Friday, 4 February 2011

Virtual & hybrid events - getting the delegate experience right

Have you attended a virtual or hybrid event yet? If not, the chances are that you will sooner of later.

First a quick clarification of what they are:

Virtual = non physical events that facilitate a shared online real time experience, normally with post event on-demand functionality.

Hybrid = a real world event that also offers people the chance to participate remotely via an online event interface.

Not surprisingly a lot of the discussion around hybrid and virtual events focuses on the technology used to deliver them, a useful resource for this, and indeed for this area in general is US company The Virtual Edge Institute.

Purely virtual events have interesting roles to play, particularly if you're trying to test the water with a new concept, but as anyone who's taken part in a virtual event knows they suffer from not having a live audience. It's a bit like watching a film of a band playing in a studio versus a film of them live at a the Apollo.

Taking a hybrid approach though makes perfect sense. Firstly, there are the logistical, budgetary and environmental reasons why people might not be predisposed to attending your event in person. Also, as a recent survey reported on MeetingsReview makes clear, offering people the chance to try your event remotely makes them more likely to attend in person in future. Reassuring it doesn't seem that the chance to attend remotely cannibalises physical attendance, rather it grows the universe of your total audience. There is also some evidence that offering a simultaneous virtual experience increases the satisfaction of those attending in person.

Other benefits of adding a virtual element are the opportunity to better use the event content within your social media and the analytical tools that can measure how the audience respond to event content; do they download a presentation, request more information, email an enquiry - how quickly do they act and where in the consideration cycle are they?

Some recommendations for producing good hybrid content include the following:

Don't treat the audience as 'one'. As well as some entirely shared experiences, provide different content opportunities for real world and virtual audiences. Cisco Live did this particularly well with virtual online chat opportunities with presenters once they've finished on stage. They also offered what they called 'livesim' content as a value add for the virtual audience - previously recorded presentations streamed to online with a comments feed from the online audience.

Finally - get the online interface right. There are many terrible examples of stilted avatars poncing around in visually offensive 'graphic worlds'.

Where all this becomes even more fun is when you add in a cross-located live audience situated in different physical locations and enable them to share content and work on simultaneous problem solving along with the virtual audience. This is a challenge we're working on at the moment - we'll keep you posted on how we get on!