How Pride Toronto went virtual to keep audiences engaged and connected

Sam Reisler / June 2020

Sam Reisler is a member of Toronto’s LGBTQ2+ community and in addition to his role as Account Executive, leads Google Canada’s Gaygler team, which works within the organization to attract, recruit and retain top LGBTQ2+ talent. He spoke with Amber Moyle from Pride Toronto about the steps the festival took to pivot to an online format and keep communities engaged.

In March, when the City of Toronto announced it was cancelling events and permits due to COVID-19, the Pride Toronto team was faced with a big challenge: They would either need to pause their annual event, or quickly figure out how to move it into the online realm. But as an event honouring and advancing the freedom of the LGBT2Q+ community, postponing Pride didn’t feel like the right thing to do during this time of crisis.

“We know how much Pride means to people, and for so many reasons,” said Amber Moyle, Pride Toronto’s director of development and special events. “We announced that we were moving to a virtual platform before we even figured out what that would look like — we just knew that we needed to pull it off somehow.”

With the event two months away, the small team had to quickly come up with a new strategy to move their almost 200 events online — and keep their audiences engaged.

Virtual Pride kicked off June 1 as a multi-channel digital experience, featuring a mix of livestream events and pre-recorded content. The team produced an average of three events a day, while juggling marketing tasks like promotions for upcoming events and news interviews.

Here’s how the team has made their first Virtual Pride a success.

Ensure everyone has access to technology

The Toronto Pride team consists of artists and event professionals, and many performers were already used to generating online content. However, as the team began creating pre-recorded content leading up to the event, they realized access to technology and safe spaces was not always consistent across the teams.

It’s easy to assume everyone has a computer or phone and the ability to record themselves in a safe environment, but that’s not always the case.

“It’s easy to assume everyone has a high-quality computer or phone and the ability to record themselves in a safe environment, but that’s not always the case,” Moyle said. “Some members of vulnerable communities like the queer community may have been forced to go back into their parent’s home, or may live in a house with roommates, and it may not be a safe space to produce content.”

To help creators access high-quality technology, the team created a “travelling cube” production kit with equipment like cameras, tripods and ring lights, that they deliver to performers and hosts for their events.

Think about new opportunities offered by online

While Pride Toronto was able to move much of its planned programming online, they decided to make the most of their digital format with a few new made-for-online events. These included sex talks where people could write in with questions and have them answered by therapists, and shopping channels to support queer businesses.

Post-event, they’re excited about opportunities to experiment with their new database of video to create teasers and ads driving back to their videos and website.

“It’s something we haven’t been able to do before because at the in-person events, it was hard to stand still let alone film,” Moyle said.

Find creative ways to keep audiences connected

Moyle says the Virtual Pride Parade, which was held online on June 28, was the most challenging event to move online. The virtual version followed a similar structure to the offline event, kicking off with an Indigenous ceremony and messages from community leaders, then roughly 75% live video content and 25% pre-recorded, with celebrity appearances including singer Jully Black.

Sponsors and community groups held virtual watch parties and parade producers worked with them to periodically feature their “virtual floats” in the livestream. While it’s impossible to recreate the in-person experience of being shoulder-to-shoulder with energetic crowds, DJs kept energy levels up and people were encouraged to go outside and shout “Happy Pride,” “Black Lives Matter” or anything else on their mind.

“The hope is that you hear at least one other person out there in the city or in your neighbourhood, to help you feel connected and know that there are people out there with you,” Moyle said.

Pride Toronto put a harm reduction team in place for every event, where people monitored activity on the back-end to protect performers and participants.

Create processes for keeping community members safe

The team intended to use some less-moderated technology features like group chat, but that plan quickly changed when at the first public event, there were some instances of homophobia and transphobia before being quickly shut down.

Pride Toronto then put a harm reduction team in place for every event, where people moderated content and monitored activity on the back-end to protect performers and participants. Moyle says event organizers need to make protecting participants their first priority, especially events for vulnerable communities. Doing this allowed attendees to safely engage with one another and created a sense of togetherness and community, despite being physically apart.

Measure success through engagement, not attendance

Pride Toronto is used to bringing in crowds of 2 million people but this year, they focused more on meaningful audience engagement than attendance numbers.

“I’m so proud of events like the Black Queer & Trans Excellence interviews,” Moyle said. “There might only be 50 people at a (virtual) event but I’m so glad that those 50 people heard what they had to say,” Moyle said, adding that while some events have less attendance in the virtual world, others have seen an increase. “We could have a couple of hundred people attend our anti-oppression training virtually, where maybe we’d have 20 people to an in-person lunch-and-learn.”

They also noticed that audience numbers continued to grow after events, as people tune in later and watch uploaded videos. The virtual flag raising event at Toronto City Hall on June 1 had around 2,000 live attendees but the number of viewers continues to grow.

By staying focused on their community, getting creative with event content, and giving creators access to the right technology, Pride Toronto has achieved what mere months ago seemed unimaginable. The team plans on packaging their insights and learnings from Virtual Pride to share with other Pride organizations or event planners looking to take the same leap.

“We’re really proud of what we’ve been able to pull off,” Moyle said. “We like to say we weren’t forced to go to the virtual world, we were given this world.”

At Google Canada, we stand in solidarity with the BIPOC and LGBT2Q+ communities across the world, honouring the longstanding Pride tradition of unity.

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