Key Trends in Virtual and Hybrid Events: Introduction

Chris Green
Event Technology Consultant

The last 6 months have seen many industries completely turned on their heads. One that we’ve been following closely is the corporate event sector. We’ve been to many events over the years, organised a few, including some big ones, and spent a good part of the last couple of years building and perfecting a powerful business-class guest management system with one of our corporate partners.

In this series of blog posts, Chris gives an overview of all the things we’ve seen happening in the corporate event space, and why we think you should be excited about them, along with some key takeaways from people doing this stuff really well.

It’s fair to say that the entire events sector has undergone something of an existential crisis this year - but like many industries, adversity has truly been the mother of invention, and radical changes that might have taken years (or decades) to become the norm have happened in a few months. It seems possible that the “new normal” for corporate events might well be better -- more convenient, more accessible and more engaging -- than it was before Covid struck.

Why You Should be Excited About Virtual and Hybrid Events

First, a note on terminology: I use “virtual” to describe an event (or an attendee) that is entirely online, and “hybrid” to describe an event that is a mix of online and traditional on-site elements.

Neither of these concepts are new, but 6 months ago just about any “hybrid” event’s on-line element was likely to be limited to a handful of live streams of talks, perhaps a library of recorded talks and sessions, and some vendor/sponsor materials. Fast forward 6 months from now, and it’s very possible that the on-line element of an event will be more compelling, useful and rewarding, and offer better ROI, than being on-site.

  • Here are some of the reasons why:
  • Reduced barriers to entry and participation (in doing so you make it more attractive to people who do not yet know you/your brand as it requires less investment from them to participate)
  • Accessible attendance for all
  • Connect with a far larger audience
  • Improve sustainability - lower carbon footprint etc
  • Expand your monetisation opportunities and offer entirely new opportunities to sponsors
  • Build a library of content to be used on-demand after the event, or as great source material for social media, lead generation, etc.

We are inherently social and have a strong desire to get together, so it seems reasonable to assume that one day - after Covid has finally been consigned to history - online-only virtual events may lose popularity. However hybrid events must surely be here to stay - there are just too many positives to ignore. Hybrid events seem almost certain to become the default in the near future as a way to address:

  • Health and safety concerns, still on people’s minds even after Covid
  • Uncertain global travel restrictions (might global travel be on a permanent downward trajectory?)
  • New lower venue capacity limitations
  • Restricted corporate travel budgets
  • Restricted marketing budgets

In-person events used to be multi-day events where attendees were away for 2, 3, 4 days. But virtual events don’t need to do this. Spreading your event out over a week or two (part-time) can be advantageous. Combined with no travel time, this is much less of an ask of your virtual attendees.

So let’s take a look at some of the key trends happening in virtual and hybrid events:

You Need to Become an Expert in Video Right Now!

Suddenly everyone has been forced to become a videographer; Video is at the centre of virtual events. Everyone has had to become overnight experts in:

  • Live streams
  • Webinars
  • Video Conferencing
  • Virtual Conference/Event marketing
  • Virtual Event management

It’s important to understand that all of these things are different, and have different purposes. Massive investment is happening, particularly in video conferencing - with lots of new players entering the market. BUT a successful virtual event is not just a collection of live streams, webinars and video conferences. You MUST plan your content. Remember “Zoom Fatigue” is already setting in for most people! Therefore we must innovate. We must be interactive. We must keep production values high and we must tell stories. We’ll talk about this more later.

For a successful virtual event you must have:

  1. Reliable technology
  2. Two-way or Multi-way communication and interactivity
  3. Integrated analytics (and - let's be honest - appropriate ways to monetise your content if your event is commercial)

Remember that a lot of people (especially the under-30s) already create significant amounts of video content themselves. Their expectations are high! Soon high quality ‘augmented reality’ will be available to everyone as well. That means sophisticated video effects and extremely professional results will be achievable to anyone with a smartphone.

A hybrid event is NOT just putting cameras in every room and live streaming everything.

Think about modern top-tier sports coverage, or coverage of big festivals (Glastonbury etc):

  1. Both the in-person attendance and watching-from-home experiences are great -- but they are different and packaged differently.
  2. Remember that the audiences are likely going to be different as well

Image © BBC.

For example, at a big consumer electronics event, the in-person delegates might be channel partners, investors/analysts and press, and the virtual delegates might be customers. Who is more important? Both!

You MUST plan and invest in production. In many ways a hybrid event doubles the workload, but the payoff can be much greater. I'll be covering “Event Design” in further detail in a later blog post.

