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Rethink hybrid events - a new method for including your audience, rather than losing them

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed May 2, 2023
Hybrid events are falling short - but the answer isn't to revert to a stale event playbook. A new way to think about hybrid events, segmented by audience types - opens up possibilities.

Goldfish moving to larger bowl change management improvement concept © Romolo Tavani - Shutterstock
(© Romolo Tavani - Shutterstock)

As we sprint through the spring event cycle in a blur of tarmacs and generative AI demos, I was hoping we'd find a way to combine the best-of-virtual with a rethink of what matters on-the-ground.

Unfortunately, we got a disappointing hodge-podge instead: flawed/boring virtual events, fused with on-the-ground events that continue to lack imagination.

Yes, it's great to see each other again - but not when we're sitting on our behinds through excessively long keynotes, yawning through all-male-panels, blasting through Powerpoint decks with grim determination, and shouting to be heard at networking events, while past-their-prime DJs pump up the jams.

Hybrid events - a new method ties community to customer success

But all is not lost: amidst the smattering of successful events, a viable method for how to think about hyrbrid has emerged. If we do this right, our virtual events can deepen the connections made via on-the-ground events. This method is informed by three main principles:

1. Community is the secret ingredient behind what B2B vendors now call "customer success." A vibrant community is a core ingredient of what draws enterprise prospects in - and keeps projects on track.

2. Events, therefore, are subservient to the broader goal of community participation. Sometimes big events further those goals. Sometimes, smaller/regional events do. Sometimes, big virtual events can help. Other times, smaller, interactive virtual events work better.

The new event goal?  Avoid the annual extravanganza - > exhale ->  "see you next year" dispersion and disconnect. Projects are moving too fast now - we need to connect with smart people and good info year round. Virtual and regional events have vital roles to play in this continuous network, but only if we do them right.

3. Hybrid events remain the most difficult to pull off. To include community members who couldn't make it, most on-the-ground events (but not all) should have a hybrid component. That's proven difficult for most event organizers to wrap heads their around. But there is a way to do it - once we understand the different types of external audiences, and how they want to participate (read on).

When you're doing an on-the-ground event, the first consideration is: should there be a hybrid component? Big lesson: smaller, highly interactive events, like VIP customer sessions, regional user group meetings, and analyst "summits" probably shouldn't be hybrid.

Why? Because the virtual attendees wind up with a second rate experience, with inferior participation options. A textbook example? the analyst event, gathered around a table all day, with some poor virtual soul dialed in on a speaker phone.

When to do hybrid events - and when not to

Unless there is a truly unique "can't miss" session, it's better to let these events proceed on the ground only. In some cases - such as an analyst event - it makes more sense to hold a separate virtual session a week or two later, for those unable to make it on the ground. Or, alternately, you can make one session from the event truly hybrid - perhaps projecting virtual viewers on webcam, and prioritizing their questions so they aren't lost in the cheap seats. You can do an effective hybrid press conference this way - but only if the facilitators are top shelf, and only if online questions get answered in real time.

So when does a hybrid component make sense? When you hold a larger event - the kind of event that gets a lot of online attention - pulling in a hybrid audience is a necessity. Yes, the live hybrid aspect isn't easy. But there is good news: most virtual attendees don't expect a full hybrid experience. Nor do you have to live stream the entire event for hybrid to work.

Three types of hybrid (and virtual) audiences

There are three main types of virtual audiences. Understand what each audience needs, and hybrid events are much easier to pull off.

1. "The watchers" - this audience is mainly interested in your streaming keynotes. Watchers could be anyone from investors to analysts to early stage prospects. Yes, you can ask these folks to sign up ahead of time, but on keynote day, they should be able to stream your keynote without logging in - ideally across YouTube, Twitter, and your own site - maybe even Twitch. You might also choose to support/encourage "watch parties" on LinkedIn or elsewhere.

Putting the keynote stream behind a registration wall is just asking for technical trouble. For hugely popular vendors, the "watcher" audience is quite substantial. For smaller vendors, it's probably smaller - but some smaller vendors punch above their weight in terms of market interest.

