Though the growth of in-person events lately may be questionable, there's no denying the fact that hybrid events, which combine virtual event scenarios with in-person shows, are growing rapidly. But because the practice of combining virtual and live events is relatively new, there's been scant research into its ability to deliver ROI.
Thanks to a first-of-its-kind report from industry groups Virtual Edge Institute and ROI of Engagement, event marketers are starting to see proof that hybrid events can indeed be effective.
The study, “Measuring and Maximizing the Impact of a Hybrid Event,” polled 1,700 in-person and virtual attendees at the Virtual Edge Institute's hybrid Virtual Edge Summit last February. The event itself focused on providing attendees with training and solutions for planning virtual events; the goal of the study was to compare the experiences of both types of event attendees. What the survey's creators discovered was that both had similar experiences.
The report is the first of a two-part look into hybrid events. In January, the groups will measure, among other things, the ROI of hybrid events.
“Our goal is to help people understand how to add digital elements to events and meetings” said Michael Doyle, executive director of the Virtual Edge Institute. “When you look at virtual event platforms, there are quite a bit of built-in measurement techniques and metrics. But the question that started to arise as people got more comfortable having virtual elements was: What's the difference between the virtual and physical attendee? How can we make it more effective?”
The survey found that 83% of respondents said they plan to suggest virtual solutions to their companies and clients, 69% expect to introduce those solutions to existing programs and 56% plan to create new virtual programs. Additionally, 42% of the virtual attendees surveyed said they missed the opportunity to connect to other attendees on a face-to-face basis. Attendees also agreed that integrating the virtual experience in a consistent way across all events is essential to success.
One of the most illuminating results of the study to Doyle was that marketers need to focus more attention on helping their virtual attendees network with live-event attendees. “The challenge in hybrid events is to make the virtual attendee feel much more a part of the event,” Doyle said. “They need to feel: "Is this engaging for me and designed for me and my needs?' ”
The study's creators suggested developing virtual “debrief rooms” where attendees can go after sessions to extend Q&A opportunities and chat with session leaders to help link up virtual and in-person attendees. Additionally, speakers should be prepared for interacting with the virtual aspect of the event by rehearsing their use of virtual technology.
“One of the things we're going to be doing is having somebody that's constantly talking to the virtual audience when there's not a session going on,” Doyle said. “When people are doing a hybrid event, there's a period when there's nothing going on live. We are starting to look at more programming for the virtual audience, but it's not a common practice yet. Focus on keeping them engaged with unique content.”
Staci Clark, global marketing manager at Cisco Systems, which has successfully executed hybrid events, said that creating unique content for virtual attendees is essential. “You need to create experiences that are unique to both the virtual attendee as well as the on-site attendee. Executives come off the stage and go right into a chat where the virtual audience gets an opportunity to ask them questions,” she said.
Hybrid events are becoming viable, Clark said. “There was concern our first year that we were cannibalizing our on-site attendance. We have found that that's not the case. It's key to position [hybrid events] as unique experiences. People who can come on-site will; they want to be there in person. Virtual offers us the opportunity to address audiences who can't come on-site. It also allows us to exponentially increase our reach to a group of people who might not be ready to make the commitment but can still experience the event. We have not found, in any way, that it's compromised our ability to drive on-site attendance.”