Event marketing's future may be a hybrid model
The days of large universal trade shows and conferences are numbered, with corporate cuts in travel budgets forcing delegate counts downward, according to Joerg Rathenberg, vice president of marketing for Unisfair, who has observed that virtual business environments have prospered in proportion to the decline of the traditional trade show.
An increasingly globalised marketplace has made it harder to bring people together in a single geographic location, so it is perhaps no surprise that the past few years have seen virtual events grow in both number and attendance, particularly in the fields of marketing and training.
A recent survey among 550 marketing professionals in the US showed that 42% were planning to decrease marketing spend on physical events, while 60% planned to increase spending on virtual events and environments. Some 46% of participants expected that, within the following two years, half of all corporate events would include both a physical and a virtual component.
Initially, many event organisers worried that the new technology component might cannibalise the physical attendance of their events but, with the experience and hindsight of thousands of virtual events, most have found that virtual events have the ability to breathe new life into traditional conferences and events.
As a result, marketers are now combining the best of both worlds and finding new and creative ways to reach larger audiences across the globe with 'hybrid events'. But these new techniques require fresh thinking and different approaches. Simply replicating physical concepts in a virtual environment will certainly lead to disappointing results.
Here, then, are the three key ideas to keep in mind when planning a hybrid event:
- Starting Virtually Using a virtual event to promote the physical part of a conference is a great way to get started. Think of the virtual component as part of your event marketing campaign. But instead of having static banners, dull websites, or uninspired e-newsletters, your attendees can join a virtual event to get a preview of what the physical event will offer. As the organiser, you have the opportunity to set the stage with eye-catching locations, inspiring speakers, news, and promotions within the virtual environment, encouraging networking between attendees before they meet in person. Generating buzz virtually will carry over to your physical show.
This was part of Ariba's strategy when the company launched its annual user conference AribaLive!. Ariba, a corporate spend management company, created a two day virtual event for clients and prospects to jump-start its physical road show in six cities around the world. This virtual event generated enormous excitement and extensive press coverage even before Ariba began the physical tour. The virtual event enjoyed more than 2,900 registrants and 4,000 file downloads - generating high customer engagement right from the start.
- Streaming Live Extending reach can occur online and offline at the same time. The same-day hybrid event requires rigorous planning as you need to balance both virtual and physical elements. Those attending physically are exposed to a higher number of sensory experiences and expect content to be presented in a gripping and engaging format. Just letting the camera roll at a live conference session will surely result in a poor viewing experience. It is critical that moderators and speakers keep their virtual audience in mind. Shortening sessions and trying to summarize key points where possible will help to retain the attention of online participants.
A great example of this concept was Fortune Magazine's Most Powerful Women conference in 2010. Expertly moderated with speakers such as Hillary Clinton, Warren Buffet and an array of female executives, the event had 400 physical attendees in Washington DC and over 12,000 registrants on the virtual platform. How else would anyone ask a direct question to the secretary of state from the comfort of their own desk?
- The Virtual Extension A third hybrid option is running a virtual event after the physical show, as a way to extend the life of your content and providing an engagement platform for your audience that will significantly increase your ROI. The virtual component allows you to capture not only additional new leads, but also allows your entire audience to continue the conversation. Many companies are leveraging this concept to maximize brand exposure and stickiness of their events. The impact on your brand and the event experience overall can be truly significant. Updating content regularly can extend the life of a show throughout the year, until it is time for the next edition.
In the case of Planview, a portfolio management company based in Austin, Texas, switching to virtual did not mean depriving its attendees of the physical show perks. When Planview discovered from a customer survey that its annual user conference was in jeopardy due to restrictive travel budgets, the company launched Horizons, a two day virtual conference. And Planview knew its audience well. As most of its customers had never participated in a virtual event, Planview decided to send out welcome packages that included t-shirts, coffee mugs, and other conference materials. By bringing some physical elements to a virtual show, Planview reinforced customer engagement and took the virtual experience to the next level. Event metrics proved the concept to be a resounding success, with 3,270 visits to 18 booths and a 250% increase in attendance over their physical-only conference one year before.
Consequently, Unisfair offers the following best practice guidelines for creating and hosting successful hybrid events:
- Great content, well timed To accommodate both a physical and a virtual audience, you need to focus on the content of your sessions, as well as the presentation and its length. Studies show that if you do a good job, you can keep the attention of your online audience for about 15 minutes. Take advantage of this knowledge, and plan your agenda accordingly, making time for networking intermissions.
- Train Speakers and Moderators Make sure that your speakers and moderators cater to both audiences, online and in person. Use slides that add to your message and test how they appear in your virtual environment. A picture says more than a thousand text slides that are unreadable. Repeat questions so that they can be picked up by the sound system. Use twitter rolls to include feedback and questions from the community to join the virtual with the physical world.
- Leverage Social Media Start creating buzz on social media, using a dedicated hashtag, asking questions, and soliciting input well ahead of your event. One way to do this is to create a survey that allows your audience to influence the agenda of your event. For example, at a recent event we held a "Keynote Vote" on the topic of the event keynote. This helps you motivate registrants to participate more actively. They'll be eager to join on the live day of "their" event.
- Keep the conversation going Increasingly companies are moving from episodic virtual events to continuous virtual engagement. This is particularly true for hybrid events, where you can leverage content produced during the physical event, to engage a much wider audience over a long period of time. The key is to stagger the release of this content over time, so that you keep your registrants coming back and continuing the conversation. So don't stop promoting your event, once the live day is over. Send registrants who did not show up, a glimpse of what went on, by summarizing key findings, or linking directly to key content.
One of the great advantages of hybrid events is that the virtual environment provides unparalleled marketing intelligence to the organiser. Participants often find great value in attending both versions, which is why a joint registration process can be a great way to start.
However, the main benefit is that Hybrid events allow you to draw in dramatically larger audiences at a lower cost per attendee. The virtual environment provides increasingly more realistic experiences and interactivity for your participants. Sophisticated audio and video enables attendees to interact, share and collaborate as the boundary between the physical and the virtual world fades.
Adding a virtual component to an event allows your attendees to learn about which of their peers and colleagues are attending, view their profiles and seek out individuals to network with. It serves as a great destination for your entire audience to connect after the live day, to access all content and to extend the life of your event, possibly until the next edition. And removing the barriers that inhibit communication, collaboration and interactivity can be the key to energizing communities and making connections stronger and more profitable in the real world.