As with the evolution of all new technologies it takes a little while for the terminology to settle down and become general use. For the early adopters this can be an incredibly frustrating experience. Why? Because we’ve already been part of the (extensive and believe me exhaustive) debate, discussion and intellectual tussle and just as we sign off on that particular topic, along come the newbies and start it all again.
So it is in the land of virtual/online/hybrid events. As conference professionals and other interested organisations begin to understand that the technology isn’t going to go away; that rather than being frightening in its complexity the right solution can simplify marketing and communications; and that there are other people just like them creating very successful conferences and events; so does the supplier network. The latter are not slow at getting on a successful bandwagon, and nor should they be, but never does caveat emptor apply more than in an emerging market. Not least because you won’t get many chances to get this right with your audiences, and if you are billing something as a hybrid which falls in any way short of other experiences they may have had, your credibility will be questioned.
With hybrid events rapidly becoming flavour of the month, it is incredibly important that conference organisers are very clear about what constitutes a hybrid and what does not. So here’s a quick synopsis:
- A recording of the event posted online two or three days afterwards; sorry but this is just an online post-event recording.
- A live event with a Twitter feed running on a screen at an event; no – this is just an injection of social commentary into your live event
- A selection of individual blogs, chatrooms and social media forums; aren’t these already essential parts of your integrated communications strategy?
- A series of event photos; honestly…?
And if you are a purist you would also say:
- A simultaneous stand-alone webcast; because this is a stand-alone webcast
Why are none of the above really hybrid events? Because they fundamentally miss the point. A hybrid is something where two parts meld seamlessly together to form a unified whole. A post-event recording doesn’t allow first-time viewers to participate in the debate; a twitter feed is a one-way stream of consciousness; and a standalone webcast does not allow the live and online audiences to interact with one another.
What a hybrid event IS:
- An event where a technology solution is used to permit both a live and an online audience to view the same content at the same time. PLUS,
- Where the online and live audiences can interact simultaneously with the speakers and other commentators via spoken questions and typed chat. AND,
- Where the online and live audiences can interact with each other within the timeframe of the live event.
With the right technology solution, or blend of solutions the latter point could also be extended so that the conversation with the audience starts in advance of the live date(s), is developed with the input of relevant and well-informed experts and then continues post event. What is imperative is that you, the conference or event organiser, create an environment, beit online, live or a hybrid of the two, where there is no barrier to integrated conversation and networking.
Hybrid events are delivering great results for organisations such as The Economist so they are there to be embraced. Just make sure that when you step into the water you are taking the right equipment with you.
Your organisation runs an annual conference and exhibition. The attendance figures are steady and you are attracting on average between five and ten per cent of your calculated total universe. Exhibitor and sponsor numbers are holding up and revenue is on target.
So far so good
Two years ago you introduced a specialist pavilion for one of the sectors of the industry you serve. It’s been a huge success and now attracts 15% of your total audience and generates 20% of your sales. But there is a problem. The companies and visitors involved want their own event. They want to be the focus rather than a sideshow and they are getting very vocal about it.
What are you going to do?
- Stick to your guns, but pacify them by giving them a bit more space and a couple more sessions in the conference programme.
- Create a ‘mini’ co-located event.
- Grasp the opportunity and develop a second event.
- Nothing. Very happy with the status quo thank you very much.
Why would anyone answer yes to the last question?
One simple reason – they can’t get past the cannibalisation problem.
It seems like forever that this thorny old issue has been hanging around, with the publishing and events industries particularly sensitive. From whether a successful supplement should become a publication in its own right; to investment in websites and social media that would take readers away from the printed page; and currently whether or not a virtual conference or meeting space will reduce footfall at a live exhibition.
The main argument against developing a pluralist strategy is that it causes a reduction in revenue or perceived market share. But the truth is that when carefully planned and executed such a strategy can result in a larger share of an increased total market. Examples within the retail industry abound: when Coca Cola introduced Diet Coke, sales of Coke fell, but ultimately led to an expanded market for diet soft drinks. Forward thinking and successful FMCG companies positively embrace the idea as Apple CEO Tim Cook explains:
“iPad has cannibalised some Mac sales. The way that we view cannibalisation is that we prefer to do it to ourselves than let someone else do it. We don’t want to hold back one of our teams from doing the greatest thing, even if it takes some sales from another product area. Our high-order bid is, ‘We want to please customers and we want them buying Apple stuff.’”
Why then are B2B publishers and events organisers still struggling with the idea of creating virtual experiences in addition to their current physical and online activity?
Hybrid and standalone virtual conferences, training and meeting sessions may affect audiences but the truth is that they are likely to deliver more visitors, both from a wider geographic area and from a demographic that would normally be too time-poor to engage in a live event. Detractors suggest that viewers online are not as engaged; but neither is every visitor at a conference (particularly at 2pm).
The bigger question is not how many visitors or delegates you are going to lose from your live event, but how many people from your total market universe are you failing to connect with? Anecdotally we know that membership organisations attract on average 5% of their total membership to live events. In commercial event organisations, marketers need to hit a target universe seven or eight times in order to pursuade between five and 10 per cent of them to attend. Plus, if you only engage with this audience once a year you are putting up constant barriers to retaining and growing the audience and its levels of interaction, which in turn diminishes your opportunities to drive and grow your revenues and profit.
Tony Rossell from Marketing General, Inc. has done some excellent research on this subject in the context of Association Membership: his work shows that Associations which create multiple opportunities for engagement with their members, whether via annual meetings, professional development, webinars, social networking etc. are more likely to show increases in overall membership in both the long and the short term as well as an increase in new members and renewal rates.
