According to the Oxford Dictionary, a hybrid is “a thing made by combining two different elements.” In the case of hybrid meetings, those two elements are a face-to-face meeting and an online component. When it’s done right, this powerful combination can lead to a better meeting experience overall.
Hybrid meetings offer an excellent opportunity to deliver the content of a face-to-face meeting to those who cannot attend the event due to time or cost restraints. The virtual component is intended to expand the reach of the live event, not to replace it. “The simple fact is that the content delivered in face-to-face events is the most powerful and most valuable, and it always will be,” explains Tony Lorenz, founder of bXb Online, an agency that specializes in developing online events. “Virtual events on their own are OK, but the online extension of the physical event is where the real power of this category lies. Without that physical event, we lose that power.”
Kathleen Zwart, CMP, corporate meetings and events manager for Florida Blue (formerly Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida), uses videoconferencing to enable regional offices to participate in events held at the company’s headquarters in Jacksonville. She shares an example: “When we got our new CEO, we had a live event here for 600–700 people in our main ballroom in our onsite conference center. Then we videoconferenced his welcome and remarks to all of the offices, so we had probably another 500 people who were able to participate through watching him.”
Florida Blue primarily uses videoconferencing for informational meetings and for some training sessions. “The camera feed goes both ways, so if one of our other offices wants to speak, they’ll come on, and they’ll be able to address the group in all of the other different offices,” she notes.
Zwart describes her participants’ response to hybrid events. “I think, in general, they prefer it because they don’t have to leave home. Florida is a long state, and there are not a lot of flights. It’s a good six-hour drive (from Jacksonville) to Miami, which is our next largest office. They love not having to spend hours in the airport trying to find a connecting flight. I don’t think they feel like they’re missing anything. We can see them. They can see us, and they can interact with us just as if they were here.”
She noted that advance preparation is critical, so she makes sure the regional offices receive any handouts or other related materials before the meeting begins. “If it’s a PowerPoint presentation, we’ll often send the presentation in advance so if there is some sort of technical glitch, they at least have the paper, so they can follow along if they can’t see the screen.”
Zwart also organized a virtual event in her role as vice president of education for her local MPI chapter. “We did a hybrid meeting, and our speaker used an online site to beam herself in from Atlanta to Jacksonville. Then we broadcast that to our members in Tallahassee and Gainesville, so we had three different locations participating with a speaker who was in a fourth location. She was able to do online polling, and we were able to type questions to her. She had someone feeding her the questions and she would answer the questions live. It was a neat way to get a little bit deeper into a more advanced hybrid meeting that we presented to our MPI members.”
Lorenz says it’s important to create an engaging environment that people are going to want to be in from start to finish. “We know there are physical events we go to where we’re there, but we’re not really ‘there.’ The same holds true for online events. If the real estate of the screen in an online event is crafted in such a way that the content and community that is being presented is compelling to the viewer, they may stay. That’s part of the program design piece that’s so very important.”
He also says that plans for the live event always need to take the online component into consideration. “The biggest factor, I think,” says Lorenz, “is that you want the physical presenter to recognize and embrace the online audience. For a lot of events, there’s not a lot of attention paid to the online audience, and that’s a mistake.”
Steph Pfeilsticker, CMP, CMM, MBA, virtual strategy manager for Thrivent Financial in Minneapolis, was inspired to try a hybrid event when she attended an industry event and heard then MPI president and CEO Bruce MacMillan speak on the future of meetings. “I just got the bug,” she says. “We knew we weren’t attracting our entire audience to our National Sales Meeting, so I thought if we added a virtual component to it to make it a hybrid meeting, we could attract more of our financial reps into it and have them hear the quality content.”
Pfeilsticker spent the next three months researching hybrid meetings, and then she wrote a detailed business plan on what it would take for her company to do one for their National Sales Meeting. “I presented it, and they said, ‘Yes, let’s try it.’ ”
The previous year, Thrivent’s National Sales Meeting had attracted approximately 800 financial representatives. When the company created the hybrid event in 2011, approximately 1,000 representatives attended in person and an additional 451 registered virtually. “We weren’t sure what to expect,” Pfeilsticker notes. “We had thought 300 would be a great number, so 451 was fantastic.”
One important lesson she learned was to take the time to understand who your virtual audience really is. “We saw the virtual attendees as a different group of individuals.” She explained that the representatives who normally attended the meeting had more years of experience and tended to be in the top half of the organization. “They have very different needs than reps that are newer to the business. We knew (for the virtual event) that we would likely attract reps that had less experience, so we built our curriculum around that type of individual. Since we weren’t streaming all of the content, we could select the breakout sessions that focused on fundamental skills that would be relevant to these folks, and we streamed those.”
Pfeilsticker worked with Samuel Smith, managing director of Interactive Meeting Technology, to design the event. Smith stressed the importance of making sure that the online component of the meeting is compelling. “Think about the attendee experience and people’s attention online,” he says. “They are one click away from doing anything else on the Internet, so you’ve got to be really careful. A lot of hybrid events look like bad public access TV.” He explained that this usually happens when a single camera is placed in the back of the room and viewers only see a long angle shot of a person on stage.
“Learn how to use different angles,” he recommends. “Maybe you can use two camera angles or four, or whatever you can afford to do. You can change them up to create a different level of engagement for people. Once you change the shot, even if you go to a graphic and back, it’s almost like restarting the attention clock for the remote attendee. That’s really important. If you watch a sporting event, there’s a reason there are eight camera people. There’s a reason there’s a sideline reporter. They’re trying to keep you engaged and connected to it.
