Before we received the latest event setback, otherwise known as the Omicron COVID variant, I was already making the case for hybrid events:
- Hybrid events are more inclusive than on-the-ground events.
- Hybrid events bring in international audiences - travel across oceans is not likely to be easy anytime soon.
- Hybrid events are the best hedge we have against disruptions in our event planning (see: Omicron).
- Properly executed, hybrid events can boost valuable opt-in data - even if monetizing hybrid attendees is a work in progress.
Hybrid events force a shift in thinking. That's good, because on-the-ground events needed a big rethink - even before the pandemic.
Which brings us to today - and the calls I am receiving from event planners, in a quandary about their spring events.
Now is the time to double down on creative hybrid events
Look, we won't know how much the Omicron variant will impact the spring event calendar yet. In a couple weeks, we should have a better idea. If we find out that the current vaccines address Omicron fairly effectively, then on-the-ground events should continue this spring (though we can expect lower attendance counts regardless).
If Omicron does elude the (current) vaccines to a significant degree (even with booster shots), then we can expect spring event cancellations (or virtualizations), as we wait for a supply of Omicron-specific vaccines. Some event planners are already down this road, focused on smaller/regional events that are easier to maneuver.
Based on my informal poll of those who attended on-the-ground events this fall, you can expect fewer on-the-ground participants - no matter what happens. And: those who show up for enterprise events aren't showing up for the parties, or your OneRepublic/Imagine Dragons encore performance. They're showing up because they need to make vital connections - and solve project problems. Which leads us to this question:
Given these uncertainties, why don't we double down on creative, hybrid event structures?
In times like these, learning from a hybrid and virtual event pioneer comes in handy. The person I've learned the most from is Paul Richards, Director of Marketing for HuddleCamHD. To date, the best virtual event I ever attended was designed and hosted by Richards and team (see: Can we find a business model for virtual events? Presence Summit provided some big clues - starting with exceptional interactivity).
Prior to the pandemic, Richards already made strides monetizing virtual events - a kryptonite topic for most event planners (check his book, The Virtual Ticket: How to Host Private Live Streams & Virtual Events). A couple months ago, I invited Richards onto my live video series. My challenge to Richards? Give us your best hybrid event tips, as well as pointers on improving video production values (LinkedIn Live replay is here; I also embedded the video replay below).
Note on the video shoot: Richards and I are both using HuddleCamHD cams, but Richards uses multiple cams, and has vastly superior lighting to mine. I think you'll be really impressed with what he can do with his setup.
Top hybrid event tips - "it's imperative that we rise above the mediocrity"
Interestingly, Richards was fresh off a disappointment of his own. He had developed a sophisticated hybrid plan for a major conference this fall, which was cancelled last minute (the video explains more). But the lessons remain.
One standout: Richards didn't become so production-savvy overnight. He built his expertise over time, and so you can you (and I). He did it via a grassroots team of StreamGeeks, a group of video production experts who "refuse to settle for mediocrity" with livestreamed events. As he told me during our video event:
We saw this coming long before the pandemic. The need for live video communications and streaming to make your event much more scalable, and reach audiences all around the world, is important today; it'll be important tomorrow.
But today, it's imperative that we learn how to rise above the mediocrity, shine, and make your events come alive. We all know this is not something that's going to go away tomorrow at this point. So we got to learn how to use the technology to grow. And it's truly possible to really shine and do amazing things with this technology.
Let's say we accept Richards' premise. How do we do "amazing" events? Because I haven't heard anyone say they attended an "amazing" enterprise event this entire year - and we're eleven months in. Richards believes it's about learning, but learning that's fun. Ergo: "edutainment."
Edutainment is my favorite word in that category. The ability to educate and entertain has been studied. We need to have fun when we learn; it increases our learning capabilities. It makes everyone's attention and focus that much better, which allows you to do your job even better.
Richards acknowledges: "fun" isn't always an easy bar to reach. One gremlin: technology nerves.
Sometimes that's hard, Jon, because the technology is scary, right? We're not sure if we can pull all of this off. We're not sure if there's going to be an audio issue or a video issue. And that's where StreamGeeks came from.
It's just totally free content - about solving issues, overcoming problems, and seeing what the latest and greatest is out there. Because every year, the technology gets better. Every year, there's an archaic system that's being replaced that people are still using. It's incredible, when I talk to people and say, 'Did you know if you do it this way, it's half the cost, and it's twice as good.' That happens all the time with technology these days. Learning about the latest and greatest can save you money, and make you better prepared.
To get that across in our video, Richards gave us a look at how their studios evolved through the years. The message: add gear as you go, get better all the time, and have fun delivering content. So for those event planners pushing to make sense of hybrid, what should they do? During our video, Richards counted down his top hybrid tips:
- Get up and out of your comfort zone. For Richards, that means standing and presenting on his feet. For others that means walking through a city while they engage with an audience.
- Plan your climax and build from there. The climax is the ultimate value you hope to deliver. Focus on building up to the climax and really making that moment special.
