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Should You Host a Hybrid Event?

Should You Host a Hybrid Event?

It seems like everyone is talking about hybrid events. In February, the search term reached its highest volume in the last 12 months, and held steady at this position in March. You may have been part of that volume. We certainly were. 

As vaccination rates go up and infection rates go down, companies are thinking about the return to in-person events. But most are still being cautious. In an audience poll at a recent webinar about the return to in-person, almost 60% indicated they were thinking about hosting their next live or hybrid event in Q4 of 2021 or later, with almost another quarter optimistically eyeing Q3. 

In the same webinar, 79% of the audience indicated that virtual events would continue to be part of their event strategy even after in-person events come back. No one, including us, was especially surprised by that—there are just too many benefits of virtual events to let them go.

These factors are playing into the rising discussion of hybrid events. But what are hybrid events? And who is doing them? We explore these questions—and provide some guidance about how to decide if you should host a hybrid event, below.

What is a hybrid event?

A hybrid event is a conference or event that combines an in-person experience and an online experience. How you combine those experiences can vary quite a bit, depending on your goals. More on that below.

Why should you consider a hybrid event?

There’s a reason why events pivoted instead of going away in 2020. Events are one of the most important tactics in the marketing toolbox. In a survey we conducted with Demand Gen Report in late 2019, 95% of B2B marketers rated events as important to their overall demand generation—with 56% calling them very important. 

At that time, 54% of marketers said they expected event budgets to increase in 2020. And, while in the past, awareness typically topped the list of event goals for marketers, we saw demand-centric goals becoming more of a priority. 71% listed “driving pipeline” as their top priority for event marketing, and 63% named “engagement.” 

Why is this important? It’s clear that events fulfill many important roles for B2B marketers. Last year, the business world discovered that many of these goals can be achieved successfully and more cost-effectively through virtual events. But some of them can’t. Those serendipitous conversations at the happy hour, and those relationship-building dinners require a combination of spontaneity and time that can’t truly be replicated in a Zoom meeting.

That’s where hybrid events come in.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of a hybrid event?

The biggest advantage of a hybrid event is being able to reach a broad audience digitally, while still being able to provide that premium, face-to-face experience we all love. 

Hybrid events also allow you to provide an experience for those in your audience who are ready to get back to in-person events, while not alienating those who aren’t yet comfortable with the idea, including those from companies that have policies against sending their employees to events at this time.

At the same time, hybrid events add another layer of complexity to everything including experience design, content development, platform integrations, contingency planning, and analytics and reporting. Depending on your event goals, that complexity may not be worth it. And, for the foreseeable future, any event with an in-person component will involve new logistical questions such as health screening, vaccine verification, and ventilation and room capacity requirements.

What does a hybrid event look like?

For all the talk, there haven’t yet been any high-profile examples of hybrid events. In a recent article, Bizzabo co-founder and CMO Alon Alroy said that when it comes to the code for hybrid events, “No one has cracked it yet.” 

Here are the hybrid event models that we are seeing our enterprise B2B customers taking:

Hybrid event models.

IN-PERSON+.

HYBRID.

VIRTUAL+.

Optimize for in-person 

80% in-person / 20% virtual

Optimize for hybrid

(50 / 50)

Optimize for virtual

80% virtual / 20% in-person

 

IN-PERSON+ (OPTIMIZING FOR IN-PERSON). 

These events will be more physical than digital, but more digital than before COVID. In this scenario, event planners will focus on the live audience experience but, drawing on what they’ve learned about virtual events over the last year, make some of the content available online. One way to do this might be to stream high-profile sessions, like keynotes, but make the rest of the content available to your live audience only. Advantages of this model include being able to provide a premium experience for live attendees while being able to engage a broader audience with your digital content.  

VIRTUAL+ (OPTIMIZING FOR VIRTUAL). 

At the other end of the spectrum, these events look a lot like today’s premium virtual events, but include select in-person components. In this case, the experiences of online and offline attendees are both prioritized but may be handled separately. For example, both audiences may come together for keynotes in the morning but then disperse into separate in-person or online tracks in the afternoon. Communication between attendee types may be limited or not supported. 

The extent to which the event serves the online or in-person audience is likely to differ based on your goals and your audience’s needs. There is an exciting opportunity here to create experiences that are highly tailored.  For example, you might run one or more small, in-person, regional meetings concurrently with your large virtual event. Those at the in-person event could watch live streamed headliner content in their hotel room or together in a meeting room and then enjoy in-person networking, roundtables, demos or other experiences. In general, though, we expect that these events will be about 80% virtual and 20% in-person.

