When it comes to creating hybrid events are organisers asking the right questions?

Let’s start with the importance of ‘why’. I contend that it is more important to establish and clarify your objectives for a hybrid or virtual event, than for one that is purely face to face.

“Start with Why”, is the title of a book by Simon Sinek in which he argues that the greatest success comes to those who know and can communicate why they are doing something, rather than what they do.  As a result they are able to inspire people to action. He cites examples as broad ranging as the Wright Brothers, Martin Luther King and Apple. If you haven’t read the book, I urge you to get hold of a copy. Alternatively you could save yourself a few hours and simply watch his TED-X film on the subject (below).

Sinek’s mantra is “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.” I believe he has it dead right and that the very same argument applies to the business of creating events – physical, virtual and hybrid – just as much as it does to inventors, activists and corporations.  And the power of being driven by a genuine purpose, or belief, will outgun any amount of resources.

Think of your event in this way.  If you can start with a clear understanding of ‘why’ you are creating it, what it’s true purpose is and you can express that effectively you will have a much better chance of getting your target audience to show up than if you don’t and can’t.

When it comes to virtual or hybrid events, where by definition you are trying to build a remote audience, it is even more crucial to know, understand, integrate and communicate ‘why’ you are organising your particular event. The effect is amplified for two main reasons:

First, you are likely to have to inspire people to attend from a distance without the advantage of physical human interaction to aid persuasion and gain commitment.

Second, even if you get them to sign up, as a remote participant, it is extremely easy and painless for people to just not show up. There isn’t the embarrassment factor of failing to attend a physical event for one thing; not the same feeling of letting people down. The problem is compounded because with remote participation there is much more likelihood of getting distracted by email, phone calls, visitors or the thousand and one other demands on our time. Furthermore, with no prepaid travel commitments and very often little or no cost to register, there is little to lose. In this context, the remote audience simply must be inspired by the event if they are to turn up at all.

It is for all these reasons that the very first questions we ask our new or prospective clients are, “why are you creating this event?” and “how will it help you to achieve your objectives?”

Once these fundamental questions are answered (and only then) is it sensible to move forward to the more detailed planning phase of hybrid event production.  At this stage there are a multitude of questions that need to be considered, too many and varied to address within the confines of this article, so I’m going to focus on the next key question – who will attend?

The question is phrased very deliberately as a successful hybrid event should involve much more than passive watching and listening on the part of remote participants. To be truly successful the remote audience must engage, interact, participate. This can only be achieved when there is clarity in the following key areas:

  • Knowing who your key target audience(s) is/are
  • Establishing how and where they are most likely to access the content
  • Understanding what their expectations are of what they will get out of their participation

Only then can the hybrid event organiser make correct decisions in crafting the content.

Having explored why and who, a third essential question that has to be answered is whether the online content should be available live or on demand? Very often the correct answer turns out to be a combination of the two.

This is perhaps one of the most contentious questions in planning a hybrid event and one where there can be two opposing views. Some organisers seem set on going live just because they can; because it’s the latest bright and shiny thing to do with a conference. At the other extreme are the supporters of the “cannibalisation theory”; a view that streaming a conference or event will reduce physical attendance. As with all the fundamental questions the hybrid event organiser needs to ask, there is no one size fits all answer. There is a multitude of strategic, practical, commercial and cultural considerations to take into account in determining whether a particular event should be available live or not.

We always advise our clients that there needs to be valid and compelling reasons to ‘go live’.  Live streaming should not be undertaken lightly and can create additional stress for the organiser, but on the other hand it is becoming increasingly accessible, reliable and affordable and not something to view with trepidation. And when it comes to that cannibalisation theory, we have seen anecdotal evidence that suggests the reverse may often be the case; that having participated remotely people get an indication of what they are missing and resolve to physically attend next time.

If those compelling reasons exist and the decision is taken to go live, then we always recommend there is the opportunity for remote participants to become actively involved with the event. At the simplest level this might take the form of the facility to make a comment or ask questions, respond to polls or interact via social media. Well used, the addition of these feedback loops can transform passive viewing into a genuinely interactive and engaging experience. More importantly, it opens up the possibility for the organisation to exploit their conference content assets in a way that just hasn’t been possible until now.

Coming back to where I started, having the correct answers to these and the multitude of other questions organisers need to ask in order to create successful hybrid events is dependent on knowing the answer to that very first question; the need to start with ‘why?’

[This article was originally published in Conference News]