The marketing and communication expert on how to bridge the gap with business partners and customers in the online environment
In 2020 we all learned to Zoom, from chatting with friends and relatives to attending concerts and conferences, to meeting with recent and prospective business partners. This dramatic shift in communication, from the eye-to-eye to the screen-to-screen, both helped businesses and individuals to deal with the consequences of the lockdown and created a whole new set of anxieties (who has not asked themselves: do I look professional and convincing enough in my kitchen?).
We all have been here. This is why it is a pleasure to discuss this and other matters of effective online communication with a dedicated expert. Manuela Toteva is a specialist in marketing and communication with experience with industries such as IT, metallurgy, banking, retail and others. A Bulgarian, she is based in Germany where she now works for a software company and on her PhD on Effective Communication in Online Environment. She also lectures at Sofia University and Technical University–Ilmenau, and is a member of Deutsche Public Relations Gesellschaft and Heidelberg International Professional Women's Forum.
Your professional interest in the field of effective communication in the online environment turned out to be unexpectedly relevant in 2020. What does successful networking in the digital environment look like in 2021?
The situation is very dynamic, and I am engaged with researching the trends daily. Recently, a new social platform called Clubhouse has entered Europe – based on audio content and resembling an interactive podcast, in which you can "meet"
CEOs, actors, world-class TV presenters and join the same virtual room and discuss economic topics, for example. Although this new application was first aired last spring, more and more users have access to it with the proviso that it is currently only available to owners of a phone brand, which makes it exclusive, even called "discriminatory". Another trend is collaboration applications, which are constantly increasing their market share and entering the daily cycle of more and more companies, and startups, for example, are even offered open packages with minimized functionality. My advice to your readers is to take care of their reputation in the online environment and to brand themselves well and in the proper place.
Will virtual and hybrid events become the new normal?
We all see that now they have become the single opportunity for business and scientific conferences, workshops or trainings to continue, which still reach a high number of participants and accomplish the goals of the organizers. However, this does not apply to the entertainment industry, for example. In the corporate world, virtual events will take a larger share even after the pandemic, as they offer various facilities for organizers and participants from different geographic regions, for example. On the other hand, professionals in the field agreed that the engagement of the audience is a key element and still a challenge compared to a "normal" event. From a budgetary point of view, the difference is also huge, so many small and medium-sized companies will prefer this format. In terms of cultural and musical performances, the situation there is complex, and innovation is required towards matched expectations. Here I think that the technologies with artificial intelligence will have a huge importance, which will continue to evolve very dynamically to provide close to the real feelings of a participant in an event.
Manuela with her daughter and husband, Heidelberg, Germany, June 2020
As a lecturer in higher education institutions in Bulgaria and Germany, how do you see the future of the professions and the new workforce?
The future is optimistic and young people are oriented and well informed. Of course, there are cultural differences between students from the two countries, but in general the generation has its typical characteristics – highly developed digital skills, visual thinking, proactivity, creativity and a desire to work in a team. I believe that educational institutions should continue to adjust their programs to the requirements for professional realization, and companies should invest in agile training to acquire up-to-date expert skills, as well as those for reskilling. The World Economic Forum envisages that among the key skills of the future are critical thinking, leadership and the ability to analyze and solve problems, so we need to keep our focus on those in the next few years.
How has the role of volunteering changed and why should it be a part of our lives?
2020 shook the world and humanity came together. From the wildfires in Australia, when we saw videos and photos of volunteers rescuing distressed animals, to how ordinary people rushed as paramedics to medical facilities at the peak of the pandemic to help the weary medics. I think that volunteering is something you carry as a feeling; it can't be a part of your life if you don't feel it. But it brings us closer to our nature, so I wish everyone to find it for themselves to preserve it. I have been involved in voluntary initiatives for more than ten years and will continue to do so as long as I can.
What was the most important professional lesson you learned in 2020 and which you apply in 2021?
Perhaps, as with many others around the world, I have improved my persuasive communication skills in a virtual environment where body language and physical communication are removed. How to win colleagues, audience, students, even if you are not in the same room, requires the demonstration of excellent oratory skills and a large dose of interactivity in presentation, for example, to keep the other party awake. The lesson is useful, and I plan to develop my skills in this direction, as a professional who never stops being curious and learning.