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What would a hybrid event look like? Answer: you'll need much more than a streaming keynote.

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed January 7, 2021
What would a terrific hybrid virtual event look like? Is it viable to combine virtual and on-the-ground events? Here's nine tactics that could spark hybrid events - and some thoughts on how events may evolve this year.

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Before the holidays, I asked an event organizer about his plans for 2020. The question jumped out:

What would a truly hybrid event look like?

Now, let's not get ahead of ourselves. Events will be purely virtual for a while longer - arguably quite a while. Too many vendors have on the ground events scheduled for the first half of this year - as if they can't wait to get the awkwardness of the virtual event learning curve behind them. That's the wrong outlook.

The vendors that excel in 2020 will push into virtual event creativity and mastery. They'll emerge, somewhere on the other side, with a hybrid event model. But hold up: I can hear the objections already. Why would a vendor grapple with the complexities of a hybrid event?

In a post-pandemic future, why wouldn't vendors intersperse purely virtual events on the schedule, and continue with typical on-the-ground events?  In that format, a handful of keynote sessions are live-streamed - and some of the sessions recorded for replay later.

Hybrid events are (relatively) new. Why would you want one?

  • Incorporating online audiences opens up geographical barriers.
  • Events with an online component are more inclusive for those who are unable to travel - but who may be important constituents.
  • Online audiences provide valuable data points that expand whatever you would get on the ground.
  • Event planners overestimate the eagerness of attendees to travel again for national/international trade shows. Regional on-the-ground events will come back first. Seen any of those lately?

That said, hybrid events will post challenges. Streaming the keynote and pushing the social hashtag isn't nearly enough. But including virtual attendees in VIP meetings and social cocktail hours obviously isn't realistic either. Nor is live streaming every single conference session - not yet anyway.

We could ask ourselves, in a visionary way: what would a truly next-gen hybrid event look like? But a more useful question right now is: what would it look like to push beyond streaming keynotes?

How could we realistically put on a great hybrid event?

Well, we'd want an event that was realistic financially and technically - one that pushed our event capabilities, but didn't expose us as unprepared. We'd want an event that could support those who are ready to travel, but cast a wide net for those who aren't (e.g. they haven't been vaccinated yet).

What would be a baseline of solid hybrid event functionality, beyond the live keynote streams?

1. Some type of streaming/interactive chat, perhaps organized by topic. Whova does a very good job of this on their mobile event app, as one example.

2. Smaller keynote watch parties, organized by community members with similar interests. Platforms like Twitch could be perfect for this. SAP had some luck with this at SAP TechEd in November.

3. A press conference that included questions mixed in from external submittals. Ideally, this conference would also include an interactive chat to answer more questions. On-the-ground media members could gain from this chat also.

4. An online social networking application that would allow all participants to engage with each other. You might need a designation for on-the-ground individuals versus "virtual." There are a bunch of social tools cropping up for this purpose - it depends on the scale of your event. Gatherly, for example, worked well for a couple of smaller events I was part of. And on some platforms, like Hopin, you can have a form of networking via speed networking. This would mostly be for virtual attendees to connect with each other, but in-person attendees could give it a go also.

5. Integration with LinkedIn for instant connections beyond the conference. I'm surprised by how many event platforms emphasize their own connection software - which doesn't last after the show is over. Make it easy for me to go from chatting with someone to clicking on their LinkedIn profile for a permanent connection. I'll attribute that value to your event.

6. Access to an ongoing live stream of the event, which could be gated, or not. Perhaps this would be done by designating one breakout room or theater as the live stream location. All events in those theater(s) would be on the live stream schedule. Other sessions in other rooms could still be recorded for later viewing as well - but there is a different technical burden on live streams, so you'd probably limit the amount of live streaming for an event or two.

7. If you have a "VIP" online ticket, you might provide an ongoing private live channel where attendees that paid for a premium online ticket could interact informally with speakers, or participate in peer group sessions. Here's how the Presence Summit pulled that off: Can we find a business model for virtual events? Presence Summit provided some big clues - starting with exceptional interactivity.

8. A way to continue the discussions beyond the event, whether it's a LinkedIn group, or hosted community forum. In this way, a hybrid event could more easily seed that elusive networking vibe between events.

9. A pricing tier that makes sense for all, and doesn't leave a constituent group feeling like they overpaid.

Notice I did not mention celebrity guest speakers and washed up entertainers. Music generally sounds bad via computer streams. In B2B, entertaining attendees is wildly overrated, especially for virtual events. I'd be curious to hear your take on hybrid event features or platforms of note.

My take

It's probably too early to actively plan hybrid events. But: it's definitely not too early to put on outstanding virtual events - with an eye towards features that could be re-used in on-the-ground settings. We talk so much about the value of so-called big data, and how data is central to digital business models. Well, online attendees are giving you way more data than those on-the-ground.

That can change, however, if the on-the-ground mobile app has enough interactive features to keep all attendees engaged. I strongly believe that before big events return, smaller events will take precedence. Attendees will show up based on their perceived risk tolerance and readiness to travel.

Those who want to participate virtually shouldn't be made to feel like anonymous keynote viewers. There is no reason why online attendees can't be a major part of what happens on the ground. Is there a risk of losing on-the-ground attendance if your virtual offering is really good? Perhaps. But I believe if people feel safe enough and have the budget to travel, they'll go when they can. Hybrid will be about expanding the reach of events, not cannibalizing them.

Pricing could also be a motivator to get this right. I imagine most hybrid events would still have a free virtual tier, or free with easy registration. However, a premium virtual pricing tier with a few perks could absolutely work. One person who was hard at work on this before the pandemic was Paul Richards, Chief Streaming Officer at PTZOptics. Richards even wrote a book on monetizing virtual and hybrid events: The Virtual Ticket: How to Host Private Live Streams & Virtual Events.

I've seen what his team can do firsthand via the aforementioned Presence Summit article. As Richards said to me:

I've been in the streaming business for about eight years. At the National Association of Broadcasters Show in Las Vegas every year, it would surprise me that they would spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on television studios, news sets and everything, yet they wouldn't live stream it to Facebook... It's such a disconnect, in my opinion.

Richards expected the pandemic to finally "flip" this trend:

I've been like watching this whole industry and waiting for it to flip. And COVID has really been an accelerant in that regard, in many ways.

Yes, it's been an accelerant. As I wrote in my virtual events year in review, The year in virtual events...from the mediocre to the exceptional, we did get better events as the year went on. But I'm not sure the urgency is there yet. Nor is the creativity - but perhaps discussions like these will spark something. We need to stop saying "I can't wait to see you in person next year," and start saying, "I can't wait to put on an incredible virtual event." We'll see each other eventually, and it will be great - but I don't believe we'll ever be the same.

This piece is part of my ongoing diginomica series, The art of virtual events - from mediocrity to excellence.

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