by Michael J. Shapiro | November 30, 2009

Cisco Live eventCisco 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.

Another 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.

Boosting attendance

The 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 customized environments.

"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 and sponsors."

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."

Based 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."