Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
SOAPBOXFEST, launched in August 2020, was the world’s first virtual festival on climate, community, and comedy.
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In August 2020, the world was witness to SOAPBOXFEST, a virtual festival on climate, community, and comedy.
And by the world, I mean: 100 or so people from the SF Bay Area.
AND IT WAS AWESOME!!!!!!
Some context: SOAPBOXFEST came to me in a dream. Literally. I woke up and ran to get my journal so I wouldn’t forget my question:
what if social impact events felt more like music festivals and less like boring conferences?!
And I was determined to make the dream come alive.
Why launch a summit?
There are many good reasons, but I’ll share mine:
I wanted to launch a FUN, unique experience for people who are “sorta” interested in climate change but find existing events too intense. Basically, my premise was to hook people with the comedy opener and then get conversations about climate change started after.
(Spoiler: it worked.)
Some other good reasons:
- ✔️ Increasing brand awareness through a free event
- ✔️ Raising revenue through a meaningful event
- ✔️ Meeting speakers you wouldn’t be able to talk to 1:1
- ✔️ Flexing your skills managing a larger event
- ✔️Spotlighting underrepresented leaders in your industry
Bad reasons (in my opinion):
- ❌ Everyone else is doing it so we should
- ❌ Our sponsors want us to
- ❌ It’s an easy way to build community
Essentially, if you have clear business and/or community goals, this could be worth it. But it’s a LOT of work — and more importantly, requires a lot of courage and willingness to fail.
I felt like I was flying by the seat of my pants the whole time, even when it was over.
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12 lessons I learned from SOAPBOXFEST 2021
I’ll start with the things I did well and transition into things I could have done better. I hope this helps you on your own summit journey!
- Set the vibe. It was non-negotiable to me that we open with some sort of art, music, or standup comedy. I scoured the Bay Area for local artists that could perform at our festival virtually — yes, it was a virtual fest, but I wanted to maintain a local vibe with every speaker. Finally, I remembered that I’d gone to a Gary Gulman set opened by comedian Irene Tu, a queer Asian-American woman who made me cackle while dropping some hot political commentary nuggets. In other words, the perfect opener for a festival on climate change and community building. All our promo, branding, and copy reflected that, first and foremost, SOAPBOXFEST would be a joyful way to take action on issues we care about. Vibe was key.
- Trust your speakers. Here’s a sizzling take: don’t do speaker prep calls. I realize this might not be true if your whole reputation hinges on it, but... I’ve NEVER been on a speaker prep call that was actually useful lol. So I didn’t make any speakers do prep calls for SOAPBOXFEST. I made sure that each of us could get our questions answered, and I made myself available if they requested it, but I trusted them to do their best work. I somehow pulled off SOAPBOXFEST after months of being opioid and wheelchair ridden (I broke my ankle, remember). This was not because I’m a genius; it’s because our speakers were the best in the game. SOAPBOXFEST featured Assemblymember Alex Lee, California’s youngest and first openly bisexual Asian American state legislature. We got Vance Taylor, who runs a massive emergency management program for the State of California. We were graced by Eliza Nemser, the founder of Climate Changemakers. Your speakers will carry the team even if you literally cannot. Trust them. Give them what they need. And respect that sometimes you just don’t need a prep call.
- Get values-aligned sponsors. I could not have pulled off SOAPBOXFEST by myself, since I live below the poverty line and can’t afford much of anything. (I made this choice and so far have no regrets.) Thankfully, we were sponsored by Disaster Tech. I’m on their board of advisors, so I already know I believe in their vision, and having financial input from a company that actually cares about your programming makes a huge difference. It would have felt so disingenuous if we had some random ass corporation shouted out on all our branding. Yay for values-aligned partnerships!
- Think about the Minimum Viable Festival. Content warning: injury Yeah I made up the MVF just now, but it’s still real. A juicy tidbit I left out about the inception of SOAPBOXFEST: days after I had my stroke of inspiration, I was couch-bound for months with a shattered ankle (and I’m still healing from it, almost a yera later yikes). I had two choices: postpone the festival or just do it. I’m glad I went for it. Sure, we didn’t have all the perfect pieces — I wanted to send people physical tokens of appreciation for signing up, market it more widely, do Instagram Lives leading up to the event, work with influencers, etc. and none of that happened. But you know what did happen? SOAPBOXFEST!!! It was enough for me to know that:
- this was a great idea
- virtual festivals can be awesome
- comedy is a solid investment for more heavy discussions to follow
- if we did this IRL, it would be next-level hype
- Prioritize diversity. Our festival would have been boring without the different perspectives we incorporated: leaders with physical disabilities, older climate activists, formerly incarcerated firefighters, queer artists, and more. Diversity isn’t just about checking a box. It’s about making your event magical.
- Make a festival map. Communicating stuff to your attendees can be tricky, and although I have a LOT more learning to do in this area, one thing I did well is make a festival map from the beginning of SOAPBOXFEST — one source of truth where we put EVERYTHING: contact info, recordings, recaps, next steps, and our downloadable Zoom background. Feel free to duplicate mine here!
- Can you make it free? I probably should have made SOAPBOXFEST free to anyone who wanted to attend. I used it more as a revenue-driver than a growth-driver and I wish I flipped it around. It was such a unique concept and could have attracted more people on the edge of deciding what they want to do about social and environmental justice. Next time, I hope to make all virtual SOAPBOXFESTs free. We’ll see how this goes!
- Marketing is hard. I guess this isn’t an actionable lesson, but marketing... is hard. I wished more people would have attended (like, 200+) and I wonder if we got ~100 attendees because of the fact that we charged, or because I should have marketed it differently, or because I should have marketed it earlier?! I honestly don’t know.
- Communicate with your attendees This is probably the biggest miss — I did not have any sort of drip campaign or email sequence to make people feel gradually welcomed in. I missed the opportunity to create early buy-in, nudge attendees to share with their friends, and I didn’t even include an immediate feedback form after the event.
- Time management, ugh I wish I’d carved out more time for the wrap-up piece of the festival. I was going to talk more about Soapbox and next steps in my closing remarks, but I’d figured that if any part of the festival went over time (which it did), I could cut down on my closing remarks. I know that was the right decision because I’d rather have my time cut than the speakers’, but I also missed out on a valuable opportunity to tell people how to get plugged in with the Soapbox community. That combined with my lack of email comms made it such that SOAPBOXFEST was probably just a fun part of their week, vs. a key part of their social change journey.
- Celebrate!!!!!!! In retrospect, I didn’t give myself enough kudos for SOAPBOXFEST. A virtual summit is already a difficult thing to do without bodily injuries/during times when we’re not pandemic-stricken, and I made this work AND made it magical. The farther away I get from SOAPBOXFEST, the more I’m like... “I did that??!?!? How??” I wish I’d celebrated it more in the moment. The festival was amazing and I was blown away by everything I learned, but I forgot that I am a Blowing Away Person too. (In general, we need more rituals for community peeps to celebrate ourselves. The work we’re doing is very internal energy-intensive and we’ve gotta recognize that!)
We also made everyone custom Zoom banners!
Honestly it’s absurd to think about the fact that I pulled off SOAPBOXFEST amidst my opioid stupor. I’m so proud of myself, and it seriously came down to just doing the damn thing.
All in all, SOAPBOXFEST was such a fun experience and I plan on doing it again. I definitely want it to be local and in-person whenever that’s possible, but I am now extra-conscious of stretching myself thin.
I’m proud of myself for pulling off such a cool festival on a shoestring budget and a shoeless broken ankle!