In early 2020, when in-person events ground to a halt, the meetings and events industry quickly innovated to stay alive. Over the last nearly two years, virtual and hybrid events have grown to a level of popularity that few would have expected pre-pandemic. The result? A redefining of what a virtual event looks and feels like, and a transformation of virtual capabilities—shifting from an antiquated two-dimensional model into interactive digital event experiences that are curated for remote attendees.
Heading into 2022, virtual will likely remain a cornerstone of our industry as organizations lean into the power of hybrid events, which offer both in-person and digital experiences and can significantly expand audience reach. Unlocking this power requires not just a new planning and marketing approach, but a deep understanding of what makes a truly great hybrid event for both audiences.
To elevate your hybrid strategy, here are some tips to keep in mind:
Develop an event design that fits your goals and budget. Planning a hybrid event can feel intimidating because planners have two separate audiences to take into consideration. But when mapping out event design, don’t take an all-or-nothing approach—especially if it’s your first hybrid. For example, rather than trying to livestream every session, take a step back to assess your event goals, then categorize sessions into three blocks:
• those that absolutely must be live
• those that could be simulive (pre-recorded video with live chat and presenter Q&A)
• those that could be pre-recorded for on-demand viewing later
For each session, it’s key to determine what’s time sensitive, what the risks and extra costs may be, and what the contingency plan looks like if Plan A falls through.
Finally, lean into experts beyond the planning team: marketers who can help you create the most effective marketing campaigns, tech experts who can manage virtual event production, and sales pros who can help structure and share your messages with the right people. In other words, you don’t have to have all the answers.
Master your venue and A/V plan. To accommodate virtual attendees, enhanced audiovisual equipment, reliable Wi-Fi, streaming capabilities, and on-site tech experts are the new venue “must-haves.” Your job is to determine which hotels and conference centers have the facilities and support you’re looking for. It’s critical to test your network early and often, so bring the IT team on site well before the event. Focus on foolproofing your marquee sessions before moving on to the others, and, as a best practice, consider a cellular backup in case of unexpected network issues. System redundancies are never a waste and can save you and your virtual audience a lot of headaches.
Design and market for maximum engagement. As the content producer, your goal is to create an engaging agenda for both your in-person and virtual attendees. The medium is critical: A virtual attendee doesn’t simply want a PowerPoint presentation, nor do they want to watch what’s going on in-person from a camera at the back of the room. Go for bite-sized clips and a dynamic screen production. (Think about emulating a sportscast or late-night show).
The same principle also extends into your marketing and promotional strategy. Potential in-person attendees may want to deepen industry relationships or go into more detail with long-form content, while virtual attendees might be looking for an introductory experience or be interested in a time-saving experience. The important thing is to always market the right program to the right audience, which can be facilitated by a robust registration system that enables you to create personalized registration paths so that your targets feel understood and valued, no matter what their motivations for attending are.
Bridge the gap between hybrid audiences to build community. Networking is a key attendance driver for any event, so finding ways to connect in-person and virtual attendees with one another is a great way to maximize attendee satisfaction. Incorporating event apps with polling, facilitating live Q&As, featuring group chats, messaging, and activity feeds, and enabling digital breakout rooms for small-group collaboration on key topics or similar interests can help. Encouraging one-on-one meet-ups that are managed with your event technology can also help facilitate quality conversations and relationship building.
Leverage technology to gain critical insights into attendee interests. Technology is the foundation for your hybrid-event strategy, and is especially important for tying the virtual and in-person experiences together, building ROI, and assessing the event’s impact. In short, once you’ve done the work to design your event for maximum engagement, the next step is to turn that engagement into actionable insights.
Use technology to analyze engagement criteria from both the in-person and online experiences—session attendance, website clicks, feedback-survey submissions, trade-show booth visits, virtual chat activity, and more—and then create an engagement score for each attendee. This score lets you paint a clear picture of the interests of the attendees and communities you’re serving and integrate these insights with your organization’s martech, CRM, and AMS systems. The results will help the marketing and sales teams to follow up post-event in a personalized, informed manner, and will provide insights on what can be improved—preparing you to put on your next best event.
Patrick Smith is senior vice president and chief marketing officer at event technology company Cvent.