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Tech events at a crossroads - go hybrid and include people, or go on-the-ground and exclude them

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed July 14, 2022
Legacy event playbooks lead to legacy events. Why doesn't agility apply to event structure and participation? As the fall event calendar fills up, time for a hybrid event wake up call - and a case for radical inclusion. Plus: hybrid event tips from the diginomica team.

businessman's dilemma

Tech event planners are an excitable bunch - and they are definitely excited about the return of on-the-ground events.

But there is a big problem. The lack of attention to hybrid structures is hurting these on-the-ground events - and undermining the so-called "customer success" these events supposedly cultivate.

So, event planners, once more with feeling: you can address this before fall events kick in. You can include (hybrid), or you can exclude - and hurt your brand.

Well into the summer, the entire diginomica team attended loads of on-the-ground events. We hit virtual shows. We also valiantly attempted (and mostly failed) to adequately cover on-the-ground events from afar. Alas, these events were not effective in their hybrid options - a missed opportunity all around.

Tiers of experience quality is not the way forward

I didn't want to write this post. I've already made an impassioned case for why the future of events is imaginative, and hybrid. But riding the event circuit this spring, it dawned on me. Event planners were doing something they never intended: they weren't just excluding people who couldn't make it.

  • They were creating tiers of privileged access.
  • They were creating tiers of experience quality.

Those tiers were not even based on a calculated value of the individual from a "customer success" perspective. Instead, they were based on who was healthy enough, able enough, and willing to be on the ground again. The tiers were based on the inflexible standard of geographical proximity - even though international travel remains a Vaccine Economy beast, and a legit reason for staying home.

Event planners: are you sure you want to go this route?

Are you sure you want to do this, when the resources for carrying off effective (and inclusive) hybrid structures are plentiful?

I've had event planners justify their on-the-ground-only events by telling me: "We want to focus on the ground; our customer community really matters to us."

Why doesn't agility apply to event structure and participation?

Now, this is not just about coronavirus, though in the context of fall events, the COVID news isn't great. People will get sick at shows, but they will also get sick before a show - and unable to attend yours. Or they may be hindered by budget. Or, they may be looking after an immuno-compromised family member. Or, like most media/analyst types I know: they are willing to go to some events, but they aren't willing to live out of a suitcase anymore. Event attendance is a fortuitous thing; it should not be seen as a loyalty oath. Plenty of folks who care about your brand won't be on site.

Here is the event reality going forward: some VIPs (including your own execs), are going to cancel last minute. Do you really want to exclude them because your hybrid structure isn't robust enough? Where is all the happy talk we usually hear about agility?

Why doesn't "agility" apply to event structure and participation?

Here's the shame of it: more inclusive events aren't Mount Everest. Yes, a comprehensively hybrid event is ambitious. But smaller aspects are not hard to pull off - nifty event features just require thoughtful design. Here is one simple/elegant example from Kinaxis - a handy toggle between on-the-ground, hybrid, and virtual sessions.

Maybe I've motivated a few event planners. Now I need to dispense with three objections:

  • No, your hybrid/virtual options won't "cannibalize" your on-the-ground event. There are very few fence-sitting attendees out there. Either they want to see you in person, or they aren't up for it. They aren't waiting to see your virtual catalog before deciding.
  • No, you don't have to break your budget with a hybrid event of massive scope. Apply some imagination, mix in some modest steps, and you are on the road to better events.
  • Yes, the hybrid/virtual technology is good enough. It will get better from here, but you don't need a bells-and-whistles metaverse to get the job done.

The practical path to hybrid events - tips and highlights from the diginomica team

I have yet to see a completely effective hybrid event. But there's a reason for that: I have a high standard for interactivity. For starters, there would need to be a highly-interactive VIP track (and yes, you could charge for that). And, you'd need to get a handle on interactivity in the context of live streams (and live streaming is where the technical hurdles increase). But you can move to hybrid event fluency with smaller steps. When I polled the diginomica team for their favorite hybrid features, they responded:

  • Q/A incorporates online attendees - "I've been at several live events where online attendees can submit questions online, and these are taken alongside questions from within the room. MACH Alliance did this last week." (Phil)
  • Pre-recorded sessions, but live Q/A at the end - "There was one online event where the presentation was pre-recorded, but then the speakers came on for a live Q&A at the end." (Phil)
  • Toggling between on-the-ground, hybrid and virtual sessions - as noted above, via Kinaxis (Jon)
  • Chat stream with the live keynote, or during a session - "If you have a highly engaged online audience, then a lively chat stream alongside the main presentation can work well, provided it's properly moderated. I saw that from New Relic." (Phil)
  • Downloadable slide decks and transcripts - a nice touch. "I attended a virtual event that had all sessions on demand, but alongside that had the transcripts and the slide decks available to download. Thought it was a helpful touch." (Derek)

These are just a handful of ideas that worked. I've documented plenty of others - check The future of events is hybrid, but how do we get there? Tips and visuals with Paul Richards of HuddleCamHD (video and blog post).

The big takeaway? Small changes and creative tactics go a long way. Start with this baseline:  streaming only your keynotes isn't a hybrid event, and go from there. You might start with just one live streamed stage for virtual attendees. I recommend streaming keynotes openly (no registration wall) to avoid tech difficulties, but have one or two additional levels of participation (example: a free registration tier for session replays, and a paid VIP virtual tier for an interactive online track).

