Pivoting from virtual to hybrid events, a big step ahead of us

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The transition to virtual events was brutal for event organizers and speakers, and some still have not figured it out and hope we are soon back to normal with in-person events and talks. But the transition to a hybrid world can be as demanding as the shift to virtual. Here is a perspective on what hybrid can look like for hybrid speakers and event organizers. 

What do we mean when we say hybrid events? 

We use the term hybrid events for different types of realizations. A good starting point is to dig deeper into what you mean by hybrid, reflecting on which seven aspects of hybrid you envision: 

  • Audience – in-person and virtual 
  • Speakers – in-person and virtual
  • Delivery – live and recorded 
  • Type of sessions – talks and showcases
  • Networking – in-person and virtual 
  • Business model – paid and free of charge for audiences

The audience and speakers are at a common location at in-person events, and sessions are delivered live. If a virtual option is available, it is often through one or two cameras capturing the “in-person first” experience. The virtual audience views the session live as it plays out or at a later stage when the recording is released. This approach provides a theatrical experience for both audience and speakers. A large industry conference also offers a mix of talks in ballroom settings and smaller breakout rooms, with showcases demonstrated in booths. Showcases are the big attraction all attendees want to see, with speaking sessions more exclusive for a portion of the audience. Both exhibitors and attendees pay to attend, and the speaking program is often a premium feature.

All audiences and speakers attend virtually in the base scenario for the virtual events born out of the pandemic. The delivery is live, and sessions are dominated by talks in different forms, offering a cinematic experience to the audience. Showcases and networking opportunities are virtual when a virtual event platform powers the event and plays a secondary role compared to speaking sessions. Attendance is primarily free, and speaking opportunities were owned, paid, or earned by speakers and their organizations. In all aspects, this approach is a “virtual-only” experience. 

The target experience for hybrid events is similar to professional sports 

Before defining what hybrid means for event organizers and speakers, you might ask if anyone does hybrid well today where we can steal ideas. Pre pandemic, professional sports event is an excellent source of inspiration for setting the direction suitable for hybrid events. 

  • Performed for both in-person/live and TV/virtual audiences 
  • High production quality for the TV experience, with add-ons the live audience doesn’t get, such as graphic overlays for statistics and audio from commentators. 
  • Parts of the TV production are shown to a live audience on Jumbotrons in an indoor arena or on giant TV screens on racetracks, etcetera. 
  • In-person attendance is a premium experience for a fraction of the total audience. 
  • Live streaming is essential for the monetization of the experience beyond advertising. 

The target experience in sports is not static, limited to a live and TV option for fans, but dynamic as the in-person live option grows with more digital elements, and the aim for TV is to bring the action closer to fans. A great example is the transformation of Formula One racing, where the addition of a digital direct-to-consumer platform and the “Drive to Survive” series on Netflix are great complements to the in-person and classic live TV foundation. 

Finding a great approach to hybrid events is a drive to survive for event organizers and businesses’ event teams towards a moving target. Professional sports have proven strategies for hybrid experiences, and the digital transformation of entertainment can help us understand how the target is moving. 

Three hybrid experiences to start from 

In theory, all types of hybrid setups are possible. As a starting point, you can consider a hybrid baseline building from three base experiences and how you put them together. 

  • In-person speakers live on stage – for both in-person and virtual audiences. 
  • A live program on-site – for the audience attending in person, making the visit worthwhile. 
  • Virtual/recorded streams – only available to virtual audiences. 

We created and refined the third experience during the pandemic. The first two are worth spending time on to design an enjoyable experience, reinventing the experience for both audience and speakers. 

In-person and virtual audiences have different expectations of the hybrid experience

The virtual mania during the pandemic gave us two audiences with different expectations: 

  • In-person audience – all speakers present in-person, logical breaks, classic networking, a small subset of the total audience attending. 
  • Virtual audience – short, fast-paced sessions, great video/audio/light quality, suitable for partial consumption, and available for all attendees. 

We can expect smaller in-person audiences and larger to significantly larger virtual audiences than pre-pandemic in-person levels. Understanding the significant difference in audience type and size is essential when designing your event experiences. This field is an area where we can expect a steep learning curve in the coming 1-2 years until our hybrid models are proven. 

In-person and virtual speaker experiences 

Speakers master speaking on stage for an in-person audience and have developed in speaking from home for a virtual audience watching on a personal screen. Our challenge is to figure out how we want the speaker’s experiences to evolve. We can expect a similar volume scenario for speakers and audiences, with fewer in-person speakers mixed with virtual speakers hybrid events. The optimal relationship between the two is not clear.

In-person speakers can play a more prominent role than before the pandemic. Delivering a keynote or a panel and following up with networking lunches and breaks plus dedicated Q&A sessions. Aim to engage the speakers who travel to do more than a single gig. With the proper framing, sessions two and three can give a lot back to speakers through audience interactions. Your in-person speakers are likely the VIPs you want to manage well. 

Virtual speakers can speak to both in-person and virtual audiences and will be new to virtual speaking for a live audience. Expect gremlins to thrive in this area, and where one of your biggest challenges will be to appear on a big screen for an in-person audience in a good way. 

Higher overall quality in delivery required to survive 

Expect both audience and speakers to take a higher quality ambition for a hybrid event for granted. In-person attendees, speakers, and audiences want their mental and actual business cases to justify the extra effort in time and travel costs. Virtual attendees are used to zooming out if/when quality is too low, and it will remain hard to monetize zoom quality virtual events and sessions when the hybrid is the new norm. 

Hybrid delivery, a combination of live and recorded material 

A north star for hybrid events is that they should come across as being delivered live. Live moderators and speakers appeared for the portion targeting both audiences and the sessions for in-person only. Pre-recorded, live on tape, material for any parallel stream for a subset of the virtual audience. 

Record where you can to take out risk. The single biggest challenge for live sessions is time management of in-person speakers delivering in shorter formats/windows than they are used to doing. 

Combine talks, showcases, and networking 

When pivoting to virtual, we dropped showcases and networking, and most events became speech-only plays with all speakers remote. Bringing back showcases and networking opportunities can be an essential trigger for potential in-person attendees. Getting the right attendees in the audience can but a glam factor in attracting virtual attendees. 

The pandemic pushed us to learn the concept of virtual one-on-one networking. Quick 15-30 minutes virtual coffees triggered by a digital interaction. In-person networking in small groups and building new relationships is where I plan to focus networking time. In-person networking generates deposits in the relationship bank, and two pandemic years have caused large relationship withdrawals. 

The business model for audience monetization of hybrid events starts from paid in-person and free virtual attendees with the potential to differentiate further. You can offer the live programs free and monetize recorded versions made available later. You can consider offering the generic part of the program free of charge and monetizing deep-dive sessions—an evolution led by marquee events in a given industry. There is a lot left to do here to offset increased production costs for hybrid events. 

Questions for you and your team 

  1. Do you expect the transition from virtual to hybrid to be more challenging or straightforward than the virtual shift? 
  2. Which hybrid scenarios and models do you plan to explore? 
  3. Who help do you need to design your new hybrid audience and speaker experiences? 
  4. How far down a VIP route do you want to drive your in-person experiences? 
  5. Will your hybrid be in-person first or virtual first? Crafting an optimal hybrid is about taking the best from two worlds in a good mix 
  6. Which people in your target audience will get travel orders signed to attend in person? Expect new rules to be in play with more stringent travel restrictions.

Additional reading suggestions 

One thought on “Pivoting from virtual to hybrid events, a big step ahead of us

  1. Pingback: 24 key insights from two years of virtual speech deliveries | Tweeter Linder

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