When is a hybrid event not a hybrid event

hy·brid:  (hbrd) noun
a composite of mixed origin; a conceptual whole made up of complicated and related parts

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 hybrid event is NOT:
  • 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.

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Don’t be so afraid to embrace cannibalism…

Here’s a scenario for you to consider:

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?

  1. Stick to your guns, but pacify them by giving them a bit more space and a couple more sessions in the conference programme.
  2. Create a ‘mini’ co-located event.
  3. Grasp the opportunity and develop a second event.
  4. 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.

Hellen @missioncontrol

So you think you own me?

The previous post You’ve got to deliver what the audience really  wants has provoked discussion in a number of forums and the responses have made for interesting reading, not least because of the seeming inability to move on from old arguments.

So let’s look at the topic from a different angle, by considering two industries closely related to producing live events; so closely related in fact that you would consider them siblings; i.e. publishing and broadcasting.

In both of these industries, the key players are referred to as Media Owners. Because they own the medium through which the content is broadcast. And for years this is exactly what they have done; decided when, where and what information and entertainment their audiences or readerships were going to consume.  They have made and broken many a star, politician or company profit, simply through the editorial decisions they have taken which have influenced the masses.

Conference and exhibition organisers, be they commercial operations, industry bodies or associations, continue to believe that they must operate in a similar way.  Developing programmes of content that they perceive the audience wants, choosing speakers and selecting participating exhibitors (via an economic filter it is true) and presenting a finished product to the visitors at a time, date and venue over which the latter has no control.

Then along came the Internet and social media and the shift in power from owner to audience was seismic.

Because the concept of expertise ownership by a few large corporations doesn’t fit any more.  You can’t tell me what I should be watching, what information I need, or who I should be networking with.  You can’t stop me finding organisations who can’t afford to exhibit at your event or who haven’t got a charismatic speaker, because if their Search and SM strategies are good I can do this on my own.  And, you can’t stop me telling people, a lot of people, about the experience your organisation offers me, within minutes if I so choose.

So let’s bin the argument about virtual not replacing face-to-face; because we all know it won’t.  Let’s stop finding fault with virtual technologies, because frankly some of them are pretty amazing.  And let’s stop pretending that we still own audiences and industries because of the events we produce because we don’t. Let’s embrace the new to enhance the old rather than dismissing it as a fad that has nothing to do with us.

What we need to be doing, with or without the help of virtual technologies, is to work out how we build and maintain relationships with our communities; how we facilitate communication and collaboration between individuals both through a single live day and an online presence; and how we use the unfettered enthusiasm of our audiences to create a profitable business model for the future.

hellen @missioncontrol

Chicken or egg?

Chicken and eggWhat comes first – the problem that needs the technological solution or the technology that provides an innovative solution you couldn’t have imagined before it arrived?

Unlike medical research, where scientists are looking for a specific remedy for a relatively well defined condition, with clear protocols and clinical trial proceedures, new ideas for business often happen incrementally.

But in the last two years there has been a major paradigm shift in the way clients and customers interact with the organisations that supply them.  Where once they were passive recipients of marketing messages, customer service and product development now they can comment, praise and condemn to an audience of millions should they choose to do so.

The difficulty for the organisations at the receiving (rather than the delivering) end is how to listen and react to this phenomenon and, more importantly, to harness it to grow and enhance their day-to-day business.

Fortunately, just as networking sites, wikis and user groups have created this phenomenon, new technologies in the form of virtual experience platforms, collaborative meeting software and independent broadcast media will enable companies to embrace the power of incoming marketing to create powerful networks of their own.  Which will require a significant shift in strategic thinking since the inputs won’t necessarily match up to the forecast.

Organisations that are able to engage with their audiences, respond and react will be the winners in this new world of communication and marketing.