Virtual and Hybrid Events Need Their Own Analytics and Designs to Work Best

We’ve talked about content metrics, and that publishers believe that feedback loops must also be part of the measurement equation. So why should events be different? Thus it was impressive to read that Reuters Events is “maniacal about analytics” and based their agenda for Reuters Next on continual polling of the needs of its audience. What else are publishers doing to amp up their virtual and hybrid events?

“This is an opportunity to see and think things differently,” reads a tagline for Reuters Next. “… This December, it is your chance to be a part of the world’s largest movement to tackle change, head on.” In October 2019, Reuters bought the British-based specialist events business FCBI. Rebranded Reuters Events, it has put on more than 60 virtual conferences and events since then.

In an article in The Drum, Josh London, chief marketing officer for Reuters, says the high level of interest in Reuters Next—which debuted in January—was a culmination of a strategy which “all stems from customer experience… Thousands of hours’ worth of research [was conducted] to understand the needs of the delegates and match that with a speaker agenda so that we can make sure that the time that they are investing is best spent.”

Here are a few other virtual and hybrid event strategies that are paying dividends:

Virtual – Sell premium perks. While registration was mostly free for Reuters Next, they  sold “professional passes” costing $699 offering a post-event report and access to a networking program which enabled one-to-one meetings with attendees and speakers. “This is something that both parties would opt into and the system would set up a time for you to connect,” says London. “It’s similar to real world [conferences] but with some advantages; so you are not standing on the outside of a circle waiting for a break in the conversation.”

Hybrid – Do what’s best for each audience. At Meeting Professionals International’s recent World Education Congress (WEC)—600 in person, 1000 virtual—virtual sessions were conducted by many of the in-person presenters but at different times and days, Informa’s Meetings Net reported. “The only in-person sessions that were livestreamed were our general sessions, and we engaged the virtual audience in real time with things like ‘fan cams’ and a European region co-host,” says Melinda Burdette, director of events for MPI. Adds James Frankis, director of product for Convene: “The key is to build in a few ‘peak moments’ that are simultaneous for both, such as keynote presentations and critical breakout sessions—opportunities for the two audiences to come together through real-time surveying that guides the direction of a session.”

Virtual – Be interactive. “Say I’ve got a half-hour experience that I’m creating—the audience is an important part of that experience,” said John Capano, SVP of Impact XM. “So yeah, I’m going to deliver some content, but in between the content, what am I going to do to get that audience engaged? And it’s just being thoughtful about that, based on what is the content? What is the event? What is the audience? And what is their appetite for that?” At Reuters Next, all delegates had access to Q&A and audience polling.

Hybrid – Be confident in your pricing and prepare your staffing. For that WEC event, MPI charged $799 for the in-person experience, which featured four concurrent sessions in each time slot; and $299 for virtual attendees who got three concurrent sessions per time slot. However, they “underestimated the number of staff needed to manage the digital experience,” said Jessie States, director of the MPI Academy. “You need a moderator for each room to monitor the chat, mute participants and generally manage the technology.”

Virtual and Hybrid – Emphasize sustainability. Almost 3/4 (74%) of their audience told Condé Nast that companies behaving more sustainably took on more importance because of coronavirus. Young people especially have indicated in surveys that it affects their decision-making. “Live events take a lot and have a big carbon footprint,” Capano said. “And so doing an event where maybe it’s a smaller live portion, but a much larger online portion, you can get the same benefit and the same engagement for a much smaller carbon footprint. And obviously, that is important and should be important to many of the folks that we work with. So this is really a ton of benefits there.”

Hybrid – Don’t let anyone feel like they’re missing out. States from MPI said that some of their “digital participants expressed interest in a few in-person sessions that were not offered virtually. Our takeaway is that we should capture those in-person sessions for on-demand viewing.” FOMO is real. While virtual cannot replicate the networking and exhibit hall, it should be able deliver on content.