“For Thrivent, we built a studio,” Smith explains, “and the backdrop was the general session. You saw people milling around and you saw the live event. We’d interview the speakers. We’d interview people from Thrivent. That kept people engaged.” He said they also solicited questions from the audience. “(We’d announce) ‘Bob Smith in Iowa is asking…’ Not only did we answer the question, but everybody got to hear his name read off. Who doesn’t love hearing their name? That creates engagement.
“We also had different breakouts,” Smith notes. “We would automatically push people into the next session, but they could switch to other sessions, almost like they were changing a channel. But then at the end, when all four of the sessions ended, we pushed everybody back to the studio so the whole audience came back together again. We had a host, a virtual emcee, and she would welcome them back.
“We kept them online participating for three days when the normal is only a few hours,” he added. He attributed that level of participation, in part, to the steps they took to keep the audience engaged and the quality of the content they delivered.
So, should you charge your virtual attendees for the opportunity to attend your event online? Pfeilsticker makes a good argument in favor of charging a modest fee. “We charged $49 per person, which is a low amount to attend a meeting. We didn’t want cost to be a barrier, but we wanted there to be some sort of value. When you say it’s free, people equate that to ‘not valuable,’ so we wanted to be in the middle where we’re charging something, and they’re buying into it, literally. Our goal was for them to understand and receive the knowledge to build their business. I felt, too, that if we can give them the knowledge that they need to build their business, we’re going to earn this back tenfold.”
Lorenz describes some of the tactics that can be employed to keep the online audience engaged: “There’s live streaming, there’s the ability to bring documents into your briefcase online, there’s the ability to do surveys and polling. There’s an ability to chat, both through mainstream social media channels and right there in the platform. There are also opportunities for gaming. You can incent the online audience to participate in the online event in ways that are valuable to them.”
He noted that online attendees often participate even more than those who are attending the live event. For example, some people may be uncomfortable standing up at a large meeting and addressing a question to the speaker. But, he says, “If you’re on your own at your computer, you can provide questions in a little safer environment. Potentially, there’s a natural inclination to be more involved online than in a face-to-face event.”
One important element to consider when planning the virtual component of the meeting is to find ways to keep the virtual audience engaged while the live audience takes a coffee break or goes to lunch. Pfeilsticker filled that time with interviews, recordings of previous speakers and prepackaged content. “We always `kept it going. That content was also tailored to the particular type of financial rep (who attended virtually).” She compared it to watching TV — there’s always something on to see.
Pfeilsticker received a very positive response from her virtual attendees. “In our final evaluation, they actually rated the meeting slightly under what the face-to-face meeting participants rated it. We were shocked. We really thought there would be a bigger difference, but it was 4.72 for the people who attended the live event and 4.69 for the virtual attendees.”
Was the event successful? Data was gathered three months after the event to see if the financial reps were able to use the education to build their business. Pfeilsticker states, “I was shocked when I saw the results. Those who attended virtually increased their sales production at a rate that was twice that of the face-to-face attendees. This delivered content to those not able to attend, and we were able to demonstrate a definitive ROI.” It was an organizational win.
Some companies fear that adding a virtual component to an event will “cannibalize” attendance at the live event, but those concerns are apparently unfounded. “Actually, most companies that have done this have found that’s not true,” Pfeilsticker states. “A statistic that I had heard before I did this was that 34 percent of attendees that attend virtually attend onsite the next year. They get a taste of it, and they want to attend. So I used that same question in my evaluation, and 51 percent of the reps that attended virtually said, ‘Yes, I want to be there next year.’ It really is more of an attendance driver than an attendance detractor.”
“There are plenty of case studies out there where online audiences are growing physical events,” Lorenz notes. “There’s no question about it. You’re providing more exposure to the value of face-to-face events and the more people see that value, the more they’re inclined to come the next time around.”
“You really need to do your homework and understand why you’re doing an event and make sure that your objectives are very clear when you start,” Pfeilsticker explains. “I would also recommend doing a business plan. That was the method that worked for us. It showed that I thought through all of the financial and marketing implications. I would also recommend that you build a good team around you.”
“For some folks that haven’t experienced a hybrid event themselves, it’s really hard for them to get their head wrapped around what it means to be on the production side,” Smith states. “That’s one thing to keep in mind. If you want to produce great hybrid events, you need to attend a lot of them and understand what that attendee experience is like. You’ll also get an appreciation for what is really boring.”
“You want resources around you that are proven and solid and that will deliver,” Lorenz notes. “You want to align with services and a platform underneath those services that can grow with you. There are a zillion platforms out there, but there are only a select few that do it well.”
He added that the time frames needed to plan the online component of a hybrid meeting are not as long as they are for a physical event. “The platform is scalable, so you can pick that up at any time. It’s a lot shorter. Ninety days is tight, but not undoable.”
Smith noted that the pricing models are very different between vendors. “Know that you’re dealing with apples and oranges, and pay close attention,” he advises. “Some vendors will go into super detail on one little tiny piece (of the program) and say, ‘That’s $10,000, and then there’s this huge bucket with little detail at all, and it will be $150,000. What’s happening there is that they’re just kind of throwing a number at you.”
Zwart also offered some helpful tips for planners who are just venturing into hybrid meetings. “I would say, don’t be afraid. It’s really not that difficult, but get people who know what they’re doing. Work with somebody who has done it before, who is experienced, who can walk you through the steps and who doesn’t think any question is a stupid question.”
“You have to focus on the virtual audience and who they are,” Smith sums up. “You need someone who is an advocate for them in the planning and design process. It could be one person, but they’ll remain an advocate for the virtual event to help keep driving it forward.” I&FMM