‘Keeping the Benefits of Virtual’; Fail Fast Still Applies as We Move to Hybrid Events

There’s an old saw in baseball that incredible success for a batter still means failing seven out of 10 times. Now, of course, we can’t do that in business, but it does say something about becoming accustomed to failure and learning from it for the next time. Getting hybrid events right will require experimentation from some of the leading media companies.

So the question becomes, amidst all that data we’re getting, is there still a place for failure and intuition? Absolutely. I often come back to this quote from Rajeev Kapur, CEO of 1105 Media, from a couple years ago.

“I tell everybody that works for me that I’d rather have them try and fail than not try,” Kapur said. “And that I want them to make a decision. We can fix a bad decision; we can’t fix a no-decision. No one will ever get fired for trying something new or for failing at something they tried to do. I reward people who try, people who think outside the box. I am doing everything I can to empower my team all the way down the chain to say, ‘Look, this is what we need to do for the customer.'”

One of those people, Troy Schneider (pictured), is 1105 Media’s editor-in-chief of both FCW and GCN (originally known as Federal Computer Week and Government Computer News, respectively), two of the oldest and most influential publications in public-sector IT.

A former managing director for electronic publishing at Atlantic Media, Schneider will speak THIS THURSDAY on an AM&P Network webinar and discussion titled, Mining Success from Adversity: 1105 Media Shares Its 2022 Game Plan for Hybrid Engagement. (Register here.) 1105 Media was one of the first to pivot to virtual events back in March 2020, and I suspect that they will be similarly ahead of the game in planning hybrid events.

“We’re going to talk about how we made the pivot from live events to virtual almost on a dime when COVID hit,” Schneider tells Performedia president Peter Hackes in a video promo for their Thursday talk. “What we’ve learned over the last year-plus in doing that and how we’re taking those lessons and moving forward as things open up, and we start bringing live events back in the mix. But certainly keeping the benefits of virtual and hybrid events going forward.”

Given the culture that Kapur has created at 1105 Media, it will be most helpful to hear how they are approaching hybrid events. Kate Lucey, a former digital editor for Cosmopolitan UK, agrees with Kapur, that there are advantages to both success and failure. “If something [messes] up, you can look at your stats and figure out what went wrong,” she said. “Try new ideas—if they work, how can you expand them? If they fail, why did they fail and what have you learnt about your audience that you can apply to future work? It’s constant learning, constant adapting—and a constant headache… but it’s FUN.”

On a Sterling Woods Group CEO Campfire Chat a few weeks ago, Sam Yagan, vice chairman of and co-founder of OkCupid, Tinder and SparkNotes, was asked by Rob Ristagno, “What was one of the first things you did when you became CEO?”

“When I took over Match, I realized that they use data, but the expectation—which was always data-driven—was that tests will all succeed,” Yagan said. “It wasn’t built in a culture of failure. For me, that failure was a requirement of learning, a corollary of ambition. ‘What is this? That’s the failed SpaceX launch.’ Is [something great] realistic without failing along the way?

“I compare never failing with not having ambition,” Yagan continued. “[So the question became,] how do we let ourselves test out our intuition? The intuition has to inform what data you get.”

He said that one of the keys to OKCupid’s success was the level of trust that they built with their audience. That reminded me of something Tim Hartman, CEO of GovExec, once told us. “Create a culture to build trust and collaboration, and breaking down silos. Think ambitious experiments and trust each other. If you look around and don’t see that, you have a problem.”

Learning about 1105 Media’s culture from Schneider should be eye-opening. And while publishers and media companies are looking forward to getting back to in-person events as soon as possible, it also will be good to hear from Hackes on keys to the virtual segments of events. With travel restrictions still in place for so many countries—including Canadians coming to the U.S.—it will be important to keep the international audience that we’ve all worked hard to get.

Again, register here for Thursday’s exciting event, which will leave plenty of time for discussion and Q&A.


Energize Both Audiences, Connect Them and Vary Content Forms to Win at Hybrids

Creating successful hybrid events will be easier said than done. How do you deliver equally valuable experiences when one audience is in person and the other sits at home? Here are lessons from one group that successfully did it, two event experts and a content marketer who advises learning virtually and discussing in person, and “content atomization.”

For their hybrid CEO Summit in Florida in May, Destinations International decided to hold no concurrent sessions, instead opting for just main-stage sessions—where people could watch in-person (177 attended) or livestream (100).

But they made sure to engage both audiences during breaks. “We had about eight to 10 of our partners do 10-minute little fireside chat recordings, so they would have something to do while it was break time for the live audience,” said Rori Ferensic, senior director of education at Destinations International, in an article on Associations Now.

“Most every one of our speakers remembered to engage the virtual audience, making sure they felt like they were recognized and remembered. Throughout the entire virtual piece of the event, we were getting comments in the chat box about how engaged they felt. So, we felt really good about that.”

And while socially distanced tables at the live event were given a topic to discuss, virtual attendees were grouped in rooms to discuss the same topic. About 25 minutes later, both groups shared what they discussed with each other. “That is how we connected both audiences,” Ferensic said.

As in-person events take center stage again, hybrid will become a goal as companies don;’t want to lose their new virtual audiences. In a session we held last week as part of our Reset, Reinvent, Revenue event, Nicole Quain, digital marketing manager for MCI USA, said that while the new normal sounds “daunting,” we’ve been doing [virtual events] for a while. Now it’s a matter of bridging the two together.”

