The web is full of blog posts and articles about hybrid events. And they have one aspect in common, which I, personally, find really disturbing: they draw a sharp red line between 'live' attendees and 'virtual' attendees, treating them as completely different, independent parties.
This distinction is not only confusing, but also leads to a wrong perception of both groups.
Not a 'virtual' but a 'live online' attendee
First, I prefer the term 'online attendee' instead of 'virtual', which I associate with 'fictitious'. I guess that this term does not do a great job in reminding event organizers, that online followers are still real human beings.
Second, online participants are just as much 'live' attendees as in physical attendees. When you follow an event in real-time it makes no difference, whether you are at the place where it happens or anywhere else. A football game or a concert can also be broadcasted 'live' on TV.
You are already running a 'hybrid event'
In fact the line between physical and online attendees is blurred. Physical and online attendees are connected through their phones and social media channels. Stay-at-homes can participate in the discussion about your event with or without your support. Visitors will connect with the world outside without asking you (provided they can access the internet from your event location, but enough said about that in the past).
Conclusion: there already exists a connection between both parties anyway. Now you as an eventplanner have to use the modern technology to strengthen it and use it in your advantage. Make visitors come back and get online participants to buy a ticket for next year.
So, is it enough to get a video stream running and promote a Twitter hashtag? Certainly not!
The difference between an physical and online participant
While there definitely is a connection, online participants have very different needs than visitors. While the online attendee can access (parts of) the content of the event you provide on the online platform and thereby collect the 'knowledge' that is shared publicly, he has one significant disadvantage compared to live attendees. He is not there physically. He is not surrounded by other people in a shiny venue, but probably in his office or at home in his familiar daily habitat.
My friend and colleague Neville Medhora described it in an example: "So if Lazy Larry stays home and watches every speech online and takes notes, he'll come away with some good nuggets of information. But if Friendly Freddy actually goes to the conference, and even misses a few of the sessions because he's hung-over he will still get more out of the conference than Lazy Larry because he's at the conference mingling, making friends, going out to breakfast, lunch or dinner with all the other nerds at the conference and building up a network of like-minded people."
Neville's statement underlines an important starting point: networking is one of the most important factors in stimulating people to attend a physical event. The online participant cannot profit from the incredible business benefits of face to face networking. He can only benefit from the presentations, workshops and discussion sessions. Therefore, the only option to keep them following your event is to offer them inspiring and informative content and engage them into the ongoing conversation as much as possible.
How to keep online delegates engaged?
Unfortunately, many event organizers forget that virtual participants experience your event in a completely different way than live attendees do. Live attendees are bound to your event in a certain way because they bought the ticket and have travelled all the way. Online attendees are not.
As easy as they can access your platform, they can leave your stream as soon as they are bored. Don't forget that virtual participants are still real people, who want to be involved and engage with your event rather than being passive recipients of your information. If you are a bad virtual host, your online visitors will not only walk away, but also tweet about their disappointment and delete any of your invitations to future events.
Thus what they need is a special program that responds to their needs and gives them a chance to engage with the physical event. To get you started, I have collected some tips based advise of great hybrid event professionals and my own experience. But feel free to experiment with own ideas:
- Have a dedicated online presenter to address them and feel welcome.
- Construct an online helpdesk to respond to questions and comments.
- Assign moderators to facilitate discussions and engagement.
- Add reporters that bring news, which cannot be showed from the main stream.
- Think about extra content for virtual attendees to fill coffee breaks, networking sessions or other situations where they cannot participate.
- Use broadcasted sport events and talk shows as inspiration to develop relevant and entertaining content. What about exclusive interviews with VIP visitors or a 'Behind the scenes of...' feature?
Share your experience!
As you see, there are plenty of options to create a great virtual event experience for online attendees. I'm sure that you can think of more. There are no limitations to your imaginations. What have you experienced that you really like in this regard?