What do hybrid events actually look like in the future?

As we shift into a 'new new normal’, there is a lot of talk around 'hybrid events'. So, what do these events look like and how can we adapt? David Rowlands, editor at B2B Marketing, spoke to Louise Bird, head of events at Capita.

DR: ‘Hybrid’ is the word of the year when it comes to events, but there seems to be a lot of disagreement or confusion around what a hybrid event actually is, and I think part of that stems from the fact that different sized events have different requirements. So, with that in mind, what should a hybrid event look like when it comes to a major conference? Think, 10,000+ attendees.

LB: The challenge for large scale events (LSEs), which events of this size fall under, is that they need to become ‘must attend’ events for the industry. In other words, attendees go because they know they are going to see everyone they want to in one place, including suppliers, clients, prospects and even potential employers. There tends to be at least one attendee in each of those areas, and you can say ‘see you next year’ as you leave. These events are where a lot of business happens as you can squeeze so much into just a few days. 

These types of events will, therefore, be the most challenging to make hybrid. Ultimately, when you're online, you just don’t get the networking experience that you do at an in-person event. Many suppliers have included networking and meeting facilities in their online offering, but it remains a challenge. For instance, human nature means we check emails or get a drink in between sessions, and just don’t use the facilities provided. Networking online just isn’t the same. The exhibitions at these events are also a huge attraction and the leads you can generate are a big reason why companies attend, not to mention a key sponsorship generator for the organisers. Even with virtual stands, you don’t get the same ‘hot’ leads you do from meeting someone in-person on a stand.

DR: And, following on from that, what should a hybrid event look like when it comes to those smaller events of around 500 attendees or less?

LB: For these events, it is a bit simpler than LSE events. These aren’t the ‘must attend’ events for the industry. I’m not saying they aren’t excellent events; just that you get a large number of events at this scale in a year. The focus of these events tends to be content rather than networking, and this is really where hybrid can really come into its own. These events will give you different types of engagement and sponsorship depending on your objectives. If you want to get leads, you can attend and exhibit. If you are trying to raise awareness, you can speak (either in-person or online).

DR: Traditional events managers know how to run a physical event, and they’ve no doubt quadrupled their knowledge and understanding of virtual events this past year. But what is unique to hybrid events that they will need to understand before kicking things off? Are there perhaps some new skills they need to learn?

LB: There are certainly some new skills that anyone who has worked in events since March 2020 has had to learn, not least becoming much more familiar with those challenges which traditionally sit with a digital team, and not an events one, such as firewalls and lag. But the thing that is unique to hybrid events is that you must consider both the in-person and the virtual element as joined but separate. 

It is key that you offer value to both audiences, depending on how you price your event some audiences will expect more value, but you can’t leave either feeling second class.  For years, we have recorded events and made them available online after the live event, and when this was a free added extra this was fine, but now, we are expecting people to attend, engage and sometimes pay to be ‘outside the room’ and that must be carefully planned and considered before kick-off and recognise if an event doesn’t lend itself to being hybrid.

DR: What do you think a pricing model should look like when it comes to ticket sales? Does a physical ticket need to cost significantly more than a virtual ticket? Or might virtual tickets need to be completely free even?

LB: This depends on the organiser's pricing model, but I would be surprised if virtual tickets become something that are offered for free as there is real value in attending online. In fact, for some individuals and organisations, this is the only way they can attend, whether that's due to personal choice or budget. I expect in-person tickets to be priced higher than online tickets due to the expectation that in-person attendees will be able to take advantage of all the event offers and because there are higher costs associated with in-person attendees, such as food and the physical space a person takes up. In-person attendees will also have full access to the exhibition, networking and perhaps extra or different content, depending on how the organisers deliver the event. Online attendees will still, however, get value from all the content, access to any virtual stands and information, and I’m sure will be charged for that, but at a lower rate. 

