Hybrid-Events Give Marketers Better Engagement Opportunities

By Jaci Quincy, Director of Events, CM Group

For ever and ever business events have been experienced in person. For the past year, from summits to conferences to full-blown conventions, we’ve had to test out different ways to create the same opportunities for interaction virtually. While many marketers and event planners have taken heroic leaps to deliver the goods, many of us miss the networking, hors d’oeuvres and free swag that you get from the real deal.

Before marketers get too optimistic that the old days will soon be here again, it’s looking more like a slow transition back to normal. Enter the hybrid event. Designed to deliver content for both in-person attendees and for those that choose to stay home, hybrid events, when done right, can actually be a big boon to marketers. They can increase the reach of the event, decrease costs like T&E and give everyone involved what they’re looking for.

The New Normal Is Hybrid

The majority of employees are still not ready to travel for work. While a bit more than a third (38%) said they’d likely take a business trip in the next six months, only one in five (21%) expect to attend a convention or conference. For marketers used to planning events months or even a year in advance, this may be disheartening news. While we hope that vaccines become available for the general population by the summer, it may take a bit longer before everyone resumes in-person activity.

Hybrid events have been around in various forms for years. In fact, the CDC hosted a global hybrid live-streamed event back in 2012. And, Apple has always set up its big announcements to be friendly for virtual viewers. They know that reach matters. Now, that trend is not a nice to have, but a need to have.

With so much practice under their belts because of all virtual meetings and events in 2020, people are now more willing to picture a future where there is a place for virtual attendees to also take part in in-person events. In fact, more marketers will be planning hybrid events than purely virtual events by the end of the year — 42% said a hybrid approach would be preferred compared to 30% who are thinking about virtual-only events.

Hybrid-First Planning Ensures Happy Attendees

Hybrid events are not for the faint of heart. Event planners used to the complexities of in-person events have to plan for a new virtual element across nearly every aspect, from sound checks to cocktail hour. This means that planning well ahead is the real key to success. One important thing to do is start creating a save-the-date list early to gauge what percentage are likely to attend in-person vs. virtually. Once that list is assembled, segment the list and use email for surveys about content and participation in other activities like networking and fun.

With this intel in place, it’s time to assemble the right toolkit. This is not a place for WebEx or Zoom. Hybrid event platforms like Brella and Cvent exist to help manage attendees, presentations, and communication. Implement a platform and test it with internal mini-events to get things rolling smoothly.

Creating the right agenda is also important. Virtual attendees don’t want to sit through a lot of dead space, so think about segmenting the program guide with breaks for when they don’t need to be plugged in. And similarly, don’t leave them hanging if they’re eager for some fun – think about how to replicate the cocktail hour or magic show with a virtual counterpart.

And for the main event, think of creative ways to ensure virtual attendees can participate. Implement polling and gamification to keep them engaged during interactive segments. And ensure there is time allocated for them to type in questions for presenters, too. Jive Software used gamification during their JiveWorld summit, where attendees could upload photos and add tweets for badges. The winners got prizes so that they weren’t left out of the swag typically handed out in person.

Hybrid ROI TBD

Right now, hybrid events are being planned so that important attendees can be included even if they can’t or aren’t yet ready to travel. In a year or two, marketers can be a bit choosier about when and how to include hybrid elements. It’s vitally important to start collecting data now so that the return of virtual vs. in-person attendees can be assessed and compared. It’s possible that virtual attendees close at lower rates than in-person attendees, but that the costs are so much lower, that having the hybrid option is still worth it.

Building up hybrid event expertise is worth it in the long run. It provides marketers with higher reach, more flexibility and ways to reduce costs. Planning ahead now is the best way to learn and improve in time for the big hybrid boom coming our way.