Devin Cleary is the VP of Global Events at Bizzabo, the world’s fastest growing event technology platform for hybrid, virtual and in-person events. Cleary is a passionate, results-driven event producer and marketing executive with experience leading the creation and active management of diverse experiential marketing programs for B2B, nonprofit and consumer markets. His accolades include features in Event Marketer’s 2017 “B2B Dream Team” and BostInno’s “50 on Fire.”
We live in a hybrid world. From work and school to technology and cars, hybrid experiences have become the norm in our everyday lives, shaking up routines and disrupting sectors, including the events industry.
A majority of leaders from top-performing organizations think events are the most critical marketing channel for achieving business goals, according to a recent Bizzabo survey. Pre-COVID-19, nearly all strategic events were held in person, but the pandemic forced event organizers to rethink their approaches to event planning. The initial scramble to virtual continues to evolve, as event leaders incorporate flexibility into their hybrid event strategies.
Hybrid events bring together the best aspects of in-person and virtual events with a range of benefits, which include: providing attendees greater flexibility to choose how — and when — they engage with the event and other participants; expanding reach to wider, global audiences; and blending the best of both worlds with a mixture of in-person and digital components.
Hybrid events fall along a spectrum. They aren’t one-size-fits-all. Elevating event experiences for attendees — regardless of whether they’re in-person, virtual or both — requires intention during the strategy, planning and execution phases.
Hybrid events are here to stay because they’ve proven their value as more than a short-term solution. In fact, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, event professionals had already begun exploring hybrid options. The pandemic merely accelerated hybrid’s wider acceptance, and companies have taken note.
“Following our move to virtual in 2020, we made a decision to never put on another INBOUND that lacked a digital component,” says Laura Moran, director, global events programming & revenue at Hubspot. Why? Because hybrid events move attendees from siloed experiences to shared experiences, generating value and driving impact for all. When they’re executed effectively, hybrid events can successfully deliver unified, integrated and unique experiences just like in-person events.
The “magic” lies in creating opportunities to connect in new ways while personalizing the experience for each attendee. But here’s the caveat: The goal of creating a unified hybrid experience isn’t to create the same experience for in-person and virtual attendees — it’s to create the best experience for each audience.
Hybrid events have different “flavors,” each appropriate for different goals, which may include:
Once you’ve decided the goals, keep these nine strategies in mind.
1. Be authentic, transparent, and true to the brand and audience
“When you cater to everyone, you cater to no one. That’s key to events as we navigate hybrid,” says Dara Treseder, SVP and head of global marketing and communications at Peloton. Treseder was one of several company leaders who spoke at Agents of Hybrid, an event designed to explore strategies and best practices for hybrid events. “You’ve got to be clear on the value proposition for your target audience. And don’t forget your first love. Don’t forget your core audience,” she says.
2. Gather the right information to deliver positive attendee experiences
There’s a lot distracting today’s event attendees. Take time to find the right event format, content programming and engagement tools — and plan your event with intention.
Use emails or surveys — or create channels for people to connect and offer input — to gather requirements. Take advantage of your event management platform’s data collection capabilities and use that data to curate personalized experiences. Digital and in-person breakout rooms and workshops offer ways to grow communities and create opportunities for engagement.
3. Humanize events and offer opportunities to create chemistry
The lines between work and life have blurred more than ever during the pandemic. Look at attendees beyond their job titles. As Adele Durham, senior director of global events for Veeam Software says, “We need to go beyond what that person does for a job and look at what makes them, because that vulnerability really comes across.”
Keeping attendees engaged through content is important. But to really elevate the experience for everyone, you must also foster an environment that supports chemistry and connections between speakers and audiences. Will your event have an emcee? This important role can become the differentiator between creating energy and chemistry. Good emcees connect the dots for virtual and in-person attendees, provide entertainment and help unify the whole program.
4. Embrace accessibility
The pivot to virtual exposed the need for incorporating accessibility into the events of now and in the future. When planning your event, consider the circumstances attendees may face and develop strategies to address them mindfully. Inclusivity matters, and the range of options to interact — online and in-person, via chat rooms, networking sessions and more — enables event professionals to design events that deliver the best experience for all audiences.
“Inclusion and diversity have always been a pillar for Twitch, so for GlitchCon, we were trying to create an escape from 2020, and we had to make sure it’s open to everyone. We had ASL, closed captioning, and global language co-streaming where we hired global content creators to take our content and translate it in real-time to their native communities and make it regionally relevant,” says Jennifer Jessup, head of events at Twitch.
5. Broadcast live event sessions
Want to really expand your event’s reach? Broadcast live portions to virtual audiences, and boost those live experiences with digital interactions.
6. Foster community through virtual breakout rooms
Breakout rooms invite interaction among smaller groups. Moderators can then facilitate and guide discussions, answer questions and troubleshoot technical issues.
7. Offer access to content anywhere
Regardless of whether audiences attend in-person, virtually — or a combination — they should have access to your content across devices. Use your event experience management platform to control content access. Keeping events fresh allows attendees to continue connecting, networking and growing long after the event has concluded.
8. Capture — and use — virtual experience analytics
To keep building upon your success, take advantage of the data captured by the event experience management platform. Modern platforms let you collect data on everything — from the sessions for which people register, which ones they join and the methods by which they attend. This wealth of data not only helps in the content and agenda creation process, but in increasing event ROI.
9. Integrate virtual tools into your event program
The right tools and technology make all the difference, especially when you must straddle the divide between virtual and in-person events. Integrating and hosting everything on one platform maintains continuity, keeps data in one place and increases operational efficiency.
So what now? Be bold and embrace the unknown. Event professionals, companies and their target audiences are open to new ideas and possibilities. Look to other companies, events or industries for inspiration. “Take inspiration from consumer content, like Netflix and movies. How can we create those cliffhanger moments?” asks Elise Orlowski, senior video director at Cramer.
Take your cue from your target audience. Allow them to guide event programming and content, and invite them to share what they want from the experience. The right strategies, tools, technology and knowledge enable event organizers to elevate hybrid events to provide an exceptional, accessible experience for attendees regardless of how they participate. I&FMM