Chicago-based virtual event provider InXpo offers the following tips for holding an effective hybrid event.
1. Promote based on your audience. Plan your marketing schedule strategically. Begin promoting the virtual event to those located farthest away from the physical event location; conversely, promote the physical event to those based near the event site. As the event date draws closer, only locally promote the virtual event to those who haven't responded.
2. Staff properly. Ensure adequate staffing coverage for physical and virtual needs. Don't expect staff members to support both venues simultaneously.
3. Blend the experience. Create ways to bring the physical event into the virtual one, and vice versa. For instance, have presenters acknowledge the camera/virtual attendees for keynotes with a live video stream. For session Q&A periods, allow virtual attendees to submit questions via chat to a moderator.
4. Promote a single event brand. Don't overly emphasize the physical event vs. the virtual one.
5. Create a command center. Set up the virtual support staffers in a command center at the physical event site.
Cisco Live, the technology giant's annual customer conference, is a big production. It consists of programs for technology partners, developers, IT managers and executives, the press, analysts and more -- all meeting under one roof and sharing keynote presentations and an exhibit hall. The latest iteration offered close to 500 breakout sessions. But as of October 2008, the conference planners were getting a little anxious about the following summer's event.
"When things were not looking good with the economy, it became clear to us that there were a lot of customers who wanted to come to the event, but there was no way they were going to get funding for travel and training this year," recalls Kathy Doyle, senior manager, Global Cisco Live & Networkers conferences. "So at that point we decided to move forward with a concurrent virtual event, which we're calling a hybrid event. The goal was really to give our customers the option to attend virtually if they did not attend the in-person event."
Interest in so-called hybrid events is growing rapidly, according to virtual event technology providers InXpo, ON24 and Unisfair. Such shows can be broadly defined as any physical, in-person event that includes a virtual component, from live streaming keynotes to a full virtual environment. Streaming presentations are, at this point, a far more common scenario than events offering a complete online show environment in conjunction with a live gathering, as the Cisco Live team provided.
Together with Chicago-based InXpo, Cisco created a virtual event that took place on the two main days of the June 2009 physical version of Cisco Live, which ran for five days in total. For those two days, Cisco broadcast live webcasts of the keynotes and primary sessions, and offered an additional 40 sessions, some of them live and some on-demand. A virtual exhibit hall was staffed by booth representatives online. Cisco provided additional opportunities for virtual attendees as well.
"It was important to blend the experience," notes Doyle, "making sure there were components at the live event that the virtual attendees had access to. But then there was also unique content, just for those virtual attendees, to make it special to them. One example was a live Q&A chat with executives. That wasn't something attendees at the live event had access to. The customers who participated in that really loved it. That was one of the highest-rated events."
Cisco's virtual event team meticulously designed the online program to
mimic the experience of the in-person event, notes Dannette Veale,
Global Cisco Live and Networkers virtual manager, corporate event
marketing. "I worked very closely with our content manager to make sure
that the experience we were distilling for our virtual audience not
only represented the same breadth and depth of content, but also the
same weighting or percentage within the technical tracks," she says.
virtual-only experience, called "Ask the Expert," combined the elements
of the on-site programs "Meet the Engineer" and "Technical Assistance
Clinic," both of which consisted of one-on-one time with technical
experts. For the live event experiences, attendees scheduled
appointments in advance; for the virtual "Ask the Expert," however,
attendees could enter chat rooms at designated times to consult with
representatives from various technical fields. Customers with
hard-to-solve problems were matched with appropriate experts who
provided additional assistance via instant messaging.
"It was really
one-on-one troubleshooting and design consultation with some of our
known experts in the field," says Veale. Like the executive Q&A,
this was highly rated by virtual attendees.
virtual component of a hybrid event can take a great deal of planning
and preparation -- as it clearly did in Cisco's case. The cost must be
factored in as well: A virtual event on the InXpo platform ranges from
between $25,000 and $50,000, and up to six figures for highly
"In some cases," notes Bob
Bahramipour, chief marketing officer of InXpo, "our customers are
taking a percentage of their physical event budget and allocating it
to virtual as a way to extend the audience." With virtual, he adds,
"The overall cost per attendee is significantly lower for the organizer
More than 10,000 people attended Cisco Live in
person in June, and an additional 4,500, representing 28 countries,
attended the virtual event. As Cisco's goal was to increase loyalty
(and, potentially, sales) among customers who were unable to travel to
San Francisco for the physical conference, the addition of the virtual
component was hugely successful.
"We definitely broadened the
reach of our customer base," says Kathy Doyle. "This year we touched
14,000 people, which was a record number. In some cases they were
customers who wouldn't typically attend the live event. So, for
example, 37 percent of our live attendees were first-timers. However,
in the virtual world it was 55 percent. So we think this is a great
marketing funnel for us to make people aware of the event."
on attendee survey feedback, that should translate to increased
in-person attendance. Thirty-four percent of the virtual attendees said
they are extremely likely to attend the live event next year. What's
more, adds Doyle, "of the people at the live event, only 7 percent said
they would attend virtually next year. So it's a smaller number who
say, ‘Oh, now that there's a virtual option we're going to do that
instead.' I think that might be one of the biggest fears that show
producers have -- that a virtual event would take away from the live
conference or possibly cannibalize your paid attendance. And we really
didn't find that that was an issue."