Marketers that pivoted to all virtual events last year got good at putting them on. They discovered the power of virtual to connect people in different industries, time zones, and cultures. Even when it’s safe to gather in person again, no one will want to relinquish virtual’s low cost and wide reach. In fact, 75% of marketers report that they are planning hybrid events in the next 12 months. The coming challenge is to create hybrid events-- experiences that engage both in-person and virtual audiences.
Run a virtual event that isn't terrible with the event planning workbook.
That seems like a lot to juggle--and a lot of extra work. But keep in mind that a hybrid event isn’t two separate events. Think of it as one event that can be consumed in different ways, by different audiences, and at different times.
The Super Bowl is a great example of a hybrid event. Attending in person and watching from home are only competing options for the relatively few people who can afford tickets and travel. Instead, they complement each other and draw a much larger audience than could possibly attend the game live, even if they could afford it.
Creating a great hybrid event starts with a strategy-- and we don't mean just live streaming the in-person event to your virtual audience. The Super Bowl is much more than that. At-home parties provide a culinary and social experience without being there. Pregame and post-game commentary,; replays, and commercials are essentially exclusive content for the at home audience. And Twitter and other social feeds are where everyone at home and at the stadium can talk about it together even though they’re having different experiences.
A TED conference is also another good example of a hybrid event. You can attend in person, and/or consume the content online, for years afterwards.
This is essentially what you are trying to create--a must-attend event that can be accessed in different ways and still be a great shared experience.
Tips for Producing a Great Hybrid Event
1. Have event co-planners.
Planning an in-person event can be overwhelming. As we gradually return to planning in-person events, resist the temptation to relegate the virtual component to afterthought. With a majority of B2B buyers saying they want remote selling to continue post-pandemic, it’s important to remember that your virtual audience is filled with potential buyers. We now have a generation of event marketers who are rapidly skilling up on virtual experiences, and we all have empathy for what it’s like to be a virtual attendee. Consider having two collaborating event planners--one to focus on meeting the needs of each audience.
2. Create FOMO.
Create excitement around the in-person event to drive online registrations and attendance. Even if there's no possible way your virtual attendees could be there, they’ll feel like they want to be. The Superbowl costs a fortune to get in, making it highly exclusive. But there is so much hype leading up to it that we all still tune in to watch it virtually.
3. Improve your content--and your speakers.
"Location, location, location" is a big drawing card for attending an in-person event, but too often there’s been a penalty for traveling to a cool destination: Having to sit through hours of boring slide talks by people who might be experts in their field, but not at presenting.
For the virtual audience, the main draw has to be the content and the speakers. Let their needs push you to level up your content. That means finding deep empathy with your audience. Ask yourself, what daily challenges do they face? How can you make their jobs and lives easier? What kind of knowledge do they need to advance in their careers? To be happier at work? To earn a promotion?
One way to figure this out is to poll your attendees on what they want to hear. You can do this on all the major social media platforms, on the reg page and thank you page for the conference, and via email. Ask your salespeople what FAQs they’re getting from clients. Study your most downloaded content, and your most interacted with social posts, for ideas. Go to industry and functional groups on LinkedIn, and check relevant hashtags on Twitter to see what people are talking about.
Then, find the very best speakers you can. That may mean vetting speakers more carefully to make sure they can engage an audience with their voice and presence. It may also mean vetting their presentations more carefully to make sure they are compelling. The extra level of attention to detail will pay off for all attendees.
4. Think Like TED.
Most of us have never attended a TED Talks conference live, but millions have watched these talks on video and been inspired by them. This is an excellent example of event content that engages audiences far and wide during the event and long after it's over.
To make this work, you’ll need to up your video production values. A steady cam 100 feet from the stage won’t do. Most TED videos are done with a two- or three-camera shoot, high quality sound and good lighting.
Another note about TED talks: They’re 20 minutes long and light on PowerPoint, as opposed to the typical 30-50 minute conference session. Yet they get a lot said. This is what’s possible when you have good speakers and good content. See item 3.
5. Lean into virtual.
Virtual events have the power to transport audiences anywhere in the world from the comfort of their own home. Use this to your advantage, either by taking them somewhere special, or bringing something special to them, or both.
Consider the cook-along with Chef Michael Symon from Food Network put on by Michelle Harden, Field Marketing Manager at Adobe. Attendees were beamed into Symon's kitchen at his home in the Hamptons. His son operated the camera, and his granddaughter could be seen running through the background. That made the event intimate and personal, and since the audience was small, attendees were able to interact with Symon and ask questions.
To balance FOMO, consider making an event like this an “online only exclusive” that online guests can participate in while in-person attendees are at lunch or social events.
Another virtual play popularized during the pandemic is to send something to virtual attendees at home. Companies like Alyce, Sendoso and Postal.io have stepped up to meet this need. Virtual wine tastings, mixology parties, and craft lessons are now firmly ensconced in the event marketing tool box and can easily translate over to a hybrid event.
6. Find the connection points.
Look for ways to tie the virtual and in-person experiences together. Streaming keynotes and entertainment are obvious ways to have everyone consuming the same content at the same time. Find ways for each group to interact, for example by having live speakers take questions from the virtual audience, and by displaying the online chat for the live audience.
Other ideas: If you do a wine tasting event for people at home, consider having them score the wines and share the results with the in person audience. Have an “in-person meets virtual” networking booth that onsite attendees can step into for “speed dating” type networking. If you send swag to virtual audience members, ask them to post a photo of themselves with it to social media using the conference hashtag.
Consider creating one or more in-person “watch parties” if you have enough virtual attendees in a particular geographic location. Rent a conference or banquet room, supply food, and let them watch together.
Finally, come up with a social media activation plan to get both audiences talking and sharing on the same channel.
7. Practice makes perfect.
Rehearse your event in advance as much as you can. Ask your colleagues for feedback. When you are waist-deep in event production, it's challenging to take a step back and see the big picture objectively. Don't be afraid to ask for help or a second opinion.
Feedback from your audience is the best tool you have to help you improve quickly. Be sure to have mechanisms in place to collect feedback and comments from both audiences. Make sure you also have your analytics instrumented to collect data such as watch time, engagement, signups or downloads.
Some of the more positive aspects of running events during the pandemic have been that we’ve been forced to think differently; to get creative; and that everyone has been learning together. And, with virtual events being the only game in town, audiences have been pretty forgiving.
We’re in the same place now with hybrid events. Any in-person event in the near future is likely to be small in scale, leaving marketers time and budget to develop their hybrid game. It’s not as hard as it sounds. When you think about events such as the Superbowl and TED conferences, it’s clear that people are already used to interacting with events in a wide variety of ways. We’ve acquired the virtual event skills we need over the past year and half. Now all we have to do is transition to hybrid thinking.