Give Face-to-Face Attendance a Virtual BoostFebruary 1, 2013

Mastering the Hybrid Meetings Balancing Act By
February 1, 2013

Give Face-to-Face Attendance a Virtual Boost

Mastering the Hybrid Meetings Balancing Act

In recent years, a certain risk has been stereotypically associated with virtual meetings. It’s often characterized by the rather unpleasant word “cannibalization.” The worry is that the virtual event will siphon away many of the live convention’s potential attendees who chose to stay comfortably and cost-effectively in their homes (or home offices) and take in all the content from their computers. The unwanted results include attrition, weaker traffic flow for exhibitors and a less vibrant networking scene.

Virtual Marketing

But the truth is that most association members recognize that remote attendance is not the ideal way to participate in the meeting: They want to experience that famous speaker while seated among their peers; they want to make a more personal connection with colleagues and exhibitors. Instead, virtual attendance is a welcome option only when they can’t fit the travel time into their busy schedules, or if they can’t attend relying on their own funds. It’s also a nice option when they want to get a sense of the content being offered, before making the decision to attend in person. In that case, elements such as webcasts of educational sessions, virtual trade shows, online networking with other attendees and real-time Q&As with presenters all serve to “advertise” the real convention. The virtual meeting effectively says, “All of this is what you could be experiencing in that more compelling, face-to-face way.”

INXPO, a major provider of virtual event solutions, has some data to confirm that promotional effect. “We’ve been working with PCMA for several years, and we did a survey to determine how many people attended 2012 Convening Leaders based on their 2011 Convening Leaders virtual participation,” says Scott Kellner, chief marketing officer with INXPO. “Fourteen percent said that their virtual experience had directly led to their decision to attend in person. Some hadn’t even been (at the face-to-face meeting) in the last five to six years.” Any small cannibalization effect that a virtual meeting might have would surely be offset by the new face-to-face attendees it draws to the next convention, as these stats suggest.

Most recently, a post-meeting survey from PCMA’s 2013 Convening Leaders hybrid event revealed that attendees were 63 percent more likely to attend a future PCMA face-to-face event because of the hybrid experience.

And there is anecdotal evidence that virtual attendance can foster the desire to participate in person. Marian Long, CMP, is director of meeting services with another of INXPO’s clients, the Chicago-based American Association of Diabetes Educators (AADE). “My first virtual meeting experience was PCMA about three years ago,” Long recalls. “Two colleagues from my department had gone to Las Vegas for the event, and I attended virtually.” To a degree, Long did get a sense of a shared experience with those colleagues. “It was great just going back and forth with them while they were in the general session: ‘I’m not feeling it with the speaker, are you guys? How is it live?’ One of the speakers was just not resonating with me, and I thought maybe it was just me. ‘No, she’s not doing very well here either,’ they said.” But apparently the virtual interaction with her colleagues was less than ideal. “I felt like I was kind of there, but not really. And it did make me want to participate the following year live, which I did.”

Added Value

AADE’s national convention in August will be its 40th, and will be paired with its virtual meeting for the third time. Long and Meetings Coordinator Erin Luytjes say they have thus far seen no evidence of cannibalization, and feel that the virtual event is mainly a resource for members who can’t always attend in person. A health care organization might only be able to send two out of six diabetes educators to the convention each year, for example. “We’re just looking at it as another member benefit, giving them a chance to feel like they’re still part of the meeting without having to be there,” Long explains. “If a member can’t be there we understand it, because we already have a history 40 years going (with many members) rotating in every two to three years.”

Create Your Own Interactive TV Network

A virtual meeting, at least in the case of a hybrid event, coincides with a physical convention. But virtual content can be offered year-round and thereby serves to increase member engagement on an ongoing basis, often resulting in a better turnout at the face-to-face event. Why not give that online content a format that just about everyone is used to, a format that draws people in compulsively? Why not make it like a TV network?

That’s the basic idea behind Social Business TV, a new product from Chicago-based INXPO. “Social Business TV enables an association to have its own online, ongoing broadcasting solution,” says Scott Kellner, chief marketing officer. The tool enables “all your content, your captures in your live session and your additional sessions that you may be creating throughout the year to be available in a single environment that is organized by topic-specific channels just like regular TV.”

ACF-2013-0203-FebMar-Virtual-250pxAnd yet it’s more than regular TV in that participants have the ability to interact and discuss the content. That feature also makes Social Business TV more dynamic than an online knowledge center, a common tool for associations. Like a knowledge center, Social Business TV “enables you to go in and download content, but you don’t do it in a vacuum,” Kellner explains. “There is a reason we put the word ‘social’ in the title’s product. It enables a great deal of interaction to take place both among the audience as well as between the audience and the program host. You can also do surveys and moderated Q&A. All these things can make a presentation much more meaningful to an audience.”

To get the most out of Social Business TV, the “channels” should target certain member demographics: prospective members, active members, somewhat disengaged members, early-career members, members interested in particular types of content, and so on. Using the tool, the host can then obtain Nielsen-type metrics on how different content resonates with the audience segments, and in view of that information, adjust future offerings.

“What we hear a lot from our association customers is that they need a better way to stay in touch with various audiences, a vehicle that is going to be tailored not only to engaging them, but also to providing a level of metric analysis that enables them to be smarter with how they follow up and whom they target,” Kellner says.