Here are a few hybrid event tips from that session and elsewhere:

Decide on your goals. There will be many “hybrid opportunities,” said Jenny Teeson, managing director of the International Live Events Association. “Ask yourself do you want to drive people [to attend] in person or online? Are you offering the same experience? Are you giving them opportunities for how they want to engage?” For Destinations International, it was their international audience that they encouraged to sign up virtually. Ferensic warned about the cost, however. “[Audio visual] is normally expensive enough with any conference. Adding a livestream really added to that part of the expense.”

“Try things and then adjust; see what really works,” said Teeson. “Dive deeper. Maybe bring back a popular speaker [from your event] for a [specific] membership group or to do a Q&A. There’s no magic solution [besides] trying different things and seeing what sticks.”

Learn virtually, dive deeper and then discuss in person. “Getting people to return to an in-person venue will take time, but you can use your hybrid events to start to encourage them,” wrote Melissa Bouma, president of the content marketing company Manifest. “One type of nudge: What if you built your event around a flipped model, where the learning was done online, but the post-learning discussion happened in person?” There could even be a few-month lead-in of focused virtual events building to the in-person event where there’s a deeper dive and, of course, more discussion.

Offer bite-sized content. “Repurpose, don’t just regurgitate,” said Quain. “From an hour-long webinar, pick a 30-second or one-minute clip. Use it so someone won’t just bypass the event. Try to be fresh with it. Slice up content [so it’s] optimized for the [social media] channel [you use]. How does your audience engage with certain channels?” This has become known as content atomization. “Atomization is traditionally defined as converting a substance into fine particles or droplets,” writes Manifest. “By applying this science to content, we break content into smaller fragments to build multiple versions and content types.

“Is there a way your audience can be more integrated?” Quain asked. “Use live functionality. Consider how you will motivate attendees?” Swag giveaways can be popular, she said, in-person, of course, but also virtually with mailed packages. A virtual audience would feel good to have the same swag—be it a mug, shirt or something creative or specifically for a session—in front of them as the in-person attendees. “The more you can spotlight your audience and make them feel appreciated, the better.”

“The key is knowing your audience—their likes, dislikes, patterns of behavior,” Quain said. She pointed to the reasons that audio-based Clubhouse is now popular. “You can stop in and sit in on conversations or have them,” she said. “It’s a whole new thing to tackle.”


‘Crafted After Deep Listening,’ New Event Models Mix Safety With Audience Needs

Necessity is indeed the mother of invention, quite appropriate for the times we’re in and the day after Mother’s Day. So with the mixed success of virtual events, we’re starting to see different models emerge in 2021, from micro-conferences to rock band-like, city-to-city tours to fully hybrid events—though again the hybrid model has many variations.

“For me, the planning process always starts with what the objectives are for an event,” Annette Gregg, SVP of experience for Meeting Professionals International, told Informa’s MeetingsNet. “Some meetings are for straight education, and we know that can be delivered just fine online, as colleges are showing us right now… But when your objectives are something like brand activation, where you want the human senses involved, then in-person is what you have to do.”

But are we ready for that? Everyone is sending out surveys trying to gauge audience temperature, which makes sense. There are still major virtual events scheduled for the latter part of the year like Reuters Next Dec. 1-3 and PR Week’s PRDecoded Oct. 12-14 (Haymarket Media). And when there is an in-person event scheduled such as Luxury Travel Advisor’s Ultra Summit July 25-27 in San Antonio (Questex), there’s a long intro page on the safety precautions they’re taking. And under “Information,” there’s “Agenda,” “Venue” and “Be Safe.”

Here are some event ideas I’ve seen recently:


The Technology Association of Grantmakers (TAG) has announced a series of micro-conference meet-ups to replace its annual conference originally planned for Nashville in November 2021. “Crafted after deep listening by TAG’s member-led Engagement Committee,” the late-summer local meet-up series is designed to provide deep learning and meaningful connection—“with health and safety in mind”—featuring “hyper-local micro-conferences held in communities across the continental U.S.” No more than 30 people will meet at each hosted location.

For those meet-ups, they asked in an online survey: “In terms of potential places for #TAGreconnect meet-ups, the following cities exist in regions with a concentration of TAG members and/or a fresh location for TAG.” They list 11 of the nation’s biggest cities, from which 5 to 6 will be chosen. And then a line that we’re often seeing: “We need YOUR input to get this show on the road.”

An event tour and hybrid event.

Like a touring rock-and-roll show, Solar Power Events premiered an event series in February called the Smart Energy Market Tour (pictured above). The outside tour spanned one week in Florida and visited four cities, Miami, Tampa, Orlando and Jacksonville. Over the week, nearly 20 exhibitors followed the event and saw over 400 attendees in total. In late April, the tour made three stops in the Carolinas.

“We know that virtual events can’t replace in-person interactions. COVID-19 has forced us to reconsider our event model, to find new ways to host in-person events that facilitate business,” said Stephen Miner, president & CEO, Solar Energy Trade Shows. “We heard from a number of exhibitors who wanted a safe way to meet with potential buyers. They were thrilled when we proposed this format to them and they had a great week in Florida. We’re looking forward to expanding the Market Tours to other states.”

Next up for them is a hybrid event. Knowing that hybrid does not mean just broadcasting your in-person sessions, Solar & Storage Northeast will feature virtual education on June 7-8 and an in-person expo taking place inside and outside of the Westin Boston Waterfront, June 9-10.

Hybrid events.

The Professional Convention Management Association has scheduled EduCon as a hybrid event in Phoenix for July 7-9. Their tagline is “We are better together.” Some content will be livestreamed from the conference while some will be prerecorded presentations followed by live Q&A.

“If you are ready to meet again in person, please join us in Phoenix at the JW Marriott Desert Ridge,” they write. “If you want to explore what a hybrid event looks like from the digital side, we welcome you to participate in that journey.”


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.