The future of events
I want you to engage in a thought experiment with me for a moment.
Think about one thing that you used to take for granted but that today is obsolete by technology. Different people come up with different answers. One common answer is looking up names in a Rolodex. Others include using a desktop phone, retrieving messages from an answering machine, or buying CDs.
Saying goodbye to all these once ubiquitous things required a shift in our mindset. We need to make a similar mental shift to embrace virtual and hybrid events fully. Good event organisers need to put aside what they think they know about events and reinvent them from the ground up to make the most of the hybrid model.
Not everyone is ready to say goodbye to real-life events by any means. Yet, after nearly two years of the pandemic, most real-life events need a virtual counterpart to remain relevant.
Even though virtual and hybrid events have been commonplace, very few are done well. Not enough event organisers have gone to the effort of making their virtual offerings good enough. It hurts to say it, but most virtual events are just a poorly conceived afterthought to the main event. That’s one reason the no-show rate for most online events is as high as 50%.
I believe the future of events is the hybrid model, but hybrid events can only succeed when the virtual components deliver as much value and interaction as the live event. Organisers need to give them the same attention and budget they do to their live analogues.
Here’s what that means and how to make it happen.
First Things First
From the very beginning, your planning for the virtual component of your event needs to match in effort, seriousness, and conscientiousness the planning you do for the in-person element.
Mirror the essential touchpoints for your virtual attendees. Think about how you will keep people engaged. Some good events have created virtual moderators with the exclusive job of keeping virtual attendees engaged, informing them of what is coming up next, and providing meaningful transitions between sessions. Consider offering a quick standing yoga session, an exclusive live concert, or an entertaining video to keep them glued to their screens.
Believe it or not, one thing that many people appreciate about events is the gift bags. How will you replicate this experience for virtual attendees? Will you be mailing items to their physical address? Will you be sending them virtual gifts and prizes?
Another reason that people attend events is to network. As the organiser, you must create the equivalent of real-life networking opportunities for your virtual attendees.
Remember that your virtual audience is likely to be far larger than the in-person audience. Maximise your audience size by starting at a friendly time for remote attendees in multiple time zones.
Each session must be shorter and more interactive than it would in traditional events if you want to have any hope of keeping the attention of the remote audience. And you must make a greater effort with remote attendees to keep them engaged. Try question and answer sessions, polls, and giveaways.
Don’t Fear the Reaper
Don’t worry about cannibalising your audience by siphoning potential in-person attendees off to your virtual event. Focus on broadening your addressable market rather than limiting yourself to believing there is a finite market. With a virtual event, your audience is only limited by your mindset and marketing budget
Some people will indeed prefer the virtual event, while others will insist on being there in person. You should not try to push attendees to one format or the other but to broaden your market exposure and give your event a more extensive reach.
If you’re worried about losing revenue, you can charge appropriately for the virtual event.
However much events have changed in the past two years, they will change in much more significant ways in the coming decade. Prepare yourself by embracing the use of virtual reality and augmented reality wherever you can.
Setting the Stage
The most important thing to say about the performance space is that you can no longer get away with just streaming an otherwise unchanged live event. To successfully create a hybrid event, you must make significant changes to the stage setting, agenda, and event schedule.
Traditional real-life events often involved big stages and large backdrops. They took place in cavernous rooms with high ceilings and shadowy corners.
A hybrid event needs to work both in-person and on-screen. Your stage will need to be much more like a TV talk show studio than a rock concert stage. The presentation space will be relatively small and intimate so that your cameras can easily take it in. Also, like a TV studio, camera angles are now just as important as the live audience’s sight-lines.
If you intend to interview remote speakers or allow remote attendees to ask live questions, you can also place a large video screen on stage.
It’s Worth the Effort
Going to the effort of making your hybrid event truly balanced and successful for both the in-person and virtual attendees is worth the effort. You can increase your reach, create new sponsorship opportunities, reduce travel costs and environmental impact, and capture more data than a traditional event.
Hybrid events are the new standard. I encourage you to give them —not a half-hearted— but a full-fledged embrace.
Audrey Nicoll is the group head of marketing, PropTech Group.