In late September, nearly half of the planners who responded to our COVID-19 Recovery Dashboard survey said they were planning a hybrid event in the first quarter of 2022. But of those, only two out of 10 said they were planning on creating opportunities for interaction between the in-person and virtual audience via the event platform.
Which is the opposite tack that the National Speakers Association (NSA) took for its hybrid Winter Workshop, which took place early this year, Feb. 26-28, for 30 participants in person at the Westin Buckhead Atlanta in Georgia, and an online audience.
“We ran our event like a TV show with a live studio audience,” said Candice York, NSA’s manager of operations, in a case study published by Socio, the event’s platform, and NSA. York said the workshop had the same kind of format as a talk show — “that’s how it looked from the in-person viewer. And that’s how it looked from the virtual viewer. It was really cool, and people loved it.”
And in a departure from what has become standard practice at many other virtual and hybrid events as a way to avoid AV hiccups, NSA disallowed pre-recorded presentations. The majority of the speakers presented live at the in-person event.
This was a workshop for professional speakers, after all, so it made perfect sense for the NSA team to coach the speakers on how to interact with the virtual and in-person audiences in an intentional and engaging way. Rhette Baughman, chief revenue officer at NSA, called the opportunity to learn how to present to both audiences “a backdoor blessing” for the speakers. To ensure “a cohesive hybrid experience,” according to the Socio case study, Winter Workshop hosts interacted with the live audience through the Socio platform.
“Our hosts were really good about keeping an eye on the cameras, specifically talking to the people at home, and I think it definitely worked,” said Nikki Harris, manager of member experience at NSA. “I think the in-person and virtual attendees felt like they were all together.”
Baughman said that even though the speakers spoke directly to the camera, they “pulled reactions from people in the room, which helped to bring the energy up, so it was kind of the best of both worlds.”
Emcees Do Double Duty
Two on-site emcees were chosen to bring a blend of “personalities, energies, and talents to the table,” appealing to different audience members, said Matt Longdon, NSA’s manager of marketing and communications. Plus, the emcees were at every session, which was “key” for tying those sessions — from the virtual warm-up to the main event — together, he added.
When not engaging with presenters, the emcees monitored the session chat and relayed questions to the presenters. “The goal was to turn a typical panel discussion into a more engaging and informative experience,” Longdon said. “We’ve all been to events where there’s someone facilitating a live conversation for a handful of experts, but we wanted to change that up.”
For the keynote panel, for example, one of the emcees acted as both moderator and referee, even donning a black and white referee jersey. The panel of four “was structured more as a debate,” he said. “It was polite and in good fun, but it allowed each person to dissect other ideas and share different opinions and guidance, so the audience could get a more thorough understanding of how they could use coaching, consulting, or training in their business.”
Other features on the Socio platform that helped to bridge hybrid audiences and boost engagement included:
- Gamification, which awarded points whenever an attendee completed a pre-determined challenge, like visiting a sponsor profile or attending a session. NSA’s emcees promoted the Compete game’s leaderboard to keep attendees engaged. There were 1,578 completed challenges by both virtual and in-person participants, which came to an average of 25 challenges completed per user.
- Socio managed a Help Desk, where members could ask questions about how to use the platform or to access documents, which helped keep people in the app (rather than sending emails to NSA with questions).
- Networking was accomplished in a “single event ecosystem” — through session chats, direct messages, gamification, the social wall, and other activities. It was easy for in-person attendees to engage with the virtual attendees, Harris said. “It wasn’t like they were completely separate.”
- Sponsors were showcased in several ways on Socio’s platform — through sponsor profiles, banners, and push notifications, in addition to the Compete game. The event’s four sponsor banners generated a combined 700,000 attendee impressions. And despite initial hesitation from sponsors, the Winter Workshop exceeded its revenue goals.
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Michelle Russell is editor in chief at Convene.