Hybrid Events are here to stay — How to organize a successful Hybrid Event
In 2021, I worked on digital marketing and content production for the Guaranty Trust Annual Autism Conference. This event was a hybrid event that engaged over 136,000 virtual attendees from 11 countries over two days. This article discusses the strategies I used in creating and deploying content to promote awareness and virtual attendance at the hybrid event.
Many organizations spend more money on events than they do on other marketing initiatives. In reality, the majority of organizations spend between 20% and 50% of their budgets on brand experiences, with events being the most common expense. This is because, given the opportunity to develop one-on-one connections and the impact of in-person and virtual experiences, most marketers believe events to be the second most successful marketing channel after a website. As a result, events have become increasingly essential, and marketing and incorporating them into your marketing strategy has never been more important.
I’ve been in marketing for over three years and one thing I’ve learned is that every day is an opportunity to learn something new. Prior to July 2021, I had worked on pre- and post-event marketing initiatives, but never on digital marketing and production for a large event with thousands of attendees. When I initially started working on the project, I remember feeling overwhelmed and unprepared. I had no clue what a hybrid event was, how it worked, or how crucial engagement was when planning the production of one. Now, looking back on the event, I realize it wasn’t as difficult as my mind had made it out to be. In fact, given the right strategy, it is quite possible after all.
So what is the right strategy?..
Hybrid Events: What they are and why they are so important
Financial Services in Nigeria is a highly competitive industry where almost all the players offer similar products and services. Events are a huge differentiator. GTBank Food and Drink Weekend, GTBank Fashion weekend, Autism Conference, ArtX, Ake Festival and Eat Drink Festival are some of the events done annually by the big players in this industry.
However, just like every other industry, when the pandemic struck in 2020, all of these events had to be reimagined.
A number of organizations paused their events. Some of them had to plan and execute virtual events. And for some others, they are still yet to get around to it.
A hybrid event is basically a mix of a virtual and a physical event.
Due to the pandemic, a lot of organizations explored virtual events for the first time; they discovered that virtual events are easier to organise, less costly, and are much safer for attendees. In many ways, virtual events are functional and share the required information.
However, people don’t attend events for the information alone, they also attend events for the experience, the opportunity to network and sometimes, the pictures.
This is why hybrid events are so important. They cater for the experience of a physical and virtual event.
Planning a hybrid event today, means getting attendees in a hall and on a virtual platform simultaneously, while ensuring that both categories have a great experience. Creating a hybrid event program that personalizes the experience for both in-person and virtual attendees can be challenging. One wrong move, and you run the risk of inadvertently upsetting one audience over another.
Elements of a Successful Hybrid Event
Hybrid events are gaining more traction, and from my experience, these were the elements that impacted the success of the event digitally
An Event Plan
A big part of planning a Hybrid Event is the agenda. Most Corporate Communications groups in multinationals have a dedicated events team that primarily handle event agendas. However, because Digital Marketing is very driven by consumer insights, it is advisable to include one or two people on the team.
The goal is to create a program that engages and is effective for both physical and virtual attendees. To achieve this, the hybrid event agenda should clearly state the following:
- How long the session will run for: We opted for sessions that were 30mins long.
- The number of sessions to be hosted per day: This was a function of the total time slotted for the event and networking breaks. The event had 6 keynote sessions and 2 panel sessions per day.
- How attendees will network: An hour break was included to allow for networking
- If virtual and in-person attendees are to have different sessions: Considering this was a conference focused on the behavioral disability — Autism, it was important that both virtual and in-person attendees enjoy the same learning experience. As such, both attendee groups had the same sessions.
- Plan on keeping your virtual audience engaged: Physical attendees have the luxury of networking, refreshments, and a chance to meet members of the community. They are more likely to network in person, have organic conversations, and form connections. While the basics of a virtual session don’t offer this, there are innovative ways to bring this community to your virtual audience as well.
- Ask virtual audience comments and questions on the virtual platform
- Q&A sessions with panelists and speakers
- Engaging an experienced host strictly for the virtual audience
I am excited to break this down because of how clueless I was when I was tasked with sorting out technology for this event. Having a successful hybrid event, requires a reliable streaming platform for the virtual session
The choice of streaming platform depends on your goal for the event. In 2020, this event held on Zoom to enable registration and data accuracy on attendees.
