A Look at a Hybrid Event Future
The last 17 months taught us all a lot of things. For event companies, marketers and their C-suite bosses, those months answered an age-old question, “Are in-person events and meetings really important to our business?” They also gave everyone a surprise crash course in the world of online or “virtual” events.
Among the many learnings that came out of those 17 months, the two most important are probably these:
1. Live in-Person Events Matter – A Lot
Multiple surveys of marketers and event planners showed again and again that in-person events are considered vital for networking, building customer relationships, uncovering sales opportunities, making deals and driving revenue in ways digital events cannot. A May 2021 Forrester Consulting survey* of 505 global marketing and event decision makers really summed it up – reporting that 74% or more of respondents believe that in-person events are:
- Important for generating or closing new business opportunities
- The best way to deepen relationships with customers
- Their most important demand generation activity
So, in-person events will rebound as fast as they are allowed.
2. Online Events Aren’t Going Anywhere
Or more accurately hybrid events – mixing the best of in-person and online – are here to stay. Yet, most marketers are still trying to understand exactly what that means for their programs. Perhaps the best way to explain this is to share some of the challenges marketing and event managers faced trying to create online events – and some of the things that everyone learned in the process.
Challenges of Creating an Online Event Program
Prior to the pandemic, true online events – that were anything more than simple webinars – were rare. In the same Forrester Consulting survey 83% of respondents said they had hosted digital events prior to the pandemic, but 79% said that these amounted to no more than webinars. And most companies experience with event management software was limited to event registration. So, when the pandemic rolled in, marketers and event companies were sent scrambling.
Here are some of the top challenges most companies faced adapting to the new world of online events:
- Trying to figure out what kind of on-line event best meets business goals – something that creates an engaging experience for attendees (meaning one they’d happily sit through), allows for meaningful audience interaction and collects the right data.
- Getting marketing and event management departments on the same page – 72% of survey respondents said marketing and event management operated in silos with different goals and budgets
- Finding a technology vendor and/or an event management partner that could deliver a comprehensive online event solution. And there weren’t many out there ready to do this (although many willing to try), forcing many marketers and event managers to integrate different event management tools and suppliers with sometimes less than desired results).
- Marketing the event, building awareness, excitement and getting the right kind of audiences to attend.
- Creating a meaningful post-event follow up plan to capture the value of any interest and excitement the event generated.
- Where to shift unused money in the event budget – companies struggled between funding sales, more digital content (e.g., videos), digital marketing, direct mail and sending “lumpy mail” (business related gifts) to on-line event attendees, prospects and customers.
The Hybrid Future
Let’s agree on what a hybrid event is in the first place. In our view, it’s simple. You take a live event with an in-person audience and you add some kind of online component to it. And if you think about it, this isn’t exactly new thinking. People have been live streaming portions of in-person events and sharing social media feeds from the show floor for years. But now they’re just getting more serious about it.
Let’s look at the two most typical goals of a hybrid event:
- First and most commonly, to let people who are not at the event in on the action, effectively extending your event’s audience – perfect for reaching people with health concerns or who don’t want to travel. For instance, sharing a live or recorded feed of portions of you event online.
- Second, the exact opposite – sharing presentations or activity not taking place at the live event with people who are there – for instance streaming in a CEO keynote speech from your overseas headquarters or an infield demo of your latest product.
Important Hybrid Event Considerations
Just because you have an in-person event happening, doesn’t automatically make it fun or engaging for those participating online. You have the same challenges as you would with a purely online event – getting people to attend, engaging and interacting with them and collecting the data you need. To help, here are some things to consider before jumping in:
- Know why you’re adding a hybrid component to your event and what you want to get out of it – don’t do it just to do it
- Think of the in-person and online components of the event as two different programs – you may be sharing the same basic content, but you’re creating two very different experiences – and each needs to be planned on its own
- Make sure you find the right partner and the right technology – then test it to make sure it all works seamlessly and is going to give you the actionable data you need (also note that some venues are adding hybrid broadcast capabilities to support hybrid events like the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando.
- Share only content that really works well online. Some things happening at a live event like a breakout session shot with a single mounted camera at the back of the room, or a cocktail party might not be much fun to watch online, so carefully consider what you share as well as the possible value in creating some content specifically for online attendees.
- Consider having a host for your online streams to make attendees feel more than just an afterthought, let people know what’s coming up next and keep them engaged during breaks or other slow parts of the live event.
- Include opportunities to interact with online attendees – like chat, Q & A or live polling – instead of just streaming content to them.
- Address time zone differences for online attendees – this might lead to careful timing for live feeds and/or making sure the good stuff is recorded and available on demand.
- Build a great online Netflix style downloadable content library available to both online and in-person attendees.
The Forrester poll reported that 72% of respondents believe hybrid events are the future. And that seems pretty likely. Not necessarily because of the pandemic, but because adding an online component to an in-person event can be a smart idea – allowing marketers to dramatically extend their audience reach and the ROI they get from their in-person event spend. But only when done for the right reasons with the right planning and the right partners.
It may be a brave new world for events, but it’s all readily navigable too. And of course, we’re here to help you do it.
*B2B Events Get a Long Needed Digital Makeover – How the Worldwide Pandemic Spurred Event Modernization to Drive Engagement and Maximize ROI – A Forrester Consulting Thought Leadership Paper Commissioned By Cvent, May 2021