Those metrics also can be used to determine content for the annual convention, creating a more relevant and ultimately better-attended event. “And this is a very important point: If you’re going to use Social Business TV, you should have a year-round content marketing program,” he says. “If all you’re going to do is stream live content from your event, then probably just a basic webcasting or hybrid event solution is right for you. But if you’re interested in ongoing communications, then Social Business TV is appropriate.” — GS

And the greater value of physical attendance is not in question. “When you attend live you get much more CE credit and you get to attend all the social events,” says Luytjes. Long adds, “Our people are very social, and they talk to colleagues and friends about cases at the meeting. I don’t think they’re ever going to take that face-to-face (interaction) away because it’s just too powerful.” Indeed, virtual meetings would never drive physical attendance if the former were just as compelling as the latter; so in a sense, the limitations of virtual are important.

The AADE is selective as to which breakout sessions to capture virtually, and only about 1 percent of exhibitors choose to have a virtual presence. But even if the virtual meeting were more robust — with capture of all sessions and significant exhibitor participation — Long and Luytjes feel that it would not detract from physical attendance, which is about 3,000 professionals. The number of virtual participants has been about one-tenth of that figure, and thus far, no trend in decreasing physical attendance coupled with increasing virtual attendance has been observed. That’s reassuring, and Long notes that the members will benefit from more access to the virtual content in the future as INXPO keeps the captured sessions available for 12 months instead of six. So although the association is financially just “breaking even,” as Long puts it, with the virtual event, the member benefit has proven a strong enough reason to continue the event and develop it. “I get a lot of calls and people are definitely engaged in it. They’re requesting to see more sessions next year,” adds Luytjes.

But some associations are abandoning the virtual component because it’s not a revenue-generator — breaking even apparently isn’t good enough. “What I’m hearing is that a lot of medical associations are trying it and then stopping because it’s not making revenue,” says Lu Anne Bankert, senior director, programs and meetings, with the Rockville, MD-based Association of Community Cancer Centers (ACCC). “And I would have to say that we’re basically the same way: It’s not making revenue for us. But it’s a benefit to our members, and it has shown that some of the people who (participate remotely) come to the next meeting. We follow the attendance to see just how many of them turn into onsite attendees. We’ve run the virtual program for just three years, so we’re still in the baby stages of that (data collection).”

Hybrid Meeting Veterans

Unlike the AADE and the ACCC, Alexandria, VA-based American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) has run its virtual meeting for quite a long time — more than 10 years. Like both associations, however, ASCO has seen no evidence of the cannibalization of its physical event, which draws about 26,000 professionals. “I think medical meetings have a unique perspective on (the value of virtual meetings) because all of our attendees can’t attend a meeting,” according to a source from ASCO. “Hospitals need to keep running, and especially with a lot of smaller practices, only a certain percentage of their people can attend. So giving them access to the educational content is crucial. It’s something that our membership and leaders had been requesting for years.”

Sixty to 70 percent of attendees (including both remote and in-person) purchased ASCO’s virtual meeting product when it was a separate charge, and then “we rolled it into the annual meeting registration and raised the price accordingly,” the source explained. “We were prepared, we had policies ready for complaints, and we got nothing. So I think it was a value that our attendees saw and something that they thought they could use. I think it’s now almost an expected piece of the meeting experience instead of an add-on.”
While virtual is clearly valuable for those ASCO members who can’t attend in person, so are its limitations in terms of educational effectiveness. “They tell us it’s great to have the virtual, but when you get back into your day-to-day life you really don’t have time to stop and watch the sessions. But when you’re at ASCO, that’s why you’re there, you’ve already taken the time to do it,” the ASCO representative notes. “So it’s important to come to the face-to-face meeting in order to ‘disconnect’ (from one’s daily life). And it’s also important for them to have the face-to-face time with the other attendees and colleagues around the world.”

ASCO runs about 18 parallel sessions and captures practically all the content (in few cases speakers choose not to allow it). “We were almost at 97 percent captured last year,” says the source. But due to the high degree of “parallelism” in the sessions, many members invariably miss sessions they want to participate in. “We needed to figure out a way to allow people to see more of this education that we’re having, because the meeting would be 14 days long if we didn’t run all these sessions against each other. So how do we create a way for attendees to select sessions to see that is not just based on time constraints?”

The answer lies in the use of the virtual meeting by onsite attendees. After the meeting, or even after a day of sessions back at the hotel room, an attendee can tune in to those sessions he or she wishes to have been able to physically attend. It’s the next best thing, and the sessions are available virtually about seven hours after they take place. “It allows them to kind of tailor the meeting experience, and I think they don’t feel as panicky when they’re there since they don’t have to catch everything live and in person anymore,” says the ASCO representative. “Our IT director jokingly called it ‘ASCO DVR’ where you could look at ASCO’s entire schedule while you were sitting in a meeting and click a checkbox, and it would put that session on your virtual meeting ‘playlist’ to catch later.”

Virtual and physical meetings aren’t mutually exclusive, of course, and the added convenience of captured sessions for onsite attendees makes the convention even more attractive. On top of the compelling educational and networking experiences that face-to-face offers, attendees can use the virtual platform to supplement those experiences, and needn’t worry they will completely miss out on sessions or colleague connections due to happenstance or time constraints. A planner shouldn’t be surprised if stronger physical attendance results from that winning combination. AC&F

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