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

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed April 22, 2022 Audio mode
Summary:
Event planners are super-psyched about the return of on-the-ground events - but why are they dismissive of hybrid events? If you claim to be "customer-first," your next event better be hybrid. Join me as I sprinkle in the tips, and blow a gasket or two.

man-scratching-head

What if an employer swept aside all the pandemic lessons on remote work, and insisted all employees show up Monday through Friday - no exceptions. How would that go over?

So why are event planners doing the exact same thing with their on-the-ground events?

Yes, there are plenty of reasons to be excited about seeing colleagues and friends face-to-face. And yes, most vendors did not push the envelope on virtual events during the pandemic.

They are understandably eager to put virtual event mediocrity behind them. But I will not back down: virtual events can not only be high quality, they can be transformational.

Why are enterprise event planners so scared of hybrid events?

Now, we have the opportunity to forge ground on hybrid event structures. But event planners aren't in the mood. If you're not on the ground, there is no consolation prize. Oh yeah, you can probably stream the PR festival known as the keynote, in exchange for "registration," aka putting your email on a spam list, and squandering time typing in contact info the vendor already has.

Alongside a slew of on-the-ground events, all-virtual events continue. Unfortunately, they mostly still stink, or come off as bare bones bolt-ons - despite the proven power of interactive, VIP event tracks.

Why is there so little progress on hybrid events? Two reasons, I think:

  • Hybrid events come off as intimidating to produce - not so. You can limit hybrid to certain tracks, and create a manageable - and energizing - event structure.
  • Vendors seem to think if they offer a virtual component, that will cause something on the ground to go inexplicably wrong.

Newsflash: there aren't any event fence-sitters right now, waiting on a feeble virtual option to make a decision. Either they are ready to get on a plane and go to your event, or they're not. Once more with feeling: your hybrid event will not cannibalize your on-the-ground event.

Since taking over diginomica's web projects, I've spent a lot of time on web accessibility. One overriding lesson: better accessibility means a better design for all. The same holds true for events - and I'm baffled why event planners aren't energized by these possibilities.

Here's a quick hybrid event argument:

  • It's inclusive, regardless of your attendees' physical abilities to travel.
  • Build community -> sell more software.
  • Earn contacts you wouldn't get on the ground -> sell more software.
  • It's not region-specific (have fun getting attendees to slog through international travel for your event at this time).
  • It gives immuno-compromised attendees a chance to participate -> good will.
  • Oh, and if you have to cancel your event due to - hopefully never - another covid surge, or under-registration, isn't it kind of nice to have a backup plan?

Yet despite tons of hybrid tips and tricks, we're stuck in the unimaginative duality:

On-the-ground events with a streaming keynote (that's not a hybrid event)

or

A mediocre, all-virtual event.

Brian Sommer and I once published a satirical collection of tips and gotchas for on-the-ground events, User conferences are back - will your event be a blockbuster, or a dud? But maybe it's time to review how to mess up the virtual side of things as well.

How to make your next virtual or hybrid event mediocre

Good events are hard to pull off, but mediocre events are easy. Here's a bunch of ways to mess up the virtual (or "hybrid") component - all based on recent "event experiences" our team has been lucky enough to partake in.

Don't bother with a virtual or hybrid component - that means no online customer sessions, no chance for trusted media outlets to write up use cases, no chance for virtual prospects to learn from your online customer stories. "Our community really wanted to be together on the ground" - well, except those who can't take on the travel right now, aren't ready to cross borders, or who have immune issues, or who got Covid last minute. So a narrower slice of community stands in for the community as a whole. Awesome.

Post a pre-recorded session as a live event, but don't make it available for replay immediately after. This is a strange-but-common virtual practice. It's a bit like making an appointment to view a YouTube video. I'm actually not opposed to pre-recorded customer sessions, as a way to bolster the live content, but make sure it's available for immediate replay. Ideally, the pre-recorded session is combined with live Q/A.

Put on a "regional" virtual event, but don't give access to replays outside of that region. You have a global audience. But Netflix restricts content by region, so we might as well do the same.

Have a production delay between your session content and the replays - Event replays aren't like cans of beans, to be dusted off at a later date. Event replays are more like the smoked salmon in your fridge - with each passing day, their appeal lessens.

Make event registration as tedious as possible:

Only allow 30 seconds for live questions - fear the silence. I've lost count of how many live-sessions-with-potential have ended prematurely - due to a fear of silence when online questions weren't immediately posted. Trust the silence, work with the silence. Good standup comics and preachers love the silences; they draw them out for effect. Event planners and speakers are terrified of silence, and are known to end their sessions early, rather than deal with a few seconds of quietude while peeps figure out how to unmute.

Pull out the questions; be patient. Have a few provocative questions on hand to stir the pot, and get the audience involved. If you give people time to come off mute and/or type, they will. Once the questions flow, you have gold.

