Hybrid Event Strategy: the blend of in-person and digital engagement
If your organization gathers people together, there’s a good chance you’ve heard the word “hybrid” in reference to those events more than once.
Probably ad nauseum.
Over the course of the past year, most organizations have encountered the unique stress that comes with finding new ways to engage people. Trying new things — the only avenues that seem to be open to us — creates risk. It’s hard to create something for which there are no solid templates when the stakes are high.
It isn’t that we didn’t have digital engagement before the pandemic; we did — but it was often a secondary experience to in-person engagement. Our experience during quarantines and lock-downs has changed the game. Digital connection is no longer secondary.
But what does “hybrid” even mean? And more importantly, how do you pull off a “hybrid” event?
Why do we need hybrid events?
In its best form, a “hybrid” event is an event that includes both virtual and in-person audiences, in which each audience can engage with the other.
Why do we need them?
Well, primarily, we need them because audience expectations have changed.
Across multiple industries (e.g., arts, sports, education, workplace, entertainment, worship) there is a new expectation that there will always be both in-person and digital options for events.
While that may seem like an incredible hassle, the reality is that hybrid engagement can be a force multiplier.
If engagement is about the touchpoints you create with people, hybrid events exponentially expand your field. You can build something that creates bigger momentum, energy, and success than you ever could have when limited to either an in-person or digital-only track.
There are different models for creating hybrid engagement — but first, let’s look at a common perspective mistake, so you can deftly avoid it.
There is a missed opportunity in not planning for hybrid events.
I was meeting with a client who had hosted 100% of their events online during a lock-down. After those restrictions lifted, they were surprised and frustrated that 40% of their audience still wanted to attend their events online, as opposed to in-person.
Their concern wasn’t wrong: relationship-building between events was a big deal to this client. Their hope had been that things would “go back to normal.”
But what if getting back to “normal” wasn’t the best place to focus their efforts? What if there are benefits to what developed in their organization during quarantine?
People were still engaging — they were just doing it digitally.
Organizations will miss out when they discount what happens between people online.
Attendance shouldn’t be confused with engagement.
This client was asking: “Why would we want them to watch online? We want them to come back in-person.” But what they could have been asking was: “How can we engage both digital and in-person audiences?” — and more importantly, “How can we help them engage with each other?”
The shift that organizations need to make in their planning now is to consider this truth: digital connection is as important as in-person connection.
There’s a difference between strategizing for attention and strategizing for engagement.
It’s quite possible to have attention from an audience without engagement. Television is a great example of this. An audience can watch a show, but they can’t respond to it directly. Sure, they can share their thoughts about the experience on social media, but nothing they do or say will impact what is being broadcast in real time.
Contrast that to an improv show. In improv, the audience is highly engaged. They connect with performers and co-create the show with their suggestions.
Consider, too, a networking event — in which people can connect in small groups, or one-on-one. That’s engagement, too.
If you don’t want your target audiences to just be consumers — if you truly want them to engage — then you need to create ways for them to contribute by meaningful action.
This requires a different level of planning than many event planners have been accustomed to. After all, planning to transfer content from a stage to an audience is straightforward, regardless of virtual or in-person — but creating ways for the audience to meaningfully respond and connect is different.
We are used to planning for attraction by focusing on the content — but to plan for engagement, you’ll need to focus on all the ways people can contribute to the event.
Here’s where that gets uncomfortable: to get real contribution from participants, you’ll have to give some of the control to them. That’s a whole different model than just live-streaming an event.
There’s a sliding scale for hybrid audience engagement.
Your strategy for engagement hinges on how much power you’re willing to give your audience to co-create the event. The very thought of conceding any power at all may sound scary, but it isn’t like handing teenagers your car keys so they can learn how to drive on the highway in the middle of rush hour.
There is a sliding scale, and you’re allowed to choose your level and frame up the action:
Level 1: Broadcast
In a broadcast, communication goes one way: from you out to an audience. The audience has no power to respond directly, or to connect with other members of the audience. They simply receive the content. (Examples of this are television programs and streaming services.)
Level 2: Personalization
For both in-person and digital contexts, you can give the audience the power to customize elements of their own experience. Examples of this include the 2021 Virtual New Year’s Eve (which allowed participants to create an avatar and explore a virtual Times Square) and NASCAR (which uses Scanner to allow fans to select the audio feed from any car). This type of hybrid engagement has some form of both in-person and digital elements, which provide options to the audience that allow them to tailor their own experiences.
Level 3: Curated Engagement
Talk radio is a great example of curated engagement. The audience has the power to engage with the source, but that power is curated and controlled by the source. Recent digital world examples of curated engagement include Tony Robbins’ “Unleash the Power Within” virtual event and The Ellen Show; both blended live productions with live digital audiences in a way that facilitated audience engagement with the hosts on a curated basis.
Level 4: Real-Time Participation
In this context, audiences have the power to respond in real-time, and be seen and heard by the source. The audience’s actions impact what happens in the event, whether the event is in-person or digital. The NBA Virtual Fan Experience is a good example of this. Virtual fans can be seen and heard by players and other fans in their section. Game hosts interact with virtual fans the same way they would with in-person fans. They start chants during key moments in the game, and the virtual seats are visible on the NBA’s broadcast. Another example is Harvard Business School’s hybrid classrooms, where both in-person and remote students participate in real time with the same access to engagement.
Level 5: Active Communities
The ultimate power of hybrid engagement is in the connection of audiences with the source and with each other. When in-person and digital audiences can create community, their level of engagement is at its peak. This goes beyond the event and is generative in its effect. Examples of this include Mindvalley’s Quests. which offer a mix of content delivery, live group coaching calls, and students who gather together on the Mindvalley platform to participate in groups that connect and share with each other. Another example is Facebook communities, which blend digital connection with in-person connection.
Start your plan by determining your level of hybrid engagement.
Want to streamline your hybrid event planning process? Start with the audience.
1. Who is our audience?
2. What are we trying to do for this audience? What is our mission?
3. What level of engagement would best meet that mission?
4. What needs to happen in order to achieve that level of engagement? What activities would be helpful?
5. What tools do we need to facilitate both in-person and digital connection?
It can help to see what others are doing (this article shares some perspective on who is doing what with hybrid events right now), but you can’t start there. You need to determine what your overall mission is first. Mimicking a model without having clarity on what you are trying to achieve is a recipe for failure.
Start with your mission, then determine the level of engagement that will best meet it.
Once you’ve decided on the type of engagement, then you can focus on what needs to happen in order to achieve it; what activity should you plan for?
With those decisions in place, finding the tools you’ll need to facilitate your event is relatively simple.
Does hybrid engagement feel more within reach?
Now that you have a framework for understanding the various levels of hybrid engagement, and a list of questions to help you start planning, how do you feel about getting started? Can you have this conversation with your team?
Just launching the conversation about hybrid engagement demonstrates leadership, and will put you ahead of your competitors, as you figure out how best to host hybrid events in your context. if you need a professional consultation to help you move forward on this, don’t hesitate to reach out at Idibri.com.