Remember that content created/captured in live sessions/events has value far beyond the event. Marketing, monetised content, etc. - it can have a long life. But people will not watch hours of content. You must distill your live content down into bitesize clips. Think how you will use it for social media, lead generation, etc. You probably need a dedicated person, team or specialist agency - and an efficient workflow - to do this well.

Images by @cassieview

Choose your Speakers and your Tech for the ‘New Normal’

Speakers need to figure out new ways to create empathy with the audience. Think about who you are booking. An hour-long monologue is probably not enough any more (unless you’ve secured an A-list speaker and/or you have amazing content)

You and your speakers must really care about the topic.

People know if a speech is pre-recorded. Yes, it reduces risk (tech issues, bandwidth, mistakes etc.) but attendee engagement is demonstrably lower. Metrics have repeatedly shown that “authentic” or “real” video has much higher engagement than highly produced promos. It puts a human face to the corporation and people connect with it more.

You need to coach your speakers and rehearse. Get them a good camera and microphone, and set it up so they can look directly into the camera. Sort out the lighting so that it is soft light coming from behind or just to the side of the camera. Iron out all the technical issues you can, but accept that some may still happen, and have a plan. Test at the time of day you are going to be going live. Light may be different. Available bandwidth may be less.

If you are running a Hybrid event, remember that you will have enormous on-site bandwidth requirements. Start negotiating bandwidth provision and rates with your venue now. You need to be able to deliver latency under 2 seconds for virtual attendees in order to have true interactivity for live chat, Q&A, etc. Think about where your virtual attendees are likely to be. Even if you have enough bandwidth provision at your venue, will your audience? If not, you need to think about low-bandwidth options that also allow engagement.

You need to cater for all devices. People on-site will be using phones or tablets; virtual attendees are more likely to be on laptops or desktops.

The “EventTech” market is now huge and growing at an incredible pace. Whatever technology you choose, everybody using it needs to understand it. Ambiguity and confusion kills engagement. Only put in features and content that matter to your audience.

Create Content Specifically for Virtual and Hybrid Events

Now that there is almost no barrier to entry, everybody is putting out content. There are dozens of competing virtual events in every market. Attendees are already getting overloaded. WHY should someone attend your virtual event?

Virtual attendees have very different expectations. There are many things vying for their attention and you can’t control their environment. Accept you probably have less of their attention than if they were on-site at an event.

You NEED to have great content and great speakers.

Again think of top-tier sports. E.g. F1 coverage; commentators walk around the pit lane, doing interviews, etc. This is very effective. You need a person (or people) on-site representing the virtual audience (e.g commentators or “On-site Ambassadors” which I’ll talk about in a later blog post):

  • What’s coming up in the programme; generate excitement
  • Engaging commentary, opinions, etc.
  • Go on-stage with big speakers, etc.
  • Walkabouts and person-on-the-street interviews; share the vibe from the show floor
  • Exclusive interviews (great for sponsors)

Remember of course you can also offer exclusive content and experiences for in-person attendees. Getting the balance right is the challenge for the event planners, but also a great ‘lever’ that you can use to adjust the attendance ratios.

Supplier’s Virtual Booths are powerful, enabling virtual attendees to engage with suppliers/sponsors, and an obvious win-win. Make virtual appointments, Q&As, demos, etc. But:

  • Needs full buy-in from the supplier. They need to commit resources to it;
  • Can’t be done by the same team who are on-site. People won’t wait online in a queue!
  • How can you make it as interactive as possible? How can you replicate the best aspects of being there in person?
  • Make sure your metrics/analytics/insights work across on-site and virtual aspects so that you have a complete unified picture. Your sponsors will want this.

Conclusion: A Shared Experience

Overall - You must make sure that it’s a shared experience. On-site and virtual attendees need to be aware of each other and able to share the event experience. At a hybrid event, your attendees might be 4:1 virtual to physical attendees. For the on-site attendees, you need to create excitement in a significantly less busy space. Video walls showing a virtual audience can be very effective (more on that in part 2).

At least one thing is clear: this is a very exciting time in the event industry, despite the uncertainty! There is no shortage in demand for events in all their forms, provided they can be delivered safely and they can offer a great experience for the attendees. As we said earlier, there is no established best practice here - things are evolving literally week-by-week. The organisations who get it right now may well go on to set the benchmarks for the ‘new normal’. Assemble a great team who can discover, adapt and deliver together.

In part 2 of this series, Chris covers some of the practicalities of event design in the post-covid world.