Hybrid events: the pros, the cons, the future

Not so long gone are the days when virtual events meant streaming talks from home computers or sharing a home-recorded video on demand. Virtual event organizers have had a year to experiment and innovate, and the innovation that came out of 2020 is astounding. The time, energy, and resources invested in virtual events mean they are not just a fashion fad but rather something that will stay with us in some shape or form post-pandemic.

If you’re an event organizer that has sat on the bench patiently waiting for things to go back to ‘normal’, you have some catching up to do. After a steep upwards climb, those who have embraced and experimented with designing events for the virtual world now marry their online concepts with in-person ones into hybrid events that will blow anyone’s mind. This format is likely to become the norm, so we thought it was time we dug a little deeper into what opportunities this intersection can bring about, as well as some of the downsides.

First, some notes for event organizers to make sure we get this right:

1. Don’t run two events in parallel.

The hallmark of a good hybrid event is that it’s one event, rather than an in-person and a virtual one running in parallel. Conferences have been live-streaming and offering their content on-demand before the pandemic, without calling it a hybrid event. The concept of hybridity centers around the intersection between the physical and virtual spaces and how the experiences can be translated from one to the other. The main challenge for event organizers is to come up with ways for these two spaces to communicate and intersect and facilitate the meeting between online and in-person audiences.

Consider how your in-person audience can engage with those at home and how that can enhance their experience of the event. Those who made it in person will be happy to network with a wider range of people, and those at home won’t feel like they’re missing out on the best part. Get speakers on stage to talk with speakers at home, and audiences in the conference halls to interact with them as well. Think of this as a huge network, and come up with ways to draw lines between all the dots you can connect.

2. Don’t treat your audiences differently.

Audiences are your main focus no matter where they are. One of the best things about hosting a hybrid event is that it opens you up to the world. Those audiences at home are just as important as the ones in the conference hall. Thus far, there has been a tendency within the event industry to treat audiences that attended online or consume on-demand content as lesser participants. Organizers could get away with it because everyone knew the star of the show was the event you attended in person and the rest was collateral content, collateral audiences that you could survive without. With 2020 forcing everyone online, event organizers have learned to treasure online audiences. Let’s hope this stays, because online audiences contribute to more diverse and inclusive events, and offer organizers a lot more information about their customers’ behavior.

Treat them right, whether by bringing a bit of the event hype to their homes with goodie bags and merchandise or by offering them the opportunity to interact and engage with the event just like any in-person participant. An event that manages to do that will be perceived as forward-thinking and moving with the times rather than stuck in nostalgic attempts to recuperate a status quo.

3. Take security seriously.

The anonymity of real life is long gone with each aspect of our lives that we take online. With every newsletter they sign-up for, every pair of shoes they buy, and every event they attend, customers know they give away more and more information about what interests them, what they desire, and how they behave. Big Brother is a more subtle presence than we imagined, one that watches over every interaction with technology. It’s not an unjustified paranoia but a legitimate fear, justifying the increasing demand that companies are trustworthy and will do their best not to expose customer data. Back when events were still about real-life interaction, they somehow felt like safer havens where you could escape digitalization and your persona becoming a precious set of data, at least in part. Gone are those days, and now event participation has become yet another activity, and a pretty telling one, that people perform online.

Make your participants feel safe by enabling individual links for each invited attendee (which also makes it easier for you to track activity and data), or requiring them to verify their identity with two-factor authentication. These are just a few of the things you can and should do. If you want to look more into ways of securing your event, here is an article talking about how you can do that.

Cons:

1. It’s more work.

You’d be fooling yourself to think your virtual event can simply piggyback on your real-life event. If that’s the plan, you’re not planning a hybrid event, you’re simply planning to repurpose the content of your event for the online world. A hybrid event instead, requires planners to rethink their concepts and add elements that make the online participation just as interesting as the in-person one. Whether it’s developing a 3D rendering of the space or using tools and apps that facilitate interaction between participants no matter where they are, you need to dedicate time and resources to developing this. This will require you to train your team or hire new tech-savvy team members dedicated to overseeing that the virtual event runs smoothly. It might not be double the work in terms of content, but it is a different kind of logistical and production effort, one that your team might not yet be used to or skilled in. Even if your team is by now experienced in delivering both online and offline events, delivering both at the same time will require more man-hours. My advice is to make sure you and your team are prepared to take on the workload, have given yourself enough time for the planning and organization, or you are ready to hire before considering a hybrid concept.