FULL-ON HYBRID (OPTIMIZING FOR HYBRID). 

A full hybrid event involves designing an experience that serves both in-person and online audiences equally well. Rather than planning and executing two full events, this means identifying event experiences that can either have dual components or can be easily created in both formats. For example, if one of your event goals were to create a VIP experience for select attendees, you might do this with a small catered reception for the in-person audience, and an online executive roundtable with a direct mail component, such as a food delivery gift certificate.

In addition to providing every attendee with a premium experience, a fully hybrid event will also enable online and in-person attendees to engage with each other. This means funneling at least some of the engagement opportunities through an app that in-person attendees can interact with on their device. For instance, the event app used by attendees to manage their schedule might also include networking and session Q&A tools that are integrated with a virtual event platform. 

HYBRID EVENT STRATEGY. 

In this scenario, event marketers will plan an event calendar that consists of a mix of virtual and in-person events. This might be a good way to ease back into in-person events with smaller, regionally-based meet-ups, such as account days/VIP experiences, while keeping your events virtual to allow for a much larger audience.

 

Should you host a hybrid event?

As with any event, the decision about whether, when and how to go hybrid depends on your goals for the event. 

Here are some questions that can guide your decision process.

  1. What are your event goals?

    • Connect sales to prospects. In this case, you might consider a hybrid strategy that combines a large virtual conference for lead gen with smaller, in-person roadshows where your sales team can provide a more human touch and build that personal connection.
    • Drive broad brand awareness. For this goal, a highly produced virtual+ event available to 4–7x your in-person audience may be just the ticket. Expand your reach even further by streaming select content and making it available to virtual attendees during or after the event.
    • Engage thought leaders. If thought leadership is your goal, the more voices the better. Enabling this mix of voices should be a priority. Consider a fully hybrid event, and make sure that both the virtual and live audience can contribute to session Q&As and can mingle in networking opportunities. Having at least some of your sessions be purely virtual may enable you to not only engage a broader audience, but also bring in a different mix of speakers than you could in a purely physical setting, because of travel costs or other logistics.
  2. Who—and where—is your audience?

    The location of your audience matters here, but other characteristics also affect this decision.

    • Local or regional. A regionally-based audience might lend itself to a roadshow or series of small, in-person events.
    • Global. A very dispersed audience lends itself better to a virtual or virtual+ event where you can schedule live sessions later in the day to accommodate attendees in multiple time zones, and offer the rest of your content on-demand.
    • Household makeup. In addition to those who don’t feel comfortable traveling right now, many people, including parents with children schooling from home and those caring for an elder, may not be able to travel for some time. If you want to reach a broad swath of people in the 30-50 age bracket, at least some virtual components will be necessary.
    • Employer restrictions. Some companies or industries may be restricting travel and attendance at in-person events. If your target accounts fall into this category, sticking with virtual is likely the right choice for now.
  3. What did you love about virtual events? 

    • The reach. There’s no doubt that virtual events open the door to new audiences. If you have the budget to do a physical event, then the in-person+ model might be the right choice for you. You’ll not only be able to expand your audience during the event, but you will have a wealth of digital content that can be used to extend the experience afterward.
    • The cost. Virtual events, while not cheap, can definitely help you do more on less. And, you’re likely to see an ROI increase after the first event for subsequent events using the same technology platforms. (Even if you add something new the second or third time around, learnings from your first foray into online events will drive efficiencies that will increase ROI.) In this case, a hybrid event may not be the right choice. Instead, consider a strategy that combines one or two large events per year, with or without a small hybrid component, and focus the rest of your budget on doing virtual events really well.
    • The data. One of the clear benefits of virtual events has been the incredible insights they provide about the topics, solutions and experiences that drive attendees to engage. The benefits of this data are pushing in-person events to be more data driven. Whether you’re planning an in-person, hybrid or virtual event, it’s essential to build in reporting up front, so you can make sure you can get—and use—your event data to extend engagement beyond the event.

The Iron Horse insight.

The biggest drawback of hybrid events is that we haven’t done them before. But, as we saw last year, necessity breeds innovation, and both marketers and event tech providers are up for the challenge. We are already working with some of our clients to plan hybrid experiences and are energized by the creativity everyone is bringing to the table. There will be hiccups but we are thrilled to be part of the process and looking forward to what this next wave of events will bring.