The Science and Art of Convening 500 People Online | Land Portal

When the Land Portal was founded in 2014, we were part of conferences that spent vast sums of money bringing hundreds of people together to discuss land-related subjects. Yet the powerful speeches that were made, the insightful presentations and the moments of epiphany were largely getting stuck in the conference venue. 

It was a shame to see all this important knowledge contained to a relatively small group of people. Our first answer to this problem was to organize what we call ‘media partnerships,’ which aimed at providing wider access to information emerging from national, regional and international conferences. We started collecting keynote speeches and transforming them into blogs, live tweeting events, creating share graphics on the fly, and interviewing conference participants, especially representatives from grassroots organizations, to make sure their voices were heard. The first media partnership we had was for the World Forum on Access to Land, which took place in April 2016 in Valencia, Spain. Since then we have served as a media partner for diverse conferences, including the Mekong Regional Land Forum, the Arab Land Conference, the annual LANDac conference and more.

In early 2018, we started to realize the power of webinars as a medium to bring together diverse audiences around a specific subject. Thanks to the Columbia Center Sustainable Investment (CCSI), which already had the practice of organizing webinars well in hand, we organized a webinar on Strengthening Women's Land Rights as part of our Her Land Her Story campaign together with the Cadasta Foundation and the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network Thematic Network on Good Governance of Extractive and Land Resources. This webinar really opened up our eyes to what was possible. I don’t recall the exact number of people that participated; it may have been 100 people, but at the time it seemed impressive.

We decided to devise a new approach to webinars that would be more dynamic and well-prepared. We said good-bye to webinars showcasing presentation after presentation, often leaving little or no time for discussion with the audience. In a previous role at the International Fund for Agricultural Development, I had organized AgTalks, based on the TedTalks model, in which we brought experts from around the world to give well-rehearsed speeches on a specific theme that were recorded in front of a live studio audience. My thinking was that we could do the same for webinars. We could get the world’s land experts together to discuss specific themes in a dynamic, well-prepared, and interactive dialogue that allowed for substantial exchange with the audience. We wanted our webinars to be about creating a conversation and demonstrating passion for the subject being covered.

We organized 6 webinars in 2018, 11 in 2019, and then when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, the demand for webinars exploded. The number of people registering had been increasing incrementally over time. Before the pandemic began we were getting 100 or 200 people to register. In May 2020 we had interest from multiple partners to organize webinars on COVID-19, so we brought these partners together for the Land Rights Implications of COVID-19: A Webinar Series and Discussion, which was a watershed experience, with more than 1,200 people signing up for the series and an unprecedented number of people participating in the online discussion. Then in June of last year we organized a webinar on Land Consolidation Legislation: FAO Legal Guide and Its Application at the Country Level with the support of the FAO and FIG, which had more than 1,000 people register, a success beyond our imagination for a topic we never expected to attract such attention. In total, we organized almost 30 webinars in 2020.

Now, though there is talk of ‘webinar fatigue’ as so many organizations have adapted to virtual work, webinars are not going away. We are consistently seeing 500 or more people register for our webinars, paired with a high attendance rate. The audiences are always widely geographically dispersed, a reflection of the Land Portal’s efforts to make land knowledge open and accessible to anyone with a desire to know more. We will continue to strive to improve our approach and share the voices of land experts and activists, indigenous leaders and others. 

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