Are Hybrid Events Worth it?

Having just completed our first hybrid event and after a period of reflection I have now come to terms with my view on hybrid events and their future.

Hybrid events are nothing new, they have existed before. Most of you will be familiar with Microsoft Ignite of 2019 and earlier where some sessions were live streamed, others recorded for on-demand. That type of event was considered hybrid before the pandemic, they just didn’t have the hybrid label.

But hybrid has taken on a new multi-mode expectation as we enter the new “living-with” stage and we see in-person events coming back. This has been driven by the massive uptake in virtual only events and the access to online content platforms such as Microsoft Teams over the past 18-months that has somewhat ensured there is an expectation that content from events should be available to non-physical attendees also.

At Commsverse, we set out to only ever be in-person, but like every business, we had to re-evaluate and re-invent ourselves on the fly. This meant that not only did we follow trend and move our 2020 event to 100% digital but it also challenged our original event configuration of being in-person only.

As we transition to the living-with stage of the pandemic, hybrid events make so much sense from the attendee first side of conferences, especially community events like Commsverse. As our content is sourced from volunteers and with the community in which we both serve why should we as an event make that content exclusive to just in-person attendees?

Surely it is our mandate to make that community content inclusive and available to the entire community, regardless of timezone or country?

We realised that there would be attendees who wanted to make it in-person who couldn’t. We also realised that some our our international speakers wouldn’t be able to make it either for whatever reason. Why should be pick or remove speakers based on their location, circumstance or personal decision not to travel? Why should we deprive them and the community from their session?

Therefore, we decided way before our 2021 event was confirmed, that when it was, we would run a live hybrid event using Microsoft Teams that would be available to anyone, attendee or speaker and we would welcome them all.

By offering the event as a hybrid is a massive advantage and opportunity for Commsverse to increase its brand exposure to audiences that we wouldn’t ordinarily reach with an in-person only model. More people pay attention, engage, like, share, retweet etc. Organic word of mouth spreads like wild fire and a huge advantage to an event.

Virtual Attendees Dilute In-Person Attendance

A major consideration of offering a hybrid event is understanding how offering a virtual ticket to your event is going to affect in-person turnout. You can quickly jump to conclusions that if someone can watch sessions from home, then why would they choose to come in-person?

The truth is actually offering virtual attendance doesn’t impact your physical attendance by as much as you first fear, but you need to know your audience. At Commsverse we realised that we had four categories of attendees in our community:

  • The All-In’ers – These people are coming to our event in-person come hell or high water. They want to interact, socialise and feel that human element to events. They want to walk exhibition floors, smell and taste the food, shake people’s hands etc.
  • The Dubious – These people aren’t quite sure if they want to turn up to an in-person event. It might be too soon. If no virtual event was offered they would more than likely give the event a miss this year. Some may yield to FOMO, but not many, maybe 5% or so.
  • The Restrained – These people want to come but cannot either because of employer embargo, travel restriction or cost prohibitive.
  • The Content’ers – These people come from two tributaries, the first, the ones that only come to an in-person conference traditionally to watch specific sessions and have very little interest in the other offerings within the event. The second, the ones that would never come to the event in the first place but would otherwise watch similar content online in their own time to aid their learning as and when.

When we looked at these categories we realised that there was only one category that was going to impact our event in-person attendance and that was the Restrained category. Under normal circumstances, these people would attend in-person. For Commsverse, this category represented approximately 15% of our overall ticketed places.

The Dubious, we were never really going to convince them to attend and those that we did would have bought a ticket and migrated to the All-In camp. But the vast majority will be staying at home. And the Content’ers, well, they were probably also never going to attend as well, especially as we are a paid event and would have been seen as a waste of money.

Exhibitors are going to be concerned about the impact of this, but in reality, certainly in 2021 conditions, the impact of this was negligible to the event overall. It is hard to put a number on it, but if we count how many virtual attendees that joined at least one session who also had a physical ticket and discounted the restrained people (i.e. those in the dubious camp) then they accounted for approximately 4% of the overall virtual attendance (which works out to be just about 40 people).

The vast majority of no-shows were universal i.e. had a physical ticket but were not seen in-person or online (approx 103 people).

So all in all, offering a virtual alternative didn’t impact our physical attendance by a noticeable and detrimental amount.

What virtual attendees want out of a hybrid event?

The important piece of advice here is not to try and recreate the in-person offering to virtual attendees. Forget about virtual floor walking, virtual expo stands, virtual reality or 3D WebGL 2.0 exhibition floors. They cost you a lot of money and have very little return on investment. Of course, the platform owners will disagree, but the stark reality is that unless you have very deep pockets, a huge team dedicated to running the virtual side and a hefty marketing budget, that experience is going to be a damp squib. You’re better off investing that money and effort into the people who are going to ultimately decide your event’s success from an exhibitor side of the business, in-person attendees.

Give the virtual attendees what they want. They aren’t greedy creatures, their needs are simple. Give them access to the content when they want it and give them a way to interact with the people they most want to, the speakers.

