Why organizers should rethink their 2023 conferences and trade show plans today.
Amid covid, there were many organizations that made a quick shift to virtual events. For the most part, this was the humdrum experience akin to a six-hour Zoom meeting. While some organizations used robust virtual event platforms it was still often the case that the “zoom gloom” burnout from meetings extended to larger, longer format online gatherings.
As the pandemic eased, many gatherings shifted to a hybrid format (read more about the hybrid experience here). In this article, I’ll discuss why the asynchronous model may be a superior alternative. The detail is based on numerous conversations with event organizers, and what has specifically worked well in my experience from nearly 100 events (both virtual and physical) between 2019-2022.
In general, virtual events can be tough. The audience that would rather be in person feels cheated; those who want to enjoy as much of the online experience are often hindered by the zoom-like sameness of most platform technologies or the format. (Although virtual events can be way better, which is the premise for the recent Digital Engagement Summit).
Hybrid Events Have Been Around for More Than a Decade
Many of us have had less-than-stellar experiences with hybrid events. This mostly takes the form of the online attendees getting short shrift. Post-2020, most professionals have a higher threshold for what gets them out to an event (or out of their home office, for that matter.. See the “rule of three” from this VEG article!) This means that event organizers need to have a plan for virtual content. Budgets, timing, and planning realities related to the physical component of the hybrid event often marginalize the online component as an afterthought.
Though hybrids have been around for a long time, organizers still express concern that a simultaneous online option will cannibalize the physical event audience. This concept has been studied quite a bit; as it turns out, a hybrid option more often expands the physical audience. Granted, all of these studies were conducted pre-pandemic so things might have changed, and now, people being people, one might think… “If I could just attend online, why would I show up in person?” Lingering health concerns, bad weather, traffic, or an issue at home or the office may lead to an easier switch to the remote version.
The 2020-21 pandemic experience changed the way we look at virtual events. With many minds focused on making that online experience as good as possible, the state of the art was advanced tremendously.
The Problem: How do we leverage all the good we can get from a virtual event, while still offering a primarily physical experience for those that would prefer it?
Solution: The Asynchronous Hybrid Virtual Event
An asynchronous virtual paired with a physical event is generally held a few days to a couple of weeks after the in-person gathering. This way, the material is still fresh; these are generally closely connected in terms of location and/or topic area–although the virtual event can be somewhat broader, for example:
- Physical conferences in New York City – June 1, Boston June 5; NorthEast Regional Virtual Summit – June 10th
- DC Capitol Area physical conference focused on federal issues, a US-wide virtual event that covers federal, state, and local issues in the same subject area
Make careful considerations for video, taping both the presentations and manyas much
crowd shots or other B-roll. as well as the flower in some “be row, to get a feel for you. We’ll use some of that recorded content for the virtual part of the event sometime later.
Keeping it Fresh
Obviously, this method allows the organizer to videotape some of the physically present speakers. Those videotaped sessions can be run on the virtual event day, alongside live-streamed and “simu-live”¹ content. In this fashion, there’s no reason to hide the fact that these are recorded; however, care should be taken for some light editing to tighten up the conversation and make sure that the material presented is consistently relevant to the audience.
This is where the big change happens. While some recorded conference content can be used, it is imperative that live, topical material also be present. In my experience, adding Keynote discussions and panels all done as live conversations was very important for engagement and overall audience satisfaction.
¹ “Simu-live” sessions are recorded in advance and presented as if they were live. In most cases, it should feel much like the live-streamed content. This should be completely original recordings, never used before or presented as live again after the event.
While useful in any event setting, panel discussions are significant for digital engagement. Live-streamed, current, interactive panels are a must – taking audience questions and reacting to comments, remarks, and questions generated by the online audience is absolutely KEY to the immersive feeling that drives engagement from an audience. The live interaction gives the audience the feeling of that live interactive experience.
Luckily, virtual events popularized the use of written-form questions (via chat, Q&A, etc.) How many of us have been at a physical conference and had that cringe-worthy moment when that guy in the front who was anxiously raising his hand asks the longest three-part novel question that never really has an actual question but is asked to demonstrate how smart he is?
Written questions give the moderator time to plan, the panelists time to think and formulate thoughtful responses, and most importantly create a smooth flow to the panel discussion, which should feel natural for the audience and adds to the entertainment value of the event overall.
