As pandemic restrictions lift, the world is opening back up. But not all of your attendees will be ready to give up virtual events. And for good reason! Virtual events are flexible, more accessible, and cost-effective for attendees.
These perks made virtual experiences the unexpected hit of 2020. By this point, some of our attendees might have Zoom fatigue, but they still enjoy participating in events all over the world without leaving their home offices. Until the risks of the pandemic subside, virtual events will also feel safer and more comfortable than braving large conference crowds.
This means you're left facing a whole new set of audience expectations—and audience journeys—for the events you're planning right now.
Maybe you want to offer the same flexibility and accessibility to virtual guests while piloting a more intimate or exclusive in-person experience. Or maybe you still have to navigate real safety restrictions for in-person events and want to hold a hybrid event to extend your reach.
Whatever your reason for tackling a hybrid event, it's crucial to create an incredible experience for both virtual and in-person guests. Here's what you need to know to make your transition into the hybrid event space a smashing success.
What Makes a Hybrid Event "Hybrid," Anyway?
When it comes to hybrid events, there's no singular approach. But one thing's for sure—it takes twice as much work as putting on an in-person or a virtual event. Technically, you're planning two events at once!
Some of your audience will attend in-person panels, networking events, and keynotes, while another portion of your audience joins from a virtual event platform. That means hybrid events often include one or more of the following experiences:
Whether you tackle one of these ideas or the whole list, the possibilities for audience engagement are endless.
The "hybrid" part of your hybrid event can be as complex and innovative as the attendees you're trying to engage. Or it can be pared back, simple, and focused, allowing your virtual attendees to dig deep into a specific area of interest.
It might require a balancing act, but there are many take-aways from successful virtual events that apply to a new, hybrid experience.
How to Apply Lessons from Virtual Events to Your Hybrid Experience
We learned a lot about our audiences by embracing and creating exciting virtual events last year. Here are two major take-aways from 2020 to keep in mind as you plan your first hybrid events.
1. Understand your audience
The more you can understand, empathize with, and incorporate feedback from your virtual audience members, the easier it will be to create hybrid content and audience journeys that appeal to them.
According to Lionel Mohri, the VP of Brand Experience and Storytelling at Intuit, empathy is the key to unlocking a successful event or engagement strategy.
"We often start with our stakeholders in our line of work," Mohri told us recently. "The CEO wants this, the VP wants this—but where we should focus our energy is: What does the audience need and what will resonate with them?"
Jumpstart your planning:
- What do you already know about how your audience consumes event content online?
- What keeps them engaged? What puts them to sleep?
- How has your audience journey changed since the beginning of the pandemic?
- What do they most want to learn or do during a major event?
- How can you verify your ideas through user surveys or other forms of feedback?
2. Embrace the virtual experience
It can be frustrating when event organizers try to translate an ideal, in-person event strategy to an online experience. (And it doesn't always work!)
While your event production teams will still be juggling an in-person event schedule, there's no need to force your virtual attendees into a rigid, in-person structure.
Jumpstart your planning:
- What opportunities do you see to create new, hybrid audience journeys?
- When might a DIY audience experience, like picking and choosing events, work better than a linear schedule?
- What happens if you move "optional" experiences, like networking events, to the beginning or middle of your hybrid event, so they feel more valuable for everyone involved?
The more you consider your attendees' needs and embrace the fluidity of virtual experiences, the more engaging your hybrid event will be.
3 Ways to Create a Jaw-Dropping Hybrid Experience
Now that we know which engagement strategies work for virtual events, you can start planning for the challenges and opportunities of a hybrid experience.
No matter what your programming goal might be, a strong hybrid event strategy ensures that virtual attendees are just as excited and engaged as the guests who flew out to attend in person.
By creating more opportunities for connection, building an inclusive experience, and fully empowering a hybrid event production team, you'll develop a more cohesive, more engaging experience for in-person and virtual attendees alike.
1. Create Opportunities for Connection
Digital overwhelm is real. Over the past year, weekly meetings have more than doubled, and email and chat requests are up across the board.
That means it's more important than ever to use your arsenal of virtual engagement strategies in new and innovative ways. You'll create more opportunities for participants to engage with one another and the content of your event.
Fit virtual engagement strategies into your hybrid event.
Polls, chat, breakout rooms, facilitated conversations, and dynamic, pre-recorded video all keep attendees' energy high. Just remember: each of these virtual engagement strategies require a dedicated facilitator to build further connections with your attendees.
Provide pathways for connection between your attendees.