Compliment their experience by giving them access to information they can browse if they want to, like a simple exhibitor page where they can passively browse if they have a need. If a virtual attendee wants to speak to an exhibitor, trust me, they will seek them out. You cannot send the exhibitor out to get the attendee like you can do in-person. That just doesn’t work.

Do Hybrid Events Have to Be Live?

Honest answer, no. At Commsverse we decided to offer an interactive, live access to in-person sessions as they happen. We placed Microsoft Teams Room devices into each session room and connected the audio and visual equipment to them so people could join just like a normal Teams meeting and participate live.

Just like a meeting, the remote audience could raise their hand, unmute, ask their question and the speaker and in-room attendees would hear. The speaker could then address the question. Importantly the remote attendees could hear the questions in the room too so that the experience was integrated and immersive.

This experience was great from an event perspective and also expensive to do. We were lucky that our amazing sponsors loaned the MTRs and we had volunteers to help with tech support to ensure that the equipment functioned properly. But had we been less fortunate, the budget to run 5 session rooms would have exceeded £50,000 in equipment costs, 3rd Party AV integrations and Technical Staffing.

Our actual costs were around £15,000 for the 3rd Party AV integrations as we needed to hire more AV equipment from our AV supplier and tech support. Still a large cost to bear on an event that wasn’t funded to be hybrid in the first place.

In reality though, this can be slimmed down into a more cost sensitive model and all the way back to just recording offline and uploading post session / event. Yes, you lose the live virtual interaction, but if that is not important to your event, then don’t spend the money on it.

Did the Live Element Provide ROI For the Hybrid Event?

This depends on the metric you are using to determine ROI. If it is purely session joins, then we saw just under 1,000 session joins to our hybrid event over the two days (996).

Seems a positive number right? If we now look at unique joins across the entire event, then we saw 507 uniques joins. So in other words, 500 people joined us live and on average watch 2 sessions.

If we look at how many of those people who joined a session who actively participated in the session by unmuting their microphone and asking a question, then only 23 questions were asked by virtual attendees across 70 sessions. I won’t go into the reasons for this now, that’s another blog post.

If we look at the on-demand viewing stats one month later, we have had 664 views across all session videos

To answer the question as whether the Live Element has given us ROI, if we divide £50,000 / 507, it cost us £98 per virtual attendee to create this event if we had to purchase all the equipment and pay staff. In reality, £30 per head was spent due to the assistance we got.

The main reason we went with the live model is that we wanted virtual attendees to properly engage and communicate with speakers. I think had they actively participated more, then the cost to put this hybrid element on would have paid dividends. But as the engagement was so low, I am drawn towards reducing this next year to a Live Streamed Event where there is an output stream from the rooms for online people to watch, but limited ways for the online participants to engage with the session, e.g. after session Q&A with the speaker.

Should Online Tickets of Hybrid Events Be Chargeable?

There is a certain assumption or expectation that virtual attendance should be free to attend. But the reality is that virtual events are not free to run. They cost money as I have highlighted above. Not only in the execution of the actual event but also in the organising. To run a virtual event, you have to work so much harder to ensure people can join and the uncertainty around tech reliability on the day etc. all adds up to time, effort and money.

On average it takes 3 people to complete what would be one person’s job in an in-person event with a virtual event. More can and does go wrong, when it does, it’s highly public and the attendees do not have that empathy they would normally in-person, so will take to social media to vent their displeasure without first considering that as organisers “we never meant for this to happen”.

So we spend even more time, testing, testing, retesting on the lead up to the event.

In my eyes, I do think that the trend needs to change and virtual attendees should be required to pay to virtually attend an event if it is warranted. Not only does it help fund their experience, but also makes them want to give time to the event to participate. The more invested your attendees are, the more engaged they will be.

Some events offer live attendance for free, but charge for on-demand. This can boost live attendance for those not in a position to pay for content, or just don’t want to. But maybe the model needs to change to pay for live and on-demand is free. Of course, additional benefits should be provided to the paid live attendees, perhaps a care pack to their home, secret bonus sessions, digital material, vouchers to spend at exhibitor shops etc. are just some ideas.

So, Are Hybrid Events Worth It?

Overall, yes I think they are worth it to an event and any organiser should consider it if they are able to. My one bit of advice to organisers is not to think going big means the best, but concentrate on getting the core basics right and what the minimum standard is that should be achieved.

For Commsverse, if things do not change, this will mean streamed sessions with post session Q&A in 2022 at the most, or offline recorded at the minimum level.

What will change my mind? Virtual Attendee engagement in live sessions.

If there is one thing I would want anyone reading this to take away is this. Organisers and Speakers go to great lengths to facilitate online attendee participation. We want you to unmute your microphone and ask a question. We are practically praying you will. We appreciate that your environment may not be conducive at the time, but plan your attendance so that you are able. We don’t have the people power to moderate chat.

If you were in the physical audience, you would ask your question out loud. We encourage you to be there, in the moment with us, come and join us.

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