Hybrid events come with many challenges. Keeping two different audiences engaged is the primary concern, but other priorities include repurposing content, managing time and catering to new attendee needs. Three event designers share their strategies for survival.
Three event planning experts shared their best practices for hybrid events during the Experience Design Summit. EventMB also sought additional perspective from tech event consultant Corbin Ball of Corbin Ball & Co.
3 Tips from Samme Allen
Audiences Are Your Stakeholders
The audience members, whether in the room or remote, are the ultimate meeting stakeholders, said Samme Allen, a speaker, event designer, and founder of Conferenceemcees.com. Forget the word “hybrid” and instead recognize that “audiences, wherever they may be, need to have an empathy-designed experience.”
For the virtual audience, consider what is needed based on their demographics, what they may be thinking and feeling, and what locations and time zones they are in.
At the same time, the needs of the in-person audience are equally important — and no less challenging. “The world has changed on how an event looks and feels now, so make sure you factor this in.”
Have a Broadcast Mindset
Given the dramatic changes in how people consume content, especially evident by the amount of binge-watching during the pandemic, event managers would be wise to take some cues from their favorite streaming channels. Content doesn’t have to be short, but it should be planned with a broadcast mindset, according to Allen.
“We are now looking into a camera more than ever before. So go and have a look at the content you enjoy streaming, whether that be Netflix, [or] that be live sports. Have a look at some of these live events and see how they are running. How can you use that in your events, bring in more revenue, and be engaged with your participants and stakeholders.”
You Are Going to Need Time
Successful events, particularly those with the added complexity of hybrid components, require a lot of time to execute. It’s not just the time needed by the event planner, but also the time required of the exhibitors, sponsors, and stakeholders.
“Please do not underestimate the amount of time you need to bring in the right partners to support you,” Allen said. “A great event is never, ever designed in a short space of time. So factor this in, look at your resources. Bring those partners in in good time to make sure that you can deliver the experiences that your participants expect.”
3 Tips from Will Curran
Don’t Let Attendees Get Off Track
Keeping attendees from losing their focus on the event is especially difficult when that event is hybrid, noted Will Curran, founder of Endless Events. Along with the usual distractions of needing to answer email and attend to work details, attendees at hybrid events may also need time and space to connect with each other. If this need isn’t taken into account with a strategically-planned agenda and well-designed event space, there’s the danger that in-person attendees will wander off to make phone calls or video calls to those on the virtual side — and they may not come back.
“What ends up happening is that they end up walking around the corner,” Curran said. “They end up falling into their email and all the work they have to do. And then before you know it, they’re lost or, worse yet, end up heading back to their hotel room.”
The solution is to design events in which attendees don’t have to stray far from the action in order to take care of business. “Design an experience where you have co-working spaces. For example, in the middle of the exhibit hall. That way attendees can pop in and work, but still be in the middle of the event.”
Design for One Single Audience
Should a hybrid event be designed for a single audience or for two? It’s a debatable topic among experts, with Curran weighing in on the side of a single audience.
“That means one platform, as many shared experiences as possible, designing it as much as possible to create interactions between those two audiences,” he said. “Don’t just consider it one single, separate event from each other.”
Not doing so runs the risk of creating a FOMO atmosphere “and you’re going to create this existence of planning two events rather than having one.”
Taking a somewhat different perspective, event technology consultant Corbin Ball advises event planners to consider developing separate content for virtual attendees.
“There are times at the face-to-face event that may not be well-suited for the remote attendees, including receptions, exhibition breaks, and coffee breaks,” he said. “Interviews with speakers and thought leaders and exhibit hall tours specifically designed for remote attendees are among the possibilities.”
Ball also notes that virtual audiences may also require shorter presentations and sessions because “most remote viewers simply have shorter attention spans than those sitting together in meeting rooms.”
At large events with multiple sessions and viewers from disparate time zones, Ball advises pre-recording some of the presentations, while bringing the two audiences together during the keynote or general session.
Think About Work-Life Integration
While it used to be possible to attend a conference and leave the office behind, this is no longer the case in the age of working remotely. Events, whether virtual or in-person, need to be designed to accommodate the growing pressures that attendees now face to address work obligations throughout the day.
Curran recommends including free time in the agenda as well as providing convenient co-working spaces at live events. “So that way they don’t have to go all the way back to the hotel room, but can just pop in for a quick meeting or whatever.”
Virtual attendees are in equal need of down time, whether it’s to get work done or to get a break from the computer screen to walk the dog, he added.
3 Tips from Gerritt Heijkoop
Organize Two Different Events in Parallel
Unlike Curran, Gerritt Heijkoop, executive partner of LiveOnline Events, does not recommend that hybrid events be planned for a single audience.
“You are actually designing and organizing two different events in parallel because there’s two different audiences with different backgrounds, different needs, different motivations, different things that they appreciate,” he said. “And based on that, you need to create two different content streams.”
Along with the need to create separate content comes the need for different promotional strategies, timing, and messaging, he said.
Hire Separate Emcees
In order to cater to the two different audiences, it’s essential to hire two different moderators or emcees: one for the live audience and one for the virtual. “In a perfect world, these two cooperate where the online emcee then represents the virtual audience to the physical world and vice versa.”
Ball agrees, adding that the emcee for the remote audience can help “provide a unified voice throughout the event” and create continuity. Perhaps just as crucially, they can help explain how to use the event technology. Ball also advocates using online moderators to manage chat rooms and encourage discussion and input.
Also important is to make sure the emcees include the remote attendees in polls, Q&A sessions, and other opportunities for comment during the presentations.
“Questions from remote attendees should be recognized by name and location from the stage and included as much as those in the room,” Ball said.
While designing an event for two separate audiences takes extra work, one way to get some of that time back is to repurpose the content for future use. In turn, this approach is part of a larger strategy for achieving maximum ROI.
“You should think about repurposing the content as early as possible,” Heijkoop said. “In a hybrid event a lot of stuff is recorded. A lot of questions or content is being submitted to your community. And those should really be the building blocks of whatever you’re going to do afterward.”
Ball also believes that repurposing is essential, with recorded content providing a valuable avenue for promoting future events, building membership, and creating an online community.
Hybrid formats are even more challenging than virtual or live events, but good preparation can make them worth the effort. Addressing the different needs of two audiences, enlisting the aid of at least two experienced emcees, and designing events around new attendee work-life demands are among the essentials.