2. It involves more costs and resources.

Besides the time and the team effort required, there will be other costs attached to an online event. The biggest is probably the production cost. Whether you decide to hire an in-house team or a production company to produce and deliver the online side of the event, make sure you add this to your budget right next to the production costs for the in-person event. Secondly, you need a reliable platform that helps you deliver the event. There are a lot of options out there, some quite affordable too. However, before signing up for the cheapest option, you want to check out the capabilities and reliability of each platform and figure out which is the best option for the number of participants you expect and the scope and format of the event.

Pros:

1. Limitless innovation.

No longer confined to physical or virtual space, your options are endless. The best thing about hybridity is that you can use the best of both online and in-person events and avoid the not-so-great parts of each. Conceptualizing a hybrid event is an exciting endeavor. Essentially you have to find points of intersection that enhance both the live and the virtual. Now that event organizers are well-versed in producing both on and offline experiences for their audiences, they can continue innovating by navigating the blurred boundary between the physical and the virtual spaces of encounter. If you’re the creative type that likes to add new elements to their events and engage their audiences, not just with high-quality content, but with well-thought-out and fun experiences, this is the best playground for your ideas. Experiment and be bold even though you might fail. At this point, a failure is not an ambitious project that didn’t pan out quite as planned, but rather one that plays it too safe. Audiences are now more forgiving than ever and appreciate the efforts put into overcoming what was probably one of the most difficult moments the industry has ever faced.

2. Wider reach.

Speaking of audiences, 47% of event organizers see hybrid events as a great way to connect a global audience, according to a survey by Markletic with over 3000 respondents spread across North America, Europe, Asia, and South America. Those who in the past found it difficult to book days off work, get on a plane and maybe fly across an ocean can now attend events on the other side of the globe. The same goes for speakers. If you ever struggled to find a keynote speaker that wasn’t booked at the time of your event, you know that with more and more speakers opening up to online events, their calendars also open up. It’s now possible to give a talk in California one day, and Singapore the next. With hybrid events, you’re not limited to those who can make it in person anymore and you can finally create that dream line-up.

Having the right line-up and a wider audience also means sponsors are more likely to offer you their support. Better content and hybridity will attract participants from all over the world. For sponsors, this means more exposure than they could ever hope for in real-life events. Similarly, it means you can reach out to sponsors in markets where you previously had no access. Why would AliBaba sponsor an event in Europe? But if you now have a global audience and you can present data showing the diversity of your audience, sponsors will find it difficult to refuse your offer. Diversifying audiences means more exposure for all parties involved, for event organizers, speakers, just as much as sponsors.

3. Sustainability and reduced environmental impact.

It is by now common knowledge that reducing the number of people flying across the globe has a dramatic impact on the environment and can potentially help stall climate change. Though not the biggest or baddest player in this game, the event industry had an ‘impressive’ carbon footprint. Think not only of the speakers you’ve had to fly in and out, but also all the attendees that came over from all over the world. Reducing the number of flights involved in an event might not save the planet alone, but will contribute to the numerous other small actions taken around the globe. Hybrid events are a great compromise: they encourage audiences to come together without having to get on long-haul flights.

In the future, locals will likely attend in-person events while global audiences will remain online. This considerably reduces the environmental impact of large-scale events in particular, and gives the concept developers the much-desired challenge of connecting local and global audiences.

4. Data, data, data!

It’s no secret that it’s much easier to track a customer’s behavior and get customer feedback online. With virtual and hybrid events, the event industry taps into the data that other industries have long had available. You can discover a wealth of information about your audience demographics, which content performed best, and how the public tends to engage with certain content, including sponsored content — invaluable not only for you but your sponsors as well. Learning how to gather data in a way that does not feel intrusive to the attendees, and then interpret it correctly means you will have a clearer idea of how the event can be improved. The process might seem daunting, but it’s a skill you need to master in what looks more and more like a digital future.

Conclusion: Who is hybridity for?

This can seem like a dilemma that’s been settled with the first hybrid event ever delivered. It’s hybrid because it happens both on and offline. This is clear for anyone involved in the planning and production of a hybrid event, but what about the audiences? Yes, they are aware they have the two options, but when the event takes place, does it feel hybrid? Are the audiences at home interacting with the audiences on-site, does it open up networking possibilities beyond the site or the virtual space? Unless you try to answer these questions, the hybrid character of your event will likely be something only you and the team can rejoice over, rather than something your participants experience. As the boundaries between the virtual and physical spaces become blurred and the points of intersection facilitate a seamless crossing from one to the other, event organizers have to map out ways for attendees on each side to interact and network.

This was originally posted on SpeakerHub Skillcamp.

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