One final tip, too serious to joke about:

If you want a "safe" event, make it a hybrid event. Can we please stop pretending our on-the-ground events are "safe?" Safety precautions at events are welcomed by many. But with changes in mask requirements that include airports and trains, there is no way for event planners to provide claims of "safety."

Here's the good news: attendees have weighed whatever risks they see. Many have decided they want to be at your event. Others don't want to be there at this time. I don't know about you, but just about every week, I get a message on the backchannel something like this one:

I will not be at today's meeting because I have a conflicting obligation. The news from here is that my wife has covid. I'm trying to get my work in order for when I inevitably also get it. (My wife is slowly getting better. Keep your masks on, this is the most sick I've ever seen her).

My colleague Stuart Lauchlan aptly named this era as the Vaccine Economy. That's far more accurate than "post-covid." Many have moved on from covid concerns; others simply can't. The only way to build an inclusive community right now is via a hybrid event structure. If you want people to feel safe and trust that you care about their safety, if you claim that you are truly "customer-first," you simply must offer a hybrid option. Even if they don't choose the virtual/hybrid option, offering it up speaks volumes.

My take - if you are customer-first, your next event should be hybrid

I'm bordering on a scathing tone here not because I'm angry, but because I'm disappointed. Yes, not being able to replay important sessions makes me cranky, but the real disappointment is the missed opportunity.

The bad news, as I said: event planners are intimidated by hybrid event structures. The good news: making strides towards quality hybrid events isn't that hard.

Most event planners require registration to view their streaming keynotes. That's pretty silly - keynotes should be about broadest reach. Plenty of folks who watch your keynotes will never become a prospect. Grabbing all their data just limits your keynote reach, and pollutes your lead gen funnel.

Even though I'm religious about the power of interactive online events, I recognize that only a subsection of an event audience wants/needs that type of experience. That's why a three-tiered hybrid structure works so well:

  • Tier 1: open, streaming keynotes, no registration or log in hassles - easily shareable and streamable on social channels. Maximum reach with the least likely amount of tech/firewall issues.
  • Tier 2: online session content, including customer presentations. Some of these can be pre-recorded, though as noted, I recommend supplementing with a live Q/A for that session (or track). You can legitimately ask for registration for Tier 2 session access, though you might not charge for it.
  • Tier 3: VIP hybrid structure for those who want deeper, interactive content. This is a specialized track; you won't need to offer it to all, nor will all virtual attendees want it. Those who do may even be willing to pay for it. But if you don't charge them, you can request detailed registration data in exchange for this type of interactive access. That data may be more valuable than the ticket price.

Turns out we don't need incredibly fancy next-gen event software. The amount of VIP-type attendees that require an interactive structure is modest enough that even options like Zoom can work. And these kinds of VIP sessions, whether it's for customers, media, analysts, or any combination, can be special. I've written about a number of great events, but here is a standout to start with: Can we find a business model for virtual events? Presence Summit provided some big clues - starting with exceptional interactivity.

I recently attended a virtual analyst day with Domo that checked a lot of these boxes, without getting fancy. How was it done? Nothing fancy - just no slide overdose and lots of Q/A.

  • Great executive access, including the CEO, with plenty of open time for Q/A sessions.
  • Terrific/interactive customer panel and customer/analyst discussions.

Domo could have gone even further, with topical breakout rooms, but even what they had was highly effective and worthwhile (it was an all-virtual analyst event).

Ironically, a hybrid version of VIP events usually doesn't work. Why? Because smaller on-the-ground gatherings tend to exclude the virtual participants. I've been to an on-the-ground analyst event where a far-flung analyst had to dial in on audio-only speakerphone. Sitting in a room for eight hours is a rough enough structure as it is - asking someone to dial into that setup doesn't work.

So, in the case of a VIP event on the ground, the best way to do virtual is via an entirely separate event. But in the case of large on-the-ground events, a hybrid/interactive component for VIPs is a viable option. For example:

Why not make one stage a "hybrid" stage, where all sessions are streamed to those who pay for it, including the chances to ask questions via a skilled moderator that integrates online with on-the-ground questions. Including hybrid questions into a press conference is another option. Virtual birds-of-feather gatherings can be potent as well. Example: an international discussion with all retail CIOs in your customer base invited. Think that's not gold? Beyond live streaming a session track, how hard is it to tape a session track and offer it up later?

I've detailed plenty more hybrid tips and tricks - all linked from this article, including a hybrid event video summary/replay. This isn't hard - it just requires a shift in mindset. If we care about the so-called customer experience, we can do better.

End note: as I was going to press, I found this e-book, which I have yet to read: How Top Event Marketers Are Thinking about Hybrid Events.

Image credit - male mistake concept - confused young dark man pouting, holding his head, embarrassed, having regret, texture effects in studio © STUDIO GRAND OUEST - Adobe Stock

Disclosure - Event planners are super-psyched about the return of on-the-ground events - but why are they dismissive of hybrid events? If you claim to be "customer-first," your next event better be hybrid. Join me as I sprinkle in the tips, and blow a gasket or two.

A grey colored placeholder image