2. "The learners" - this audience is truly interested in your session content - even on replay. They have specific areas they want knowledge in. They probably have questions too, but they will generally be okay waiting a few days for a proper email response.  These folks will register to consume your event content, sharing their job title and other data, though they would expect free access to the content (don't share such sign ups with third parties or event sponsors, however, without an opt in).

Here's where so many vendors go wrong with this audience: making replays hard to consume. If you must hold a session until a particular time, for example, you're streaming a live session, then make it available immediately after. Don't make virtual attendees wait to see the session sometime after the event is concluded. It makes no sense to withhold a recorded session until a specific time. I am seeing more vendors make the virtual session content available ahead of the live event.

I've changed my tune on this: it's fine to pre-record a chunk of sessions ahead of time; it makes virtual events easier to manage. But if you do, consider having a live question/answer chat, or a way for attendees to contact you during the broadcast.

If you combine live and pre-recorded content, indicating that in the session catalog is useful. Why vendors make their customer sessions so difficult to view/replay is one of the baffling questions of the virtual event slog. We still see surprises when media covers these sessions. Presenters should be reminded that public sessions are just that - public sessions. Exceptions can (and should) be clearly noted. Otherwise, if media members like your session, they just might write about it.

3. "The fans" - I used to think everyone wanted an interactive online experience. I was wrong. But the "fans" sure do. I use the term fan loosely, to describe anyone who is highly engaged and eager to interact. This could even include prospects who are nearing a decision, and have urgency around their final questions.

What percentage of the total virtual audience is this? Perhaps 20 percent, but it's an important audience - potentially including some of your top community members, customers, and "influencers." These folks will definitely register for such an event, and they might even pay - though monetizing their attendance is probably less important than engaging them further. (Can we find a business model for virtual events? Presence Summit provided some big clues - starting with exceptional interactivity).

Different audience types open up hybrid event possibilities

Since the "fans" are a smaller percentage, this opens up new possibilities. It makes true hybrid events easier. You might even be able to use familiar video tools like Zoom to pull these folks in, rather than build or evaluate elaborate new event platforms. Also, you don't necessarily need to involve virtual "fans" with everything that is happening on the ground. Examples:

  • You could have a separate online session with a product manager - perhaps broadcasting from an unused stage, in between on-the-ground sessions.
  • Or: you could have a peer group discussion online - perhaps of all your retail CIOs who couldn't make the event. Ideally, there is some kind of event tie in, to give online attendees a flavor for what is happening, but there are no limits here - or if there are creative limits, we haven't hit them yet.

It's disappointing how few standout interactive sessions I've seen. Some years have passed since the best pandemic-era examples. However, the interactive format translates well to hybrid. Why not have an online Q/A with one of your keynote speakers or product leads?

The best thing about interactive formats? They don't have to last all day, or involve all speakers. It's really about structuring a shorter, customer-focused online program that has live urgency. In other words - you don't wait for the replay. You have to see it unfold yourself.

Hard to believe, but I once heard an online attendee say: "I wouldn't miss these discussions for anything." Not many online events have made attendees feel this way! This person was not physically able to attend conferences in person. Why are we leaving these types of influencers out in the (virtual) cold again? (Tech events at a crossroads - go hybrid and include people, or go on-the-ground and exclude them)

The online backstage (a VIP attendee format) - One of my favorite formats is simple: an online "backstage" room where your virtual attendees can hang out with speakers as they roll off stage. This could easily be done via an informal broadcasting booth, with hosts and speakers on couches.

Couch drop-in studio - for all attendees - the couch format also works well as a virtual drop-in room, where all virtual attendees can pop in, listen in on interviews, and get updates on which online sessions are coming up next. These formats can be fun and informal, and don't require live streams in every room.