It stands to reason that the more you engage with your audience, both exisiting and potential, then the more likely they are to engage with you. Hybrid events don’t have to reproduce your live event verbatim and virtual events don’t have to be restricted to specific times and dates dictated by venue contraints.
Where virtual events are concerned, it’s time to put the issue of audience cannibalisation to bed once and for all and embrace the concept of market colonisation instead.
It seems like the technology has finally been toppled from its place at the top of the virtual events debate and we are, at last, getting back to the basics of looking at the needs of the client. We are once again talking about the multi-faceted communications approach that engages all sectors of an audience. There is no sense in trying to shoehorn all comms activity into a one-size-fits-all solution, when every other sector of business is constantly trying to find new niches to occupy.
The evolution of virtual events is being driven by one major factor: as more virtual events happen, more people are participating in them and the better we can measure their behaviour. So rather than making assumptions and creating technology in a vaccuum, we are delivering the goods the customer ordered.
Two research studies* have been released recently which serve to confirm just how quickly behaviour is changing in the physical and virtual meeting industry; their core findings make for interesting reading, not least because of the gulf of expectation between event organisers and their audiences:
- Live content, be it video or webcasts, is the most popular on a virtual site, and yet only 43% of physical events capture any of their content to post online, and where they do it is often less than 10%.
- There is as yet little commercialisation of virtual events, whether this is a conscious business decision, a resistance from the marketplace or the resource issue below is as yet unknown.
- Organisations worry about the additional staff time needed to execute a virtual event to the cost, the quality of the experiencefor the visitor and the complexity of technology.
The benefits for the organiser though are seen quite clearly; more than 82% of past users of virtual events and 84 %of future users questioned in the Tagoras study mentioned the potential increase in audience numbers, an important consideration where physical events were only enabling them to reach a fraction of their total target audience.
So why are event organisers still so reluctant to embrace virtual technologies.
Meanwhile, the potential audience shows no such reticence:
While organisers of physical events continually state that people want to do business with real people, the Business Motivations and Social Behaviors for In-Person and Online Events study found that:
- 80 percent of respondents are comfortable connecting and networking with strangers.
- 70 percent are comfortable using a video/webcam to chat and meet others.
- 33 percent share information by instant messaging at online events, while 28 percent do so at in-person events.
- 41 percent use Twitter at online events, while 51 percent do so at in-person events.
Another objection often raised by physical event organisers is that online attendees are easily distracted. But attendees in real time also check their emails, text, tweet, phone and message while sitting in an auditorium. The only difference is that the virtual attendees can come back to it later.
Respondents seek similar information from exhibitors whether booths are live or virtual: more than half want to see what a company does and how it can help them, and nearly half of respondents want to get company, product or solution information for review or want to see a demonstration or the product itself.
Where virtual events really begin to draw in the attendees though is in accessibility:
- the environment’s ease-of-access;
- the ability to ask questions and participate actively;
- reduced travel costs and hassles
- reduced time away from family and office
Given the solid evidence, it is hard to see why so many event organisations continue to find more reasons not to embrace virtual technologies than to explore the possibilities. Perhaps it will take some new entrants into the marketplace to steal a march on the naysayers, establishing great virtual events that morph into fantastic physical ones that take the old-guard by surprise.
Remember: if you don’t listen to your customers, and give them what they want, you are giving them every excuse to go somewhere else.
* The two studies quoted are:
Virtual Event Study, done in collaboration with the Center for Exhibition Industry Research, Relate Content & Community Solutions and Tagoras, and funded by the International Association of Exhibitions and Events:
The Business Motivations and Social Behaviors for In-Person and Online Events, a study sponsored by the Professional Convention Management Association, UBM Studios and Virtual Edge Institute:
My pre-teen loves Shakespeare. It’s not something I can take any credit for since I didn’t really pay much attention in English Literature (I blame the teacher) and the sight of Denzel Washington, Robert Sean Leonard and Keanu Reaves striding around in riding breeches in the 1993 film version of Much ado about Nothing probably stopped me from appreciating the complexity and vivacity of the language.
Despite having the RSC and Globe Theatre more or less on the doorstep we haven’t quite managed a trip to see the Bard’s offerings live as yet, so there was little to reference when confronted by a project to design the stage setting for MacBeth. However, we were saved from having to trawl through countless videos on YouTube by a brilliant event produced by Florida Virtual School on the 6Connex virtual experience platform.
The Florida Virtual School develops and provides virtual K-12education solutions to students in Florida, the U.S., and the world. Founded in 1997, it was the country’s first, state-wide Internet-based public high school. Today, FLVS serves students in grades K-12 and provides a variety of custom solutions for schools and districts to meet student needs. Its virtual Shakespeare festival was live on 26-27 April and once we had logged in we were able to see presentations from FLVS students as they acted favourite Shakespeare scenes or added their own interpretation. With vignettes from other Shakespeare companies, including the very excellent Reduced Shakespeare Company, we were able to absorb a lot of content and styles in a very short period indeed, presented in a way that felt extremely accessible.
Was something lost by the presentation of theatrical works in video that was a bit grainy and certainly wobbly in places? Possibly yes. But many children and young people (and the rest of us!) today live off a diet of YouTube video and homemade entertainment delivered via phone, iPad and PC so my 12 year old wasn’t remotely phased by a lack of cinematic quality. What she really enjoyed was being able to interact with the actors and presenters in real time. Networking was easy in this virtual environment and the fact that most of the other participants were 4,500 miles away was of no concern. Did she learn anything – definitely. Did she enjoy the experience – absolutely.
The debate about virtual vs live rumbles on, and on, but what this event shows is that these environments are not just a business solution. They offer a real opportunity to open up access to real live knowledge and expertise for all.