DR: One issue that I can foresee when it comes to hybrid events is that, if a physical ticket costs more than a virtual one, those physical attendees will want to see greater value. That’s all well and good, but how can events professionals ensure that physical attendees are seeing greater value, without making the virtual audience feel like a bunch of gooseberries?!

LB: The organisers are likely to pitch the two experiences as different depending on why you are attending.  You may be time-poor, but want to hear the latest thinking and, therefore, a virtual content only pass will work for you. However, apart from the in-person experiences which can’t be mimicked online (i.e. catering, networking, etc), for everything else, every effort must be made to treat people equally. For instance, this could mean enabling virtual voting and Q&As through apps, or perhaps virtual roundtable offerings, as well as in-person. It may be that if you want to add extra in-person value (depending on your pricing model), some content is only available in-person. As long as you market clearly what you get and don’t get from each package and deliver on your promises, then everyone should be satisfied.

DR: And, following on from that, how can B2B marketers help in this area? How should the messaging differ when it comes to communicating with your physical audience, versus communicating with your physical audience?

LB: The messaging needs to be clear around what the different packages include and what the benefits are, using language that potential attendees understand. Being clear on what they will get from each type of attendance is important. For instance, one attendee might be starting on their awareness journey, while another might now be looking for solutions, and therefore want to see actual products. This means that there is a need for B2B marketers to know their customers to correctly target who will benefit from the different types of attendance. 

DR: Of course, tickets are just one way in which events make money. The other major revenue stream is from sponsorship. What is the pitch when selling sponsorship for a hybrid event, as opposed to a physical or virtual event, and how can marketers help in this area?

LB: Just as marketing targets its message for attendees, sales needs to target its message for potential sponsors. Match the type of sponsorship to the organisation and what they are trying to achieve.  Sales teams should try to pitch different sponsorships against the buyer journey, e.g. if a company is targeting clients far down the buyer journey. pitch an in-person stand sponsorship so they can have those face-to-face conversations, and demo the product. However, if it's about awareness, then virtual sponsorship may be more beneficial. As with marketing, sales teams will need to know their customers. Blanket sales emails won’t work. They will need to segment their targets and get to know them to understand what will work for them. As a buyer, it is always appreciated when sales take time to get to know you and how your company works and where you are in each of your campaigns, working as partners to help you achieve your own objectives, as well as their sales targets.

DR: Marketing departments now have greater customer insight than anyone else in the company. With that in mind, how can marketers find out who’s worth marketing a virtual ticket to, and who’s worth marketing a physical event to? Are there any tips you can give to help our audience segment their database accordingly?

LB: Both how and what is being consumed will help marketing departments understand who to market different tickets to. Virtual attendance will be of most benefit to those who are at the stage of raising their awareness and information gathering; those people who are content-focused. If individuals are opening content you send to them with this focus, then they are probably a good match for a virtual attendance. If their focus also includes solution finding and networking then they are more aligned to a physical event. This process, if marketing departments don’t have the information yet, will probably include some A/B testing. If they don’t have that sort of data available, then make it simple for people by using clear messaging of the benefits and price of each option. Some organisations will self-select based on budget alone.

DR: Just as virtual events have matured by 10 years in the space of one year, it’s not unreasonable to expect that hybrid events will do the same. This year coming might be a year of walking, not running, but what do you think the future of hybrid events will look like?

LB: I think events with large exhibitions will return to in-person quickly, and there is certainly an appetite to attend from the sales teams I have spoken to. However, conferences and internal events will be different. I think companies will use internal events to reflect how they are now working, i.e. in a hybrid way giving people the option to attend in person or online. Some content-led conferences will remain totally online as that has worked well over the past 18 months, while some will become hybrid, allowing those who want to access networking to do so. For the next 12 months, we may see platform providers focusing on bolt-ons to their offer, which allow seamless integrations between attendees no matter if they are in-person or online.  We may even see VR/AR included in events which gives both types of attendees the same experience.

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