Many of the "fans" who enjoy the interactive format will also consume on-demand session content. This makes virtual/hybrid easier to consider:

1. Build up an inventory of recorded product sessions. Supplement that with:

2. A selection of highly-interactive online sessions.

3. Sessions with live Q/A - or recorded sessions with a live Q/A segment added on.

My take - a few event caveats

I don't know about you, but I find that segmenting these audience types clarifies what's needed. It makes our virtual ambitions more manageable. One common question I get about this framework: where do prospects fit in? Answer: across all three - and on the ground. It all depends on the phase the prospect is in, and how seriously they are evaluating. But when a prospect is serious, giving them a true flavor for community interaction can work wonders.

There are, however, a few caveats to keep in mind:

A free-flowing online chat can be revealing and engaging - but good chats require resources to manage. No, not to manage the conversation, but the information requests that come out of it. Make sure you have facilitators on hand to answer questions. Be ready to summon experts to hop online if needed.

There is no rule that those in chat should be paying attention to your stream - yes, even the keynotes. Surrender to the keynote watch party era. The live moment of connection outweighs replayable content! An active chat is gold - and is not an insult to speakers. You can cover 3 - 5 times more ground, and plenty more questions, if you have an active chat - and staff on hand to answer questions in the chat. When he was Chief SAP Community Evangelist, Mark Finnern used to put on legendary webinars for SAP Mentors. Speakers didn't always like how off-the-hook the chat was. But the goal is to extend the web of connections between participants, not force people to shut up and defer to a speaker, when they can usually find similar content on YouTube anyhow. It's the interactions around the content that really make us smarter.

Informal, peer to peer sessions can be powerful - but take steps to make sure that "alpha" speakers don't dominate. On the ground at Zoholics Jersey City, I was able to sit in on some peer group sessions with customers. Sometimes the best thing a vendor can do is to put customers together - or even types of customers (job/location/industry), and step out of the way.

These Zoholics sessions were informal gold - with tips/ideas on making the most out of the software flowing freely. And yes, some venting and snark, but that's all part of the connections that peers make. I was reminded that at times, vocal group members take up too much air time.

The conversations I heard at Zoholics can also be done online. Nothing beats customers swapping tips, gripes, and ideas for improving products. But at times, a bit of (relaxed) facilitation is useful, to ensure that everyone in the peer group is getting airtime (or, you can train peer group leaders to handle this ahead of time). If you've already invested in community, you won't have problems finding facilitators for online sessions.

Even the "fan" segment may not be used to truly interactive sessions. I call this the event participation paradox. We've worn attendees down by droning on, saving questions for a teeny tiny time block at the end. It takes some patience to pull out questions, and get folks used to talking. (Virtual event honesty - an interactive virtual event won't work unless we solve the participation paradox).

I've seen vendors experiment with interactive formats, and then quickly bulldoze over the Q/A because they think no one is asking anything. Give them time to work up their courage, come off mute, and realize you are serious about fielding their questions. A couple moments of awkward silence are worth it to draw out the questions. Fear the moment of pause, and you'll lose the interactive opportunity.

Some vendors try out their boldest ideas on their technical/developer audience - these folks are typically more used to informal/interactive event structures like hackathons. But I can assure you, many business users like this type of format too - once they are exposed to it. Limiting your most creative events to developers is a missed opportunity to engage your business users differently.

Of course, the benefit to nailing down hybrid structures is: you can then apply them to all-virtual events, and keep your audiences better connected throughout the year. You can even re-invent your (stale) webinar series with these techniques.

As for the proof points, the idea that you can't connect interactive events with lead gen is silly. Yes, attribution schemes need to be adjusted. We need to reach broader influencer networks that the handful of budget holders that get the Las Vegas red carpet treatment (Reaching enterprise buyers - why do B2B marketers fall short on the content that could help them the most?). Yes, the VIP targeting still matters too - but enterprise buying is a consensus process (Gartner's Hank Barnes has been documenting this in detail). Casting a wider net with events (and community) reflects that. And the numbers are there to support it.

For the peer discussion groups at the Zohoholics' regional tour, one possible benefit is that the groups may want to stay in touch after the event. That's true for any type of online gathering. Attendees appreciate the event organizers' efforts to help them stay connected. Let's get to it.

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