- Extend the value of your entire event by creating a dedicated networking group to extend the value.
- Hire entertainment if your specialty is education. Hire an educator if your specialty is entertainment. The cost of having someone join via Zoom is much less than flying people out to do shows.
- Charge for access. Even if your event is meant to be free, find ways to provide VIP access. You can even give everything away to a charity. People will value your event more if they have to pay to get a ticket.
Now, not all of these tips are equally relevant to the enterprise. But they are worthy of consideration - check the video for detail. I do believe you can charge for VIP access if you do it right, a topic Richards and I explored in the Presence Summit post. Extended access and community building after the event is definitely undernourished - and crucial to enterprise audiences. A couple of Richards' other tips fall into the entertainment category, I guess you could say. I think enterprise events need to tread carefully there (more on that shortly).
Richards' most important tip wasn't even on his formal list: start thinking digital-first. He explained:
Hybrid essentially means that you've got people in a room, and then you've got online audiences. If you have that, then you should also have somebody in your organization thinking digital-first, because too many times, the live stream is just a camera in the back, and there's no interactivity - and nobody is thinking digital-first.
What I'm seeing now is people going, 'You know what, the audience online is so much bigger than the people who are attending. We need to start thinking digital-first.'
Hybrid events have so much untapped potential. But Richards is right - we must start by thinking beyond the streaming keynote. Event planners facing an uncertain spring should start here: it's much easier to convert a hybrid event to a strong virtual event.
Some readers got a kick out of the video, because we spent a fair amount of time on production values. Contrary to what some think, I've never had a problem with production values. Where I see enterprise event planners going wrong is obsessing about production values - at the expense of kickass content. If you don't think there's a conflict between these two things, then you haven't been a part of enterprise event rehearsals, where obsessions with lighting and makeup turn the content into an afterthought of over-processed Ramen noodles.
Richards is right - production values do matter. And how you present matters too:
As per LinkedIn, Tammy is still applying and testing these ideas.
When it comes to hybrid events, getting the audio right is especially critical. As for the best approaches to hybrid, well, we're all still learning, but I've outlined a bunch of promising ideas in So your company is customer-centric? Then your upcoming event better be hybrid.
In our video replay, what Richards has pulled off with the HuddleCamHD is possible for many. My home office video set has some lighting and space limitations. Frankly, even after years of video work, I'm still getting to where I want to be on the production side. Between lighting, camera and sound, I prioritize audio. But my focus is always on nailing the (interactive) content. That's where I focus my prep time.
Richards' edutainment message inspired viewers, but is it enterprise-relevant? I think it is. The goal of making enterprise content fun is a pretty darn good one (and it's not easy either). That said, I am wary of enterprise events that obsess over entertainment. Good entertainment is hard. I'm not sure, for example, that watching people freestyle-dance on Zoom cameras - and other "let's entertain people" tactics I've seen this year - really work.
In my view, the biggest goals of online enterprise events should be:
Relevance - experts sharing know-how authentically, without brand bullhorns. Most presenters oversell, when the content (and customer views) can carry the day. Then add:
Interactivity - harder than it looks, requires development of facilitation and community moderation skills.That's a real talent; and it may not be a strength of your event team.
If you accomplish these two things, you have your enterprise entertainment! When we interact on content that is deeply relevant to our projects, I believe we are sufficiently entertained.
That said, if we have these two pieces sorted, thinking about additional entertainment features could be worth it - especially for the biggest events of the year. I would take Richards' advice there, and spend money (creatively) on that front.
Make those entertainment segments clearly labeled, so attendees can partake of them if they want (such as a musical interlude before an online social happy hour). Larding up keynotes with over-produced dance performances? That's not why we're watching online. I'm not sure it works in person either. We have "Succession" on HBO and "Squid Game" on Netflix. I say, leave the pure entertainment to your audience; we're getting pretty good at this streaming thing.
If we embrace Richards' challenge, and try to make an enterprise panel "fun" - well, that's not a bad place to start. "Fun" in this context means three things: interaction, focus on content, rather than branded promotions, and live, imperfect authenticity. Ironically, the unscripted live imperfections that enterprise producers try to rub out are exactly the rough edges that build trust.
Some event planners have riffed on these hybrid ideas - it's been exciting to see them give it a go. But many held off, wistfully hoping, perhaps, that the challenges of virtual event design would recede, and we'd return to on-the-ground normalcy in 2022.
No one wants the latest variant news, no matter how it turns out. But it's time to accept it: we're never coming back - not to how we were. For events, that could still be a good thing. But only if we push for better; only if we figure out that balance between those who want to be on the ground, and those who are virtual. Inclusion is the strength of great virtual events. The SAP TechEd team told me from their last two online events showed them the power of virtual to reach a broader demographic. It's a lesson they won't lose track of - and neither should we.
This piece is part of my ongoing diginomica series, The art of virtual events and webinars - from mediocrity to excellence.
Updated, 6am UK time on December 2, with a number of tweaks for reading clarity - and additional resource links.