I was watching an admittedly bad—but happy—TV movie the other night, and the ending focused on an in-person event where a contest winner would be announced for building the nicer house. A woman stepped to the podium: "I want to welcome everyone here tonight, and also all the wonderful people in our community watching at home who couldn't make it."
It makes sense, but of course, it's anything but revolutionary. We've been hearing awards show hosts saying that for years—although lately there have been no hosts. But you haven't really seen that introduction given at most pre-pandemic, business conferences. The thinking has usually been that by offering the conference virtually, you would encourage people not to come. Maybe let them buy some recorded sessions later.
Even when in-person events do return—and at some point they will; safety guidelines were being issued today—virtual will remain part of the mix.
"There are people in your community who will never come to an event but would benefit greatly from it," Brian Cuthbert, group vice president, Diversified Communications U.S., told me this week. "Are you leaving money on the table by not giving that segment of audience an opportunity to become a customer and spend some money with you?"
In an article in Industry Dive's Marketing Dive
this week, "respondents were asked about the types of events they expect to see in the future with:
- 62% predicting to see global virtual events with live video feeds from headlining speakers;
- 59% think virtual events tailored to defined groups of experts and specialists will emerge;
- 51% expect global virtual gatherings of national and regional experts to foster those communities; and
- 47% think member-only virtual networking events designed to connect businesses with prospects will emerge."
More events may actually turn "hybrid," especially as Cuthbert explained, when learning is the biggest goal. "For conferences and training, where the hook is around learning and education, hybrid has more legs than other formats," Cuthbert said, adding that "really good content" can be delivered in many ways. But when networking and delivering an experience are paramount, it will be tough to replicate in-person, he added.
"If it's virtual only, what are you doing to make [participants] feel part of the community?" Cuthbert asked. "People want to learn from others also. [This crisis] can be very isolating. We're not in the office, we're not connecting face to face. And are people going to pay [virtually]? Is it just about sessions or is it about networking?" He mentioned the chat and discussion rooms that some platforms provide, but admitted that's "never going to replace the in-person element."
An article today on Event Manager Blog suggested that producers of future in-person events may have to come up with a new marketing strategy.
"Remember that time you used to check your social media feed and you spotted that event you really wanted to attend?" the author asked. "Remember the frustration you experienced because, for whatever reason, you could not attend? FOMO, or the 'fear of missing out,' was the origin of your frustration.
"Event marketers jumped at the opportunity to make you feel that discomfort. Happy faces of attendees having fun while you were stuck at home—or worse, at work... What nobody expected was the rise of virtual events. All of a sudden, we could attend dozens of events from the comfort of our living room. To top it off, these events were in most cases free to attend.
"A dream come true for attendees, or a nightmare for an industry in pain."
Cuthbert also asked about pricing? For hybrid events, that's mostly going to be trial and error. Should it cost less for people to attend virtually? But will that again be encouraging them to stay home—literally. Another advantage of the hybrid model, at least for the foreseeable future, is that it will be easier to pivot. In other words, committing to strictly in-person for, say, December or January, is still tricky. But add a virtual component, and then that could be easily extended. A foundation would be in place.
"That's where we are," said Cuthbert, who has not fully designed a hybrid event yet.
We're all looking to see what components work well so we can piece together the best experience possible—in-person, virtually, hybrid, or, at the least, in a bad TV movie.