Virtual events have gained a lot of ground in the industry over the last few months, and many of the benefits and best practices learned from successful applications won't soon be forgotten. Here's how to leverage virtual event strategies once live events return.
Although countries are now slowly starting to loosen lockdown measures, the outbreak is far from over, and when the first live events do start to resume, they will look very different. Not only will venues likely be operating at a lower capacity due to distancing measures, but with many attendees unwilling or unable to attend (let alone travel to) live events, hybrid events are the way to go.
Until recently, the events industry had been slow to adopt virtual events, but event owners are increasingly recognizing the benefits and potential of virtual — including cost-effectiveness, reach and inclusivity, and sustainability.
While nothing will ever completely replace an in-person gathering, virtual events represent a lifeline for events in the midst of travel restrictions and stay-at-home orders, and they will be a key component of events during the transition back to live and beyond. Incorporating virtual elements at live events will be crucial to their viability.
So, how can planners retain the advantages of virtual once live events resume in order to get the best of both worlds?
The Importance of Hybrid Events
As countries begin recovering from COVID-19 and loosening restrictions, small live events will start taking place. However, many will continue to prefer virtual events — and virtual elements at the first in-person events will be essential for helping them compete and remain financially viable.
The number of people able and willing to attend the initial live events that are allowed to take place will be limited for a variety of reasons.
The physical space may be limited due to health and safety measures, company budgets may be cut, and many people may still be wary of travel and gathering in groups long after governments give the all-clear. Leveraging hybrid event strategies will allow event organizers to maintain their numbers even if their live audience is small.
Hybrid events also allow planners to continue to expand their reach even once larger gatherings are fair game. The reality is that some people have never been able to access live events due to logistical or financial limitations, and incorporating a virtual component to physical events ensures access to everyone interested in attending, regardless of whether they’re able to travel.
This allows for much more inclusivity and diversity at the event, which in turn can offer the potential for more interesting exchanges, a larger overall audience, and a higher ROI.
In addition to expanding the event’s reach, hybrid events offer a sustainable alternative to fully-live events; providing attendees with the option to engage remotely renders travel to the event’s physical location unnecessary. The pandemic has already led to a decrease in emissions, in part because there has been a sharp decline in air travel over the last few months.
While airlines are likely to recover and travel will surely pick up as restrictions continue to be lifted, the issue of sustainability — especially as it relates to the events industry — is not likely to go away anytime soon.
Embracing hybrid events moving forward will be an effective way to fight unsustainable practices within the industry as well as external judgments like flightshaming.
Here are four ways to continue leveraging virtual events and reaping their benefits once it becomes a matter of choice rather than absolute necessity.
Use Data to Direct Online Strategy
Another major benefit of online events is their ability to provide rich data and analytics. Most platforms have some sort of reporting feature built-in, so even if you’re not used to deploying data-capturing tech at live events, you should be leveraging it for your virtual events.
Now is the time to look at that data to determine how your online audience behaves and what they engage with. This is a great lesson to learn when it comes to substantiating sponsor engagement as well. For example, if you’re including sponsor ads during breaks, are attendees watching and engaging with them? Or are they tuning out? Hard numbers will help you to justify sponsor spend, especially if any are reluctant to reach in their pockets for a live event with a potentially smaller turnout.
Look for ways to allow remote and live attendees to connect with each other as networking will be one of the biggest disadvantages to not being physically present. You may actually find that facilitating networking through your event technology gives you interesting insights into the real value of networking sessions and activations, as it enables you to track the number of participants precisely. Pay close attention to how your virtual audience engagement shifts between sessions, and pivot accordingly.
Data is your best friend when it comes to determining what works and what doesn’t at any event, but when it comes to virtual events in particular, take advantage of the analytics at your disposal and make sure you take note and incorporate successful tactics at future live events.
Adjust Formats for Virtual Audiences
Although virtual events present a unique set of challenges, there’s only one type of attendee to worry about: remote. Everyone attending the event will be using the same platform and have the same overall experience. Hybrid events, however, involve both live and virtual attendees, and it’s important to cater to both and try to integrate the experiences as much as possible.
Certain experiences will be the same, such as speaker presentations. Others, however, will necessarily be different, such as break activities. Keep this in mind and be sure to offer different options to virtual attendees as needed.
Live attendees will likely be mingling and networking during breaks, so you’ll have to make sure you’re keeping virtual attendees interested in the content you provide in between sessions or translating those breaks effectively into networking opportunities for your virtual audiences through breakout streams, virtual hangouts, etc.
You may even want to find ways of connecting your live attendees with the online audience in order to maximize the networking potential and minimize silos based on the privilege of attending in person.
It’s also a good idea to look at other elements that remote attendees tend to engage with, such as live tweets or polls. These are great audience engagement strategies to incorporate at live events regardless of whether there is a virtual component, but they work particularly well at reengaging virtual audiences.
Particularly as you may be facing low live attendance rates as things begin to resume, hybridizing your live event will offer more weight to any effort you make to crowdsource content or insights.
It’s easy for virtual attendees to feel sidelined once live attendees come into play, so make sure you also consider the different types of sessions the event will include and whether you’ve done anything similar for an online event. Breakouts and small group discussions between in-person attendees won’t easily be able to include those joining remotely, so one option could be to keep the two groups separate and organize small group video chats for virtual attendees to hold their own discussions.
Choose Venues With Competitive Tech Capabilities
Adequate tech is the backbone of any virtual or hybrid experience. Depending on your event type and how you plan to create your virtual experience, your exact needs will vary, but advanced tech offerings in a venue will become non-negotiable.
When planning a hybrid event, it’s essential that you select a venue that can accommodate the tech setup that you’ll need. Look for “smart venues” that provide provide reliable high-speed WiFi needed to pull off things like live-streams without a hitch.
The venues needed for hybrid events will also offer 4G capabilities — if not 5G — and functioning, high-quality AV equipment that can be used to enhance the live environment as well as the virtual experience.
Partner With the Right Experts
When live events resume, creating a hybrid event by simply setting up a camera to live stream presentations isn’t going to cut it. With many industry events pivoting to virtual, including big-name meetings like the Microsoft Build Conference next week, we’re seeing more and more innovative ideas for and creative implementations of online events.
Successfully pulling together the tech and deploying an engaging hybrid event will require working with people who are exclusively focused on the virtual event experience, who may come in the form of new roles that emerge within the industry to meet demand.
Whether this means partnering with an event technologist or bringing a virtual event production specialist on board, take this time to evaluate your needs, what your team has the expertise to handle, and where you may need external help.
The world is itching to get back to normal, but when it comes to the events industry, we’re likely working towards new norms and standards that will rely heavily on virtual engagement and event components. Although large gatherings will likely be banned for quite some time, we can start to look towards the resumption of smaller live events in some areas, and prepare a strong comeback for when that happens. Mastering virtual is the first step, and when the time comes, knowing how to continue to leverage online event strategies to create memorable and engaging hybrid experiences will give you an important competitive edge.