Preparation is key here. Seed questions are discussed briefly in advance, and panelists’ understanding of each other’s vocal cadence, flow, expertise area, etc. all add to the natural flow of the conversation. Insider Tip: Often, the impromptu questions from the audience are remarkably similar to seed questions, and can serve as great ways to keep the audience engaged (“Sally from Walla Walla has this question, I’ll direct it to panelist A first, and then…”
Good virtual event technology should take this a step further… audience participants that ask well-written questions can be invited to ask them on camera. Promoting the participant to a “green room,” they can be further screened by event producers and then served up “on stage” for a few seconds to ask their question. This is the sort of live integration that has been shown to increase audience engagement by up to 80%, based on our internal research.
Monetization: 150% of the Experience
Whether attendees pay to participate, or sponsors are paying to be a part of an event, monetizing the gathering is often an important part for the conference organizers. Indeed there’s no such thing as a free lunch and someone’s paying somewhere… and putting on events is an expensive business.
In my experience conference organizers should target about 150% of the expected revenue from either part of the pair in isolation for an asynchronous virtual hybrid event. To accomplish this, it’s important that the pricing not be incredibly discounted for the virtual event. My suggestion would be to come up with some sort of package pricing, preserving the value of each component in isolation. Value is subjective and highly correlated with the price put on an attendee seat or sponsorship. (Stay tuned for upcoming articles on monetization soon!)
Virtual Exhibits: Better Than Physical When Done Right!
Sponsors are better able to exhibit when the event is asynchronous. One will find that splitting the sponsors or exhibitors across a synchronous hybrid event results in poor showing on both ends. In this asynchronous fashion, some of the same staff horn expanded staff can be available for the virtual event, and with technological help like immediate meeting booking, for first appointments, and voice, video, text, or one-on-one chat, virtual event exhibitors should be able to continue the conversations they started at the physical event in a very effective manner.
Here, it’s important to consider how a virtual event should be staffed. One of the common mistakes I’ve seen is that the virtual event is given short shrift in terms of staffing. To effectively market themselves at a virtual event, exhibitors should come with at least five staffers. This may sound excessive; however, these staffers need only be online and at the ready. Effectively, having one main “handler” to “triage” booth visitors as they come, and staffers who can handle technical questions, commercial questions, and general questions proves the most effective strategy for maximizing engagement and follow-up appointments via the virtual exhibit booth. The virtual event technology should allow all of these staffers to be present without having to be fully dedicated 100% to the event.
In this fashion, each virtual exhibit booth visitor can quickly connect with the right person. This affords that individual an efficient conversation that progresses directly into a pointed follow-up. It is incredibly important that you treat the virtual event just like a physical one. Keep people in the moment. Look to continue the (technical or commercial) immediately following. For those organizations who are trying to generate leads from prospective new clients to eventually drive new business, remember that leads are a perishable commodity and should be treated as such.
With this staffing plan for a virtual exhibit booth, one could easily see how the interactions with virtual exhibit attendees should be superior to that which could be had in person where it would be impossible to have the right specialized staff for every conversation on hand. This is just one of the many ways that event and digital marketers need to rethink how they handle virtual events, where data, technology, and interaction should make it even easier to turn virtual exhibit visitors into meaningful going forward relationships.
Done properly, the asynchronous virtual event production comes across as a specialized, synthetically created hybrid event. It gives the online attendance a feel for what happened at the physical event while presenting special, new LIVE content; giving them further reason to attend. In my experience, a surprising number of physical event attendees ALSO made time for the later virtual event.
For those whose goal is monetization, the 150% guideline should prove useful. For virtual exhibitors, taking advantage of the time gap to properly staff and focus on the asynchronous pair will improve their Return on Investment (ROI).
For those concerned about cannibalization, the gap between the physical and virtual will create a meaningful bifurcation. Moreover, the on-demand component of that event gives them something concrete to which they can invite colleagues, or understand that they will be able to go back and review materials. (Especially helpful for the “get I have a copy of the slides” attendee!)
The asynchronous hybrid virtual event could be the standard, or at least the starting point for modern conference and trade show gatherings. Only time will tell. The initial data looks promising. When you try it – I’ll be very interested to hear your thoughts, learn about your experiences, and compare notes. Reach out to me anytime!