What opportunities have you created for in-person attendees to engage with your virtual audience members? A shared Slack workspace, for example, could facilitate networking connections between your two audiences.
Produce in-person content for virtual audiences, too.
Produce your keynotes, panels, and other in-person events with virtual audiences in mind. Virtual attendees can still enjoy the live "feel" of an in-person audience, but only if the content is produced in a way that appeals to them.
2. Build an Inclusive Experience
The pivot to virtual experiences in 2020 taught us all the ways we can design event experiences with inclusivity in mind.
From diversifying your speakers to offering discounted tickets to virtual attendees, you can take advantage of the accessibility of hybrid events to engage a wider audience.
Diversify your event speakers.
Conference keynote speakers can skew white and male, in large part because that's how we're socialized to think about expertise. Make an effort to showcase new perspectives. From Queer Design Club to the Association of Asian American Investment Managers, many fields have affiliate groups for women, BIPOC, or LGBTQIA+ subject matter experts and thought leaders.
Offer closed captioning or ASL interpretation.
Thanks to virtual events platforms, it's easier than ever to opt for closed captioning services during an online event. You can also hire ASL interpreters for in-person events and project their images alongside your speakers. Advocate for these services in your budget.
Encourage attendees who are on a budget.
If your in-person roster of events is more exclusive, expensive, or valuable to attendees, balance it out for virtual attendees by offering a slight discount. Discounted tickets also help make your hybrid programs more accessible to attendees on a budget.
Ask for feedback and make a plan to improve.
No matter your background, no one gets diversity and inclusion work "right" on the first try. Create pathways for event feedback and implement a plan for improving next time.
3. Empower a Hybrid Team
This is the biggie.
Your in-person events team is busy communicating your agenda to attendees, considering health restrictions, and thinking about speakers' itineraries. Not to mention setting up video production, preparing green rooms, and working with on-site vendors to ensure that everything's picture perfect day-of.
That's why you'll need to empower a dedicated hybrid team to consider your virtual attendees, too.
Budget for your hybrid team.
Hybrid teams navigate many of the same concerns as in-person event producers. But they must also master an added layer of technical requirements, engagement strategies, and production needs. How can you set them up for success—including by providing an adequate budget?
Prepare your speakers to consider both in-person and virtual attendees.
Encourage your in-person production team to work closely with your hybrid production team to prepare speakers.
The speaking styles that only work "in the room" might not translate to livestream, or vice versa. Similarly, an in-person event might have virtual speakers dialing in. How can your event producers help those speakers feel well-prepped and included?
Preparing for Your Hybrid Event
As you find ways for your hybrid event team and your in-person event producers to work together, you'll create an incredible experience for all attendees.
The more you prepare your speakers and your venue ahead of time to consider your virtual attendees, the easier it will be to handle any technical hiccups that come your way during your event.
Make a back-up plan for your back-up plan.
Resolving technical issues quickly takes more than crazy-good WiFi. Both your in-person and your hybrid event producers have to practice and be prepared to troubleshoot on the fly.
"When it comes to virtual events, I always tell my team, ‘You can have the best vision and the most jaw-dropping experience in mind, but none of it matters if it's executed poorly,’" Mohri told us.
"In a physical world, you can iterate on stage very quickly, you can refine in a green room—virtual is unforgiving that way. If production doesn't work, it doesn't work. You need to leave time for troubleshooting and experimenting with the technology so you can make sure that everything is seamless before the event."
Pilot your experience.
The best way to troubleshoot ahead of a hybrid event is to hold a pilot program. This will help all the event producers on your team better anticipate your attendees' needs, whether they're part of a virtual or in-person audience.
"Find people in your organization who are part of your audience and create a pilot where you have them go through the experience end-to-end or ask them to accomplish a certain task and just observe," suggests Mohri. "Don't explain, don't jump in, and don't try to help them get to resolution."
Once your pilot attendees help you identify the gaps in your experience, re-adjust ahead of launch.
Embracing hybrid events can feel like a tall order. It takes a ton of planning, a bigger team, and more room in your budget. But the rewards are greater, too. You get all the benefits of a virtual event, including a wider reach and a more diverse audience, as well as all the excitement of an exclusive, in-person experience.
As always, the key to a successful hybrid event lies in how well you design your experience for your attendees, whether they're digital participants or in-person guests. A hybrid experience can be just as memorable and meaningful as an in-person conference. And for the attendees who would have never been able to travel or attend the event in-person, your commitment to flexibility and accessibility will matter even more.