Some event planners got too ambitious with the amount of online sessions. Logistical exhaustion and virtual event disillusion followed. Good approaches to hybrid events may be counterintuitive. Example: I don't necessarily think all sessions should stream live. Quality customer sessions recorded in advance can be a valuable addition. Just label which sessions were recorded in advance, and which were not. Adding that live Q/A, or even a live session Q/A for the entire track, can supplement recordings nicely.

Hybrid and online events - gotchas to avoid

Now, for a few don'ts we've run into this season:

  1. It's okay to hold a recording until a scheduled debut time, but once that session has aired, it's ridiculous to then hold the recording back until after the event, or another later airtime. Once it airs, it should be replayable. I've had situations where I couldn't replay a key part of a session I just watched because it disappeared, withheld for some delayed content dump.
  2. Many events hold back all their recordings until they can be issued in a replay batch a week or so after the event (perhaps for editing purposes). Big mistake. Hold back some if needed, but make sure there are good sessions for remote attendees to replay asap, on their own time. Don't make them plan their lives around a session that only airs once. Don't make them calculate overseas time zones (and don't limit your online coverage to certain regions). Withholding sessions until a week after the event really throws a hitch into event coverage.
  3. Any sessions that air, whether on-the-ground or virtual, are considered public. They will be shared/discussed socially, and could be written about - perhaps on diginomica. If a session must be private, clearly label it is as such (example: a private product feedback session). You can't take a public session back after it's been written about; that's not how the Internet works.
  4. Putting streaming keynotes behind registration walls is asking for technical breakdowns and trouble - don't do it (I've changed position on this issue; the combo of streaming and validating registration is too fragile). Stream on your Twitter, Twitch or YouTube channels, and don't let your lead gen team throw a hissy fit. Tech problems with your keynote just aren't worth it. There are other ways to obtain leads - embrace the challenge of creating a good enough virtual experience to earn those leads. Many who want to watch your keynotes aren't prospects anyhow, and will just clog your database, resulting in annoying, time-wasting and inappropriate post-event outreach.

My take - radical inclusion is innovation

Up to this point, I've emphasized the practical side of event inclusion: allowing attendees who can't get to this particular show to remain involved. But there is a more radical/innovative type of event inclusion; the creative event planners will be the ones to claim it. A respected science fiction conference, Readercon, explained why they are taking the year off:

One of the few highlights of this global pandemic and the pivot to more online interactions has been the opportunity to welcome people who might otherwise have struggled to attend events like ours, whether due to accessibility barriers, financial barriers, or simple geography...

While we look forward to "going back to normal" in many respects, we don't want to lose that increased inclusion, and so we'd like the Readercon of the (very near) future to be a hybrid physical and virtual event.

At a highly interactive virtual event, I met an attendee who is paralyzed from the neck down; he cannot travel to events. For the first time, he felt on a level playing field with other attendees (On that topic, I rarely attend virtual events where there isn't some opportunity for live discussions. Sitting passively for hours watching talking heads, hoping they'll deign to answer my chat question, doesn't do it for me anymore).

I've also run into events that excluded people who aren't "decision makers" or "budget holders" - even though those people wanted to bring larger teams. Are we sure that's a good idea? When B2B decisions involve so many people across departments - even outside the organization - that needs a rethink also (Reaching enterprise buyers - why do B2B marketers fall short on the content that could help them the most?)

One more misconception to clear up: a great hybrid strategy doesn't mean every event is hybrid.

  • Hybrid is about keeping an enterprise community vital throughout the year, not just at one major event.
  • In some cases, it's better to hold a separate virtual event for those who can't make it in person (example: analyst or VIP customer events, where you don't want someone dialed in on speakerphone all day).
  • It's about creatively taking advantage of content production, streaming, and replays - and fusing that with inclusive/interactive options.
  • As vendors get serious about going beyond streaming keynotes, they'll need new skills, from event tech management to online moderation. But you can build those skills gradually, starting with existing platforms (e.g. Zoom), and your current community leaders (who already know a thing or two about moderation).
  • Very few event planners seem to reach out for any advice on these topics, or to find out about hybrid "best practices." Perhaps they just want to go "back to normal," so they charge ahead, using a legacy event playbook. After the event, during a debrief, they say things like "That would have been a really good idea." We're all still learning here - let's put heads together beforehand, not after.

An effective hybrid strategy is about making those who contribute to your community feel included, whether or not they can attend. And yes, you should be able to tie that inclusion directly to lead conversion - and customer success metrics (digital events are pretty handy when it comes to opt-in data).

This isn't a sour grapes post from someone who doesn't want to get on a plane.  I picked up COVID this summer,  most likely at an event or traveling to and from, and yeah, it sucked. I still plan on attending in-person events this fall, though I'm not hesitant to wear a mask. To me, that's about your personal risk tolerance, as we figure out the best way to live with all this.

A terrific in-person event is well worth our time, but we won't make them all. Whether we engage virtually is really up to the creativity of the event planners.

Want more hybrid event tips? See: Want to limit the impact of your next event? Make sure your hybrid structure is bland or non-existent.

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