WTF is a hybrid event anyway? The new challenges & opportunities for events

The Drum 10 Jun 2021 10:00

Virtual events proved their worth during lockdown. Now with more and more live events looming on the horizon, marketers are spending a lot of time talking about a hybrid approach. But what exactly is a hybrid event? And what will it take for marketers to succeed as expectations grow for both live and virtual interactions? Here’s what you need to know.

Hybrid events are all the rage. But with no clear definition, high expectations and big budgets at stake, it’s an unprecedented moment for marketers and the events business as a whole.

The general consensus appears to be that live events will return with a larger focus on virtual audiences as well. The formulas for creating such activations are being hatched up as we speak. “There is no hybrid event in a box, no magical thing,” says Natalia Rybicka, senior director of event marketing at Attentive Mobile. “Hybrid, before the pandemic, was just livestreaming your event. Now people are talking about it in this really high-level way, but nobody has defined what that means.”

Of course, On24 is a platform that enables digital events and platforms, so it’s not surprising it would publish such bullish numbers. Yet the stats do offer an indication as to how pervasive virtual events have become. “People will slowly dip their toe into live events on a smaller scale, but virtual events will continue to be popular because we’ve discovered a way to reach a really large audience,” says Rybicka. “With a live event, you just can’t do that.”

Nikki Garvey, head of ads and YouTube events and experiences at Google, likens what’s happening in the event space to what happened to traditional television. “Just as streaming services started to make content available anywhere, anytime, the digitization of events has allowed for an attendee to consume parts of an event experience in their own time. There is so much choice and agency in an attendee’s experience. That will remain true as we return to hybrid and in-person events. People want to be able to have a more active role in their agendas, so our approach to content in real life will need to adapt.”

There is a brand new brief for event planners. It involves planning for two audiences: those attending live in-person and those sitting behind a screen. Making things even more complicated is that the content and experiences have to be equally compelling to both.

The key is to adopt the interactive virtual learnings from the past 16 months. American Express, for example, was famous for its live events directed at small business owners. That didn’t change when the world went virtual. Momentum created an immersive, 3D platform for them called American Express Campus. The end result: attendance tripled.

But aside from ease, innovation has also driven attendance forward. The American Express program leveraged avatars that can appear in one-on-one breakouts and take part in other personalized, interactive activities. “That’s the evolution,” says Klau. “It’s not just a static Zoom, log on for to two hours and listen. It has to be a two-way conversation. That is biggest shift between what was before Covid and now.”

Moving forward, a hybrid event has to include participation, says Garvey. “For the digital and physical event space to come together you have to have participation from the online audience, and that’s where we’re focusing most of our thinking moving forward.”

Marketers and event planners exhibited Olympian efforts to entertain customers, prospects and employees. While they succeeded on many levels, they just could not replace the in-person, human-to-human experience.

While most can agree with that sentiment, how fast audiences return and at what scale remains to be seen. Mostly it will depend on the true purpose of the event, says Attentive Mobile’s Rybicka. “Events dedicated to networking should really be considered first for in-person, and education can stay virtual to get the most reach.” She anticipates brands starting “local and small”.

Then there’s the safety aspect of it all: social distancing, temperature checks, on-premise medical staff, highly-politicized mask mandates. All of these new production considerations come into play, says Ryan. “It’s not going to be how many people can we cram in.”

Ryan agrees: “The experience has to be special, curated and fun. There needs to be high-value customers, or really exclusive content, because if it’s something that someone can just get through a virtual event, then what’s going to make them want to go in person?”

One of the biggest fears for some is having to balance both the live and the virtual. The demanding aspects of putting on a live event – all of the moving pieces, malfunctioning equipment, speakers missing in action – can make the audience behind the screen seem less important.

Momentum’s Klau says the hybrid event is about “reshaping”. There will be those large in-person moments, but the more immersive, virtual experiences can still offer something new and fresh. However, if they don’t, people will tune out. “We’re seeing a real fatigue with Zoom. People are eager to get back to live and brands need to be a part of it.”

And then there is the fact that no one actually has to do a hybrid event. Sometimes it’s fine to keep the physical and virtual worlds separate. “We’re being careful to assess what events need to be hybrid as we move forward,” says Garvey. “If ‘pivot’ was the event theme of 2020, ‘hybrid’ has become the new 2021 buzzword – but that’s not necessarily the answer for every event.”

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RybickaNatalia RybickaAttentive MobileMarla KaplowitzNikki Garvey
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