The Corona crisis has disrupted numerous industries and forced them to rethink from scratch. The event industry was hit particularly hard and event operators, service providers, and corporate marketing teams had to radically revamp their event approaches from scratch. Behind every crisis, however, there is a window for fruitful opportunities. One format, in particular, has stood out and proven that even post-crisis it can and must remain a permanent component in the repertoire of every event and marketing expert — so-called hybrid events. A hybrid event is a mixture of real and digital — basically, an on-site event topped with virtual elements and simultaneously combining the best of both worlds. The decisive factor for success is that the interactive character of an event is maintained — regardless of whether the participants join virtually or physically.
We at ITONICS have also tried out this new format to keep in personal contact with our clients and community. Our event, which took place last year with around 60 participants purely physically, could thus be expanded to an audience of 600 virtual participants — without the organizer incurring immense additional costs for each additional participant.
My intention is not to turn this article into yet another “Your event must fit your overall brand identity” post, but instead to provide real experiences and hands-on lessons learned that will help you take the first steps with your own hybrid event.
I am pretty sure, there are 100 other ways to realize a hybrid summit, but for us — a 100 heads strong SaaS company with a dedicated marketing team of 6 people, it worked out quite well and resulted in more than 600 participants, 16 speakers, 7 hours live stream, 4 interactive panel discussions, and vivid on-site and virtual conversations.
Just setting up a live stream won’t be enough these days. Each of your events should contain something new. Surprise your participants! And even more important: involve them actively. Especially virtual formats should come with a versatile agenda, which does not only consist of frontal keynotes and can activate the participants even more as the on-site networking is missing. How about panel discussions, breakout sessions, workshops, or “speed-dating” rounds to engage your participants?
For our event, we decided on a rather complex setting — the speakers were filmed on-site, the participants followed the event virtually via a live stream. On top, we integrated videos, slides, and polls. The virtual audience was able to interact with each other over a chat, at the same time commenting on what was happening on stage, and stating questions directly to the speakers. Four themes were discussed in interactive panel discussions with 3–4 experts — each giving the speakers the opportunity to introduce themselves but also engage in lively discussions with each other.
What you should definitely consider when planning your agenda: Allow enough time between the sessions. Especially at hybrid events, you may have to expect extensive technology re-settings.
Key lesson: ‘Hybrid’ means the clash of two worlds. You will notice this especially on the day of the event and when planning your staff. In addition to handling the live event, you will also have to follow and monitor what is happening in the virtual space and, ideally, promote it in real-time.
The Tech Decision
The technical set-up might be the toughest and erratic part of a hybrid event. You need to orchestrate several things at once — what the virtual audience sees, what the on-site speakers see, bringing up slides, polls, and video content. In case you do not have access to your own professional camera and sound team, I recommend getting an external technology provider on board who is well versed in live streaming events and handling several camera perspectives and screens. Especially when coordinating live and virtual speakers in one session, you don’t want to leave anything to chance.
Although every speaker has his/her preferences, lapel microphones are more recommendable, especially in discussion rounds. Hand microphones are well suited for a one-person show on stage but interrupt the dynamics of a speech in discussion or Q&A sessions with several participants.
You should clarify the choice of the final live stream medium with your technical service provider in time: a webinar tool such as GoToWebinar or Zoom, live streaming platforms such as Twitch, Vimeo, or YouTube? We decided to go with Vimeo as it offers everything you need to engage with your audience during a live session. If possible, integrate the video or live stream into your own website. This allows for extensive tracking afterwards!
Key lesson: Write down a comprehensive director’s plan (timeline, who speaks when, when to show which content/media/polls), and share it with your technical provider, moderators, and your org team. But beware: this does not replace the detailed briefing in advance!
The Talking Heads
Without speakers, no agenda! It is extremely important that you narrow down the topic of your event strongly enough before addressing potential speakers, but leave enough room for them to feel comfortable with their field of expertise. Try to create a healthy mix of theory and practice within your sessions — invite researchers and faculty as well as founders and corporates. Especially speakers with a wide social media reach and active community engagement open up new channels to reach potential participants Since this is the core element of your entire event and thus has a decisive influence on the event communication, the director’s plan and the technical set-up, try to create clear conditions as early as possible.
The moderator will run the show and acts as a link between the speakers and the audience, both of whom participate either on-site or are virtually attending. Organize a detailed briefing with the moderator(s) and their panel partners in advance. Also, ask about all additional media used (slides, videos, surveys, etc.) in time. You don’t want to have unexpected surprises on your big day.
Key lesson: Do extensive technique checks and agenda walkthroughs with the tech provider, speakers, and moderators upfront — especially with complicated settings. You might want to have an entertaining disturbance picture up your sleeve if there are unintended interruptions during the live stream.