Survey Recommends Regional Events, Safe Designs and Better Hybrid Plans

“Respondents are using more than two dozen event technology platforms—a large portion are using Zoom as one of the components. Some reported deliberately keeping it simple by using a familiar webinar platform, while others reported using as many as five platforms.”
That’s from the business event planners group PCMA’s recently issued COVID-19 Recovery Dashboard Survey. It shows how there’s still no one solution for virtual events yet. So while 61% of the event planner respondents have been satisfied with the platforms they’ve used, most also said that there’s lots of room for improvement.
Finding one platform with the ability to perform all of the functions that planners are looking for was one of the most common reasons given by the 39% who said they were not satisfied with event technology. “There needs to be a virtual event platform that integrates—not links out—to other platforms besides Zoom,” one respondent wrote.
Here are some more conclusions from the survey:
Digital events are okay but… While designing digital experiences still matters, more respondents cited as more important the need to know how to design live experiences for the post-COVID era. One supplier said the new cleaning protocols need to be shouted out more.
More thought needs to be done for hybrid events. While everyone says that hybrid is the future, only one-third of the respondents said that they are seeking broadcasting facilities in their site-selection process.
More customizable platforms. “There’s not enough customizability in the off-the-shelf platform we have,” one planner wrote. “We need better functionality to host multi-session, half-day events with many speakers and panelists. It’s time for a more seamless experience and higher quality. We are now all past the newness and need better solutions.”
Connecting event participants is still a work in progress. “The networking option in tools today is very basic,” wrote one respondent. “We haven’t been able to replace the social aspect of our in-person events in a virtual format. We want match-making technology on a budget.” Rafat Ali, CEO of Skift, is more optimistic on this front. “There is so much left to do on online matchmaking, the biggest aspect of conventions and exhibitions, but it will happen,” he wrote this week. “Much like online/mobile dating was unthinkable until the 2000s and then the matchmaking aspect of it moved completely to digital channels, so could the matchmaking part of the events industry, in fact it would necessarily be lot more efficient that way.” We’ll see.
Think regional. “I think smaller and regional events will make a comeback before larger/national/international events,” wrote one respondent. “We fully expect most of our events to carry a hybrid solution going forward.” SIPA’s virtual chapter meetings have actually been made more interesting by the ability of people outside the region to “attend.” Will be interesting to see how we can capture the energy injection moving forward.
Pricing, pricing, pricing. The cost of virtual platforms “is still driving what is possible,” wrote one respondent. “Good ones are too expensive for my clients so, as such, they agree to accept a poorer virtual event. There are plenty of apps that have web platforms, but streaming isn’t integrated yet… There’s a hole in the market for $6K to $10k solutions.” What’s interesting is that pricing to attend virtual events is also all over the place. ASAE—after starting with a fee to attend—and The Atlantic both made their major annual events free. I saw a big 25% off sale for one publisher’s annual event this week. (It started at around $495.)
Will there be pent-up demand to meet in person post-pandemic? Opinions vary. “Planners are less inclined to think that there will be a pent-up demand for all groups to meet face-to-face, while suppliers are more optimistic.” A new GES survey says that 88% of respondents are open to attending trade shows in person, with 65% demanding some form of mitigation to attend and 23% preferring no mitigation tactics. That sounds a bit overly optimistic. GES’s research… underscores how critical it is to understand the attendee base and their risk perceptions to plan event design and mitigation strategies to attendee needs,” said Wendy Gibson, GES Global CMO.

‘Are You Leaving Money on the Table?’ Hybrid Events Are Probably the Future.

I was watching an admittedly bad—but happy—TV movie the other night, and the ending focused on an in-person event where a contest winner would be announced for building the nicer house. A woman stepped to the podium: “I want to welcome everyone here tonight, and also all the wonderful people in our community watching at home who couldn’t make it.”
It makes sense, but of course, it’s anything but revolutionary. We’ve been hearing awards show hosts saying that for years—although lately there have been no hosts. But you haven’t really seen that introduction given at most pre-pandemic, business conferences. The thinking has usually been that by offering the conference virtually, you would encourage people not to come. Maybe let them buy some recorded sessions later.
Even when in-person events do return—and at some point they will; safety guidelines were being issued today—virtual will remain part of the mix.
“There are people in your community who will never come to an event but would benefit greatly from it,” Brian Cuthbert, group vice president, Diversified Communications U.S., told me this week. “Are you leaving money on the table by not giving that segment of audience an opportunity to become a customer and spend some money with you?”
In an article in Industry Dive’s Marketing Dive this week, “respondents were asked about the types of events they expect to see in the future with:
  • 62% predicting to see global virtual events with live video feeds from headlining speakers;
  • 59% think virtual events tailored to defined groups of experts and specialists will emerge;
  • 51% expect global virtual gatherings of national and regional experts to foster those communities; and
  • 47% think member-only virtual networking events designed to connect businesses with prospects will emerge.”
More events may actually turn “hybrid,” especially as Cuthbert explained, when learning is the biggest goal. “For conferences and training, where the hook is around learning and education, hybrid has more legs than other formats,” Cuthbert said, adding that “really good content” can be delivered in many ways. But when networking and delivering an experience are paramount, it will be tough to replicate in-person, he added.
“If it’s virtual only, what are you doing to make [participants] feel part of the community?” Cuthbert asked. “People want to learn from others also. [This crisis] can be very isolating. We’re not in the office, we’re not connecting face to face. And are people going to pay [virtually]? Is it just about sessions or is it about networking?” He mentioned the chat and discussion rooms that some platforms provide, but admitted that’s “never going to replace the in-person element.”
An article today on Event Manager Blog suggested that producers of future in-person events may have to come up with a new marketing strategy.
“Remember that time you used to check your social media feed and you spotted that event you really wanted to attend?” the author asked. “Remember the frustration you experienced because, for whatever reason, you could not attend? FOMO, or the ‘fear of missing out,’ was the origin of your frustration.
“Event marketers jumped at the opportunity to make you feel that discomfort. Happy faces of attendees having fun while you were stuck at home—or worse, at work… What nobody expected was the rise of virtual events. All of a sudden, we could attend dozens of events from the comfort of our living room. To top it off, these events were in most cases free to attend.
“A dream come true for attendees, or a nightmare for an industry in pain.”
Cuthbert also asked about pricing? For hybrid events, that’s mostly going to be trial and error. Should it cost less for people to attend virtually? But will that again be encouraging them to stay home—literally. Another advantage of the hybrid model, at least for the foreseeable future, is that it will be easier to pivot. In other words, committing to strictly in-person for, say, December or January, is still tricky. But add a virtual component, and then that could be easily extended. A foundation would be in place.
“That’s where we are,” said Cuthbert, who has not fully designed a hybrid event yet.
We’re all looking to see what components work well so we can piece together the best experience possible—in-person, virtually, hybrid, or, at the least, in a bad TV movie.