connect with citizens and answer their questions but don’t want them to travel to a limited space facility.
  • Labour negotiations where unions want to communicate to provide members with updates on bargaining or key issues.
  • Member-based organizations that are going through change and want to increase engagement.
  • Employees who are in the field, have a phone, but may not have access to WIFI.
  • Consultation and engagement around major change activities.
  • Sports teams connecting with their fan base - apparently popular in the U.S.

Nuts and Bolts
The key to using the system is the availability of phone numbers. With the Alberta Wildfires, the Canadian Red Cross, with whom all evacuated citizens were asked to register, had lists of relevant phone numbers of evacuees. This played an important role in being able to connect with citizens. In some cases, organizations have a list of home or personal phone numbers in their HR or membership databases; when necessary, some organizations purchase publicly available lists.

Once lists are obtained, here’s what happens:

  • A pre-call notice: These robocalls provide ‘hold the dates’ or ‘coming soon’ type messages. Organizations are encouraged to use other communication channels and traditional methods to create awareness as well.
  • System Dials: The system calls the list. It has the capability to call 15,000 number in about 5 minutes. The largest audience it has ever called included 425,000 numbers. Those that pick up the phone hear a brief pre-recorded message and are then connected to the event.
  • Event Starts: The moderator welcomes everyone and the town hall leader delivers key messages right from the beginning. Leaders are encouraged to keep opening remarks tight and deliver the most important messages up front.
  • Polling: During the event, pre-arranged polling questions are asked allowing listeners to interact using their keypad.
  • Q&A: A moderator then takes live questions from the audience allowing town hall leaders a chance to view the questions and select the ones to be answered. An average event tends to have 15-30 questions, although there have been as many as 50.

On average, the Virtual Town Hall event runs about 60 minutes. That being said, Carl mentioned that Alberta Wildfire calls lasted 90 minutes due to the high volume of questions among evacuees. In some situations, the events have lasted as long as 150 minutes. The more contentious an issue, the more a captive audience of concerned participants are willing to stay on.

Does it Measure Up?
What excites me about any technology solution being implemented today is the available of measurement. At the end of a Virtual Town Hall, organizations get up to 16 additional data points, including the following information:

  • How many people connected to the event
  • How many put their hand up to ask questions
  • How long they were on the phone and what was the peak number of attendees
  • The number of questions that went live
  • Demographic information on those who participated

Generally speaking 50% of the participants on the dial out list answer the phone, with anywhere from 25% to 90% joining the Town Hall based on how motivated they are to participate. The average tends to be about 12% to 15% of dialed recipients and can be higher than 85% during a crisis situation or critical issue.

The Virtual Town Hall is an intimate two-way conversation that reaches people where they are very cost-effectively. For low-volume groups, the cost is between $1 to $2 per phone number dialed and can get considerably cheaper as the numbers grow. It’s not as cheap as running an online webinar, but webinars require your audience to choose to attend whereas the Virtual Town Hall calls you and forces you to respond.

It’s not a solution you would consider every day, but it definitely has its advantages in specific situations. For more information or to get a demo of the VTH, contact Carl Mavromichalis directly or check out their website at http://www.converso.co/ .

Stay tuned for our next Communicator’s Toolbox featuring employee recognition software and please let us know if there is a tool you would like us to review for you.

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Most internal communication, human resources and leadership programs focus on Ten Steps, Case Studies, How-To, and Technology solutions that talk about the same-old, same-old. I realized a few years ago that my approach to communication was different. I thought of it as the glue that connected disparate areas and integrated them to make ordinary organizations accomplish extraordinary feats. It was a little about doing stuff in your own little box, but more about thinking, risk-taking, listening and collaborating to build inner strength.
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