You might think that the location plays a subordinate role in a hybrid event. Although the participants do not see the whole venue, the stage should reflect the atmosphere you want to convey by means of light, furniture, and decorations. Work with strong branding in the background — pop-up banners, posters, or LED walls work well. You can even think of changing some elements with each new session. However, do not allow your show to stop during the breaks. Make sure that background music is played during the pauses (both on-site and for the virtual participants).
Something you can forget very easily: Identify potential noise sources in advance that could affect the recordings (e.g. construction noise, garbage collection, traffic, schools, etc.).
Key lesson: Run an extensive location inspection upfront and draw a map of the setting to have a clear image of the stage set-up and avoid long discussions on the day of the event.
Sad News for all Foodies
Compared to on-site conferences, catering won’t be your number one priority. We made the mistake to order far too much food for the speakers, org and tech teams. As everybody is super involved, nervous and running from A to Z, really no one thinks of food. Strong coffee and some light food will be sufficient. And your virtual crowd? Well, send them a DIY coffee kit or some snacks and invite them to a virtual coffee within your breaks.
Key lesson: Less is more. And if you send durable food n’ drinks to your participants, you better try them before! ;-)
Your ticketing solution should be selected according to the best possible integration with your CRM system and website to ensure a smooth registration process. We chose Eventbrite as it works quite well with our CRM solution and website. Offer different ticket options — people love to choose! If you have the option to provide free tickets, why not add an optional donation for virtual participation? We collected an impressive amount, by the way, that we will donate to our charity projects in Kathmandu!
Key lesson: If the distance regulations allow, offer a selected number of tickets for the on-site event. This adds an exclusive character to the event — especially for existing customers a nice opportunity to get in touch with you again in person.
You cannot start your marketing activities early enough. However, make sure that your line-up is in place before participants register and block their calendars. Subsequent changes of your timetable can quickly cause confusion.
A mix of inbound and outbound campaigns worked for us. The keywords here are newsletters, content, social media, and retargeting. Especially in the last days before the event, you can convince late decision-makers to participate.
A constant social media pipeline on the day of the event increases your audience even more. This will make your life a lot easier: Prepare the majority of posts in advance. This saves time and is easy on the nerves when the creative spirit takes a break. In order to give participants a glimpse behind the scenes afterwards, a photographer can capture high-quality photo and film material in addition to the recording or catch the speakers after their session for a short interview.
Key lesson: You will be surprised how much good input you can get from the chat conversations, comments, and questions of your participants. Be sure to include this in your marketing activities.
Engage the Crowd
The active involvement of your audience — before, during, and after the show is key! Involve your participants and the community in advance in the creation of the agenda and topics by means of surveys via social media or questions in your registration forms. To push your virtual participants back into the live stream, you can send reminders not only before the event starts but also before each new keynote or panel session (but be careful not to overdo it here!).
Make sure to appoint a community manager upfront who announces breaks in the chat, takes care of technical and organizational issues, and passes feedback from the chat community directly to the technical team (this was indeed extremely helpful and saved us out of some sound issues!).
To bring the virtual audience also on stage, run interactive polls and collect questions asked into the chat during the presentations or discussion rounds in a shared document that the moderator can access, for example, via an iPad on stage. In this way, no questions will be overlooked in a lively chat discussion.
Key lesson: Also brief your colleagues, who are experts on the topic of the event, to get actively involved in the chat communication and answer questions of the community. This shapes your role as a thought leader even more!
Post-Event is Pre-Event
Do not allow too much time to pass after the end of an event. Your first follow-up message to participants should be sent out by the event team only a few days after the event is over containing the cut recording and additional material to ensure consistent communication. Also, a feedback survey (ideally prepared in advance and posted in the active chat at the end of the event) might make sense to improve your next attempts and get inspiration on hot topics. The engagement might be higher if the survey is connected to an incentive (voucher, surprise package, etc.).
Keep also your social community up-to-date and provide them quickly with photo and film footage and the key messages of the event. Important: Tag all speakers, sponsors, and event organizers in your posts to increase the coverage!
In the end, don’t forget to worship all the helping hands: Send out speaker presents and invite them to further collaborations — why not individually discuss their topics in an upcoming podcast or webinar format? And after all the work is done — celebrate yourself and your team! I mean, you know how to throw a party, right? ;-)
Key lesson: Try to get as much as possible out of the content of your event afterwards. With 7 hours of video footage, you can fill your marketing pipeline for a while.
No Panacea for all Formats
In the future, we will have to think ‘hybrid’ from the ground up — even if on-site events will again be possible. Why set limits, when you can increase the number of participants tenfold or a hundredfold? Nevertheless, events, both external and internal, that require personal presence or haptic (e.g., member voting, incentives, roadshows (depending on the type of product), etc.) are less suitable for hybrid or virtual formats.
What experiences have you had with virtual and hybrid events? What limits have you encountered? Happy to discuss!