The future is hybrid, but what does that mean when it comes to engagement? Do virtual and in-person audiences actually want to interact with each other, and how are tech companies approaching the features they offer?
As the event industry slowly begins to move into hybrid events after a year of being relegated almost entirely to virtual, planners and tech providers are facing a new set of challenges.
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In particular, there has been an ongoing debate as to the extent to which in-person and remote audiences should — and want to be — mixed during hybrid events. At least in the short-term, most in-person events will rely on a virtual component, with higher expectations from remote participants than ever before.
Some planners have already been experimenting with how to leverage tech to connect both audiences, but it remains to be seen whether attendees will embrace these strategies. Overall, there doesn't seem to be much appetite for inter-audience connections, but tech platforms are taking different approaches as they prepare for the next phase of events.
Enabling Connections Without Forcing Them
For the moment, many attendees don’t have a choice of formats. Virtual is the going option for the bulk of an event’s audience, and this will be the case even as some onsite components return and events become hybrid. But when people do have a choice, the format they choose will at least in part reflect their priorities.
When it comes to networking between hybrid audiences, EventMobi CEO Bob Vaez points out that many in-person attendees will have different needs and goals than those who attend online, and providers have to think carefully about how to facilitate interaction between the two audiences without breaking the experience for either. It’s about enhancing and sharing experiences rather than contriving interactions.
"People who attend events remotely may not have the same priorities as those who choose to go in person. Forcing these two groups to interact with each other may not make for a great experience. Alternatively, you can create a really good experience for your online community, and a really good experience for your in-person community, and then try to find shared experiences."
-Bob Vaez, CEO, EventMobi
Patrick Smith, CMO of Cvent, agrees: "I don't think it makes sense to force people to come together — what you want to do is have an optimal experience for both audience types. But there is value in creating and leveraging shared experiences and giving your audience the feeling that they are a part of something bigger."
Smith explains that Cvent is currently working with venues and hoteliers as it builds out its hybrid technology to determine the keys to hybrid success. For example, Smith says, “from a production perspective, it’s critical that virtual attendees have a first-class experience, so event organizers need to invest in livestream production technology to ensure that it feels ‘broadcast grade’. Don't just put a camera in the back of the room and have a suboptimal experience for the attendees online."
Both platforms are still enabling connections between both audiences, but they're focusing on relatively standard, app-centric engagement features to connect audiences in a way that doesn't disrupt either experience, such as chat and Q&A.
Networking Through Shared Experiences Instead of Forced Interactions
Aventri CEO Jim Sharpe similarly notes the need for functional networking through chat and videoconferencing, but his vision for fully-integrated hybrid engagement rests more on a platform that functions as a hub for both audiences.
"The key for us is making it one platform that anyone can engage with in any format without having to think about it," he explains. "We want to create the capability so that everything that can occur live can occur virtually."
In-person attendees should be able to keep up with virtual content on their mobile devices, and virtual attendees should be able to watch both curated virtual content and live content. Ideally, the platform would also facilitate content crowdsourcing.
Platforms built on user-generated content are some of the most influential in the virtual space, and delivering exclusive, visually rich and authentic experiences on them is the premise behind many influencer brands.
This has motivated some platforms to innovate ways to connect both audiences and build out tools that will bring them together. Really leveraging that pattern involves "constant reminders that there are thousands of people who are also watching," explains Joe Schwinger, founder of MeetingPlay.
MeetingPlay is leveraging its AI networking algorithm to pair virtual and in-person attendees up as part of its ambassador program. "Attendees are eager to see what’s happening outside of the main presentation room to get a flavor for the event," says Schwinger, and this buddy system will enlist in-person attendees to guide like-minded virtual participants through the event and relay experiences and information via a live video feed.
Having an onsite ambassador relay the event to you could be a huge draw for virtual attendees who want a taste of that in-person experience, especially if they feel as though they are missing out otherwise. However, what it means in terms of the consistency of the experience for each virtual attendee still requires some teasing out. It’s important for the virtual audience to have a robust, dedicated experience so they are not entirely beholden to someone onsite for the primary value of the event.
Building Community Engagement
The virtual format also represents a huge opportunity to connect audiences beyond the event itself — after all, hybrid audiences are only hybrid for the duration of the in-person component. The rest of the time, everyone is a virtual participant.
Pierre Metrailler, CEO of SpotMe, elaborates: "If hybrid means 'connecting 100 people in a Vegas hotel with 3,000 people from around the world,' I am not seeing a lot of interest right now. What's hot is always-on content, community, and live moments."
On-demand content and 365 community engagement is now a priority for many tech providers. Vaez suggests bringing all attendees together for a pre-event meetup, and making content available after the event so that attendees can "choose how to relive or re-educate themselves after the conference."
MeetingPlay is also focusing on user-generated content to contribute to the existing event content and extend the value of the virtual environment.
Ultimately, there is still much experimentation to come and much to learn about how hybrid events will run and what effect virtual formats will have on audience appetites, but homing in on the best way to deliver value to both will be a collaborative effort between event planners and event tech visionaries.
However, the tech founders we interviewed agree that the best approach is to facilitate choices for interaction and shared experiences that allow both audiences to decide for themselves how they want to engage with one another.