6 Questions to Consider While Planning Your Hybrid Future

Authors: Kimberly Hardcastle-Geddes       
David Saef       

Attendees in West Palm Beach, Florida, take part in a live event for the hybrid 2021 PCMA Convening Leaders at the Palm Beach County Convention Center. (Courtesy of Discover The Palm Beaches)

Many organizers are finally planning a return to in-person events, while simultaneously figuring out the role that digital offerings will — or won’t — play in a post-pandemic future. Here are a few important considerations to help guide the decision-making process.

What is hybrid, exactly? Technically, it’s a single event that serves both in-person and virtual audiences. Throughout the pandemic, however, we’ve been encouraging organizers to expand the definition of hybrid to be more encompassing — and to consider the place that webinars, peer-to-peer roundtables, podcasts, e-books, infographics, video, community-management platforms, and other offerings beyond content created at and broadcast from a live event, will have in a holistic engagement strategy. So, before planning a traditionally defined hybrid future, think about how an omnichannel approach to content can meet the year-round needs of an audience and how your events — physical and/or online — fit into the mix.

What are the primary benefits of hybrid? Each organizer may answer this question a little differently, but really it’s the opportunity to combine the reach of virtual with the depth of in-person. Over the past year, we’ve seen digital events attracting brand-new audiences — people who perhaps have always had an interest in our content but weren’t willing or able to travel to experience it in person. As we return to face-to-face events, we must ask ourselves: How important is it to continue reaching and engaging these audiences? How important will it be to diversify revenue streams to protect against future disruptions? And finally, will hybrid help us better serve the needs of our exhibitors and sponsors, and if so, how?

Just how hybrid should I make my event? Hybrid isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition. If your physical trade show is heavily reliant on demonstrations, sensory buying, or a face-to-face sales process, will it make sense to try and replicate it virtually? Maybe not, but perhaps the educational component is perfectly suited for online consumption. It’s likely your internal resources — both budget and people — will factor significantly in the “how hybrid?” decision, so ensure that you’re focusing on the aspects of your event that make sense in a hybrid format.

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Does the online version of the event need to happen at the same time as the live version? Absolutely not. Scheduling the online and in-person experiences at the same time will increase expense and complexity without necessarily delivering what your online attendees crave. Instead, create FOMO from shared moments — like a novel discovery by an industry-leading expert, a discussion with the keynote speaker, or a celebrity Q&A. Broadcasting “wow” moments will make the in-person audience feel that their world is much larger while prompting the remote audience to want to be in-person next time.

How much should I discount the online version of my event? It depends. We’re finding many of the events we promote aren’t offering any discount, especially those that are heavy on high-quality, and in many cases, accredited educational offerings. Align your pricing strategy with your value proposition, which brings us to our final point, below.

How do I promote the digital offering without cannibalizing physical attendance? It’s likely that prospects who have attended past in-person events and/or who are in close geographical proximity are those mostly likely to attend an in-person event. Those who are under travel restrictions, live internationally, have never attended a physical event, and/or have already consumed your content digitally will be more likely to participate online. Start by segmenting your audience, as much as possible, into these two categories and promoting the corresponding offering to each group. Allow the unknowns to self-select and ensure that all communications allow for a prospect to learn about/register for the other experience. In your messaging, communicate distinct value propositions for each offering rather than suggesting that it’s one event that can be experienced in two ways. And don’t be afraid to shift toward a heavier emphasis on digital at the end of the event cycle — and beyond.

Kimberly Hardcastle-Geddes is chief marketing strategist of mdg, a marketing and public relations agency specializing in audience acquisition for live and online events. David Saef is senior vice president of mdg Advisory Services, a business unit focused on growth strategies for associations, event organizers, and corporate marketers.

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