This year, our goal was ‘ease’, which was why we decided on YouTube as the most ideal streaming service to help us achieve this.We optimised for ease of sign up, ease of attendance, and ease of use by the events team.
Streaming on Youtube allowed a seamless integration of the live stream on Facebook as well. Hence, driving further customer engagement on the platform.
Extra tip: Be prepared. Set up your live stream weeks before the event, and share the streaming link, plus security keys with the production team setting up cameras and lighting.
It’s one event but two completely different experiences, as such, audience segmentation is key. Although your audience will ultimately determine for themselves whether an in-person or virtual experience is right for them, It is your job to give them the information they need to make that decision.Coupled with the right messaging, this would ease the process of converting them from prospective attendees to registered attendees.
There is no way of knowing in advance who prefers to attend in person versus online. However, you can make some educated guesses. For example, in your email invitations, you may want to lead with an in-person message to past attendees.
Segment your audience based on age, device, and location. Use this data to determine the following:
- Who gets what communication?
- Who is more likely to attend physically
- Who has attended the event in the past
- Who has interacted with your content or website, and direct all communication driving them to register appropriately.
Creating FOMO-driven content
Prior to working on this event, the most I knew about autism was from the show “Good Doctor”. However, to create content that not only resonates but also engages people interested in a subject so delicate meant I had to spend about 3 weeks immersing myself in autism related content. Learning the nuances of the community and trying to understand what stories needed to be heard. It was also very important to keep the content light.
Some content ideas and strategies we used were:
- Trivia centered around the event and theme
- Educational content to establish thought leadership on the subject
- Teasers focused on highlighting the speakers, their expertise, and event flyers.
- Feel-good content to drive community engagement like “A day in the life”, “Interviews”, “Debunking Myths” or “5 Secs Q&A sessions”
- Curation of relevant content by other reputable parties
- Content tying the subject to the everyday lives of the audience. We tested linking the event to songs, movies and games.
- Let your Audience listen to people they trust: Get qualified and reputable influencers in the industry to tell your stories. Influencer Marketing is such a big industry because people listen to influencers.
Marketing and Advertising
Content is king but without a budget to drive reach, your content may end up lost in the noise that is the internet. Considering how much content production costs, it is important to have a set budget for advertising content to your audience.
A hybrid event attracts both in-person attendees and virtual attendees. This gives your organization the chance to attract 2x and maybe 3xce the number of attendees to your event.
Some strategies to do this properly are:
- A functional and beautiful event website that displays all the program information
- Email prospective attendees weekly to prompt registration and attendance
You want to make sure that in-person and virtual attendees are equally engaged. This is where the “one event, two experiences” mentality comes into play. You can’t deliver the same content the same way to both groups.
Here are some ideas for how to cater your content differently for your virtual and in-person attendees:
- Have an onsite representative dedicated exclusively to your virtual attendees
- Create separate content for your virtual attendees
- Keep everyone aware and excited about your agenda
Content aside, it’s important there is consistency in the level of care for both audiences. I recommend testing all streaming links, lighting, microphones, ISPs and screens at different intervals before the event. While some errors may occur regardless of how prepared you are, in my experience a lot of problems would be caught on the 5th test-run.
Content Available Post Event:
Content is a huge part of a hybrid event. It is necessary to keep your virtual audience not just engaged, but also talking about your event long after it has occurred.
Providing presentation decks after the event serves many purposes, but here are some noticeable benefits:
- SEO ranking goes way up: You have presentations from renowned experts answering questions people are searching for everyday.
- Attendees will ask. Setting up this repository on your website before they do, shows you are proactive to their curiosity and needs.
- Publicity for your speakers, also means publicity for you. Publishing someone’s content often drives them to share that content with their audience as well. It’s a win-win.
In Conclusion, the tips I have shared are tips that I used and worked for me. As I worked on this event,I had to keep reminding myself to treat the virtual component as part of the event, and not a separate entity. Add sessions or remove sessions. Select the right format and speakers. Find the middle ground that suits both attendees, and you have the recipe for the perfect hybrid event in place!