Think Before You Hybrid: Pitfalls of the Quasi-Virtual Experience

With the vaccine looming and pent-up demand for human interaction nearing its bursting point, it’s no wonder we’re all thinking about hybrid events experiences, which occur both in person and in the virtual realm. But hybrid events can be more than twice the work of in-person and virtual events. This article explores common pitfalls to avoid when planning hybrid events and revisits the age-old question: what is the return on investment of offering both formats at once?

Once we are past this phase of social distancing, when it comes to the hybrid experience, many event planners are envisioning a live event that also gets broadcasted to a group of supporters online. While this has the potential to be done well, it rarely is.

Technology Pitfalls

Next time you are watching a TED Talk, notice how many times the frame cuts. When you are looking at the speaker from one angle, then suddenly another, that means there are multiple cameras recording the event, with actual people operating them. This is worlds different from setting up a tripod and hitting “record,” whereby the virtual audience gets only one stagnant view of the speaker. Even the most compelling speaker would have a hard time retaining the attention of a virtual audience in that format. Your tech costs will double (at least) if you decide to livestream your event because you will need more cameras and more microphones, in addition to a streaming platform, etc. You will also need someone whose sole job is to monitor the virtual event and provide technical assistance to participants.

Timing Pitfalls

If this event is being recorded, why ask virtual attendees to show up at a certain time? OK, maybe some hot items in a live auction will entice, but statistics show that when folks know the event will be recorded, only 50% of folks will attend live. You must have a compelling reason for asking folks to tune in at a specific time; otherwise, they will watch the recording. The key here is to make the virtual component of the event interactive—facilitated networking, dialogues, Q&A—or to offer special incentives to tune in live, like raffle drawings or prizes.

Program Pitfalls

There are many elements of an in-person experience that are not feasible in a virtual one. What will your virtual audience be doing during the dinner before the speaker comes on stage? What about the transitions between elements of the program? When your speakers are “reading the room,” is there someone who can also give them cues about what is happening in real time in the virtual space? Host a “virtual dinner table” where attendees can talk among themselves. Send meal and/or activity boxes or kits to virtual guests. Offer things that only virtual registrants will get.

After acknowledging those three pitfalls, it’s worth considering whether offering the event in two formats at once is a wise investment. My questions for you are:

Do you really need to host both events (live and virtual) synchronously?

Could you do something separate for those folks who can’t attend in person?

These two scenarios below provide alternatives to the livestream hybrid event:

Scenario 1: Virtual Viewing Parties

One viable and cost-effective option is to encourage viewing parties, in which the main event is virtual, but attendees can choose on their own to watch together in their homes or not. Having attendees decide for themselves whether to invite people to their homes and provide the nourishment saves your organization the expense of renting a venue and feeding them. Viewing parties also provide valuable social interaction that is hard to replicate in a virtual space. But remember, gathering restrictions mean that viewing parties are not possible everywhere as of February 2021, and it’s anyone’s guess when that will change.

Scenario 2: Separate Virtual and Live Events

Assuming we can meet in person and the bulk of your audience wants to attend a live event, separating the two experiences can save you on cost and effort. If you don’t have a large budget to spend on production (I see you, small shops and stretched-thin departments), consider offering a separate virtual experience one to two weeks after your live event. I recommend creating a shorter program for virtual participants, removing all the stuff that doesn’t translate well in a virtual environment and curating experiences for the virtual audience. This gives you time to review and edit any recorded footage from the event. You still need a decent recording, but the footage can be enhanced in postproduction, so you don’t need a TV-quality recording. This also allows you to use the same staff who facilitated the live event in the facilitation of the virtual one, so you don’t have to hire more folks to run both events at the same time.