Updated: Feb 8
Watch the Yard's inaugural Yard Con offered job opportunities and emotional support to black students, who have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Journalist Roland Martin chatted with student government presidents from historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) around the country to learn how their student bodies are dealing with the COVID-19 shutdowns. All attendees were encouraged to wear shirts representing their schools. Photo: Courtesy of Watch the Yard
As the COVID-19 crisis shut down colleges around the country, Watch the Yard, a media company founded in 2014 as a resource for black students and alumni, knew its audience was suffering—both financially and emotionally. "Many of [our readers] are first-generation college students, and graduation is a big deal for them and their parents,” said founder and CEO Jonathan Rabb in an interview with BizBash.
Rabb got together with his team to find a solution—and the inaugural Yard Con was born. The daylong digital conference, held on April 19, wanted to evoke the feeling of a yard show (a beloved tradition in black fraternities and sororities). But more than that, it aimed to provide practical support and resources to black students, and also give the students a space to discuss their fears and anxieties openly. "Our idea was: How can we replicate the feeling of being together in a room?” explained Rabb. Watch the Yard had previously hosted a few in-person events, including a student-led film festival and a recent on-campus activation with Google. But Yard Con was an entirely new concept—and the media company's first foray into the virtual conference space. Working with SocialSocietyU's Sianni Cabello along with a team of volunteers, Rabb pulled together the event in less than a week using the virtual events platform Hopin. Ultimately, students left the five-hour gathering with job opportunities, new connections, and a bunch of education and inspiration. Here are six ways the virtual event achieved its goals.
1. It kept pricing low, and stayed authentic by involving its core audience in the planning and promotion. To organize the event in such a short period of time and to ensure it had value for his audience, Rabb turned to his existing community: college students. "We had these lists of students that we were going to write stories about, so we reached out to all of them and said, 'Who wants to be on our media team?'" Rabb ended up with a team of 75 undergrads around the country, most of whom were interested in PR, marketing, and graphic design—which in turn gave the young adults a way to build up their experience and resumes.
During the planning process, team members were able to attend exclusive PR, creative, and professional development sessions with industry experts. "[For example,] we brought in a PR professional who gave a seminar over Zoom,” Rabb explained. “And then we gave the kids our logo and told them some rules of what they can and can't do, and then just let them run free with the brand." Rabb noted he got around 40 TikTok videos students had made to promote the event, plus a bunch of graphics he used on Watch the Yard's social media.
The entire staff was volunteer-based. "The idea was that many of the students' internships had been canceled, so if we created a big enough thing, a cool enough thing, they could put it on their resumes,” Rabb said. With the students’ help, the event received about 1,000 registrations in the first 24 hours.
Speakers also volunteered their time, so the only cost for the event was the streaming platform. Each attendee paid $2 for their ticket, which covered Hopin's costs. Rabb noted that having a minimal charge actually helped attendees take the event more seriously—especially because Hopin charges per registration, rather than the number of people who actually attend. "So you want to make sure there's some sort of cost because it makes people invest in it a little bit more," he explained, recognizing that there's a lot of competition for these types of virtual festivals today. "You want them showing up on time and taking it seriously." During the main stage programming—which included a resume-building workshop from a representative from LinkedIn—the Hopin platform allowed attendees to easily head over the networking area or learn about different student-run brands in the expo area.