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Hybrid Events – an enhancement, not a replacement

Restarting a multi-billion pound industry

When was the last time you experienced affiliative social engagement? This is a phrase that psychologists use to describe the simple act of ‘being there joining in’. Think of it as the opposite of FOMO.

Affiliative social engagement is not only when you’re included in something, but when your physical behaviour is influenced too. This could be as simple as clapping at the end of a song during a concert, or in a more informal setting, cheering when someone drops a glass (come on, we’ve all done it…).

It’s all around us, but somewhat difficult to experience in isolation. Despite the abundance of the apps, plug-ins and platforms we’ve seen emerge as a direct response to remote working, too much technology could mean that we lose that spark of social interaction when we’re anywhere else but in front of each other.

Restarting a multi-billion pound industry

According to the Business Visits and Events Partnership, 845 major exhibitions were cancelled in the UK alone last year – to the tune of £8.9bn. Hardly a drop in the ocean for a sector worth over £31bn at the start of 2020. And that doesn’t account for events across the rest of Europe, the US, Middle East, or Asia Pacific regions.

The quick thinkers and fast movers were able to offer some form of online or virtual event, with home workers signing up and in from their kitchen tables and study room desks alike. And we joined the club, of course, with plenty of on-demand webinars being hosted by some of CARMA’s experts around the world. But is it the same? Has it influenced the future of the events industry? Is this new acceptance of remote working strong enough to give the ‘hybrid event’ a stronghold?

Hybrid events – it’s about choice

Over the last few weeks, we’ve found ourselves at events in Manchester, Leeds and London, and we’ve even been able to dust off the tuxedos and cocktail dresses. Dare we say it, we’ve missed the long train journeys and late-night taxis as parties, conferences, and award nights reappear. But the return to ‘in-person’ is no longer everyone’s preference. And why should they be?

Workforces up and down the country have radically changed the makeup of their company culture, with many offering mixed ways of working, and others closing down physical offices to go fully remote. With events so intrinsically connected to business, especially in PR and Comms, it’s only natural that planners and producers must accommodate those who want to attend virtually. And in an industry so big, frequent and varied, attendees can afford to be fickle too – there will always be another conference or event better suited to them.

The shortfallings of entirely virtual events are clear – technically, things can go wrong (for them and us – we’ve all been to an event with those infamous ‘technical difficulties’). Culturally, we are restricted to our 16:9 windows and in many cases, we can’t even see who else is in attendance. And subjectively, we all get a little sick and tired of Zoom, Teams, or other clunky, third-party platforms.

But there are obvious advantages too; we’re not quite out of the woods yet with regards to COVID – we saw a sharp increase in cases at the tail-end of summer. So ‘virtual’ is still seen as a safer option for many, and potential attendees are simply not ready to throw themselves into a heaving throw of commuters, co-workers, and strangers for the sake of one or two talks that they may or may not enjoy.

Let’s not forget – driving best practice in PR and communications, and indeed in its measurement, is a global mission. The flexibility and ease of virtual events has allowed us to drive forward global best practice together, not bound by distance; budgets; or calendars.

Inclusivity will triumph

Overall, opinions are still very much divided, so the key here is going to be inclusivity. You’ve got to make it work for everyone, including those harder-to-reach groups within your audience. The successful events will be the ones that accommodate all, and do so with an undeniably impressive line-up of speakers and sponsors (the pressure really is on for organisers not to sacrifice quality by way of cost-saving), because we know the logistics should make it easier, and hence the quality of events is being driven up.

However, it’s going to take a little more than adding Jen Psaki to your speakers list to encourage signs-ups and sales. At-home attendees want to feel included and engaged, and not feel like they’re a mere afterthought, watching a blocky, low-res stream via a camera precariously balanced somewhere at the back of a conference hall. We’re more than eighteen months in now, team, and our audiences expect better.

Inclusivity sounds easy in practice, but a brilliant online event that also knocks it out the park for in-person attendees is a challenge even for the biggest of technology budgets. We’re Zoom-fatigued, we’ve burned out on boxsets, and our attention spans have dwindled after 18 months of read now, watch later, click here, tap there, flag, delete and snooze. Expectations are high, but how can we understand exactly what audiences are expecting?

Research is key, data is everything

‘Build it and they will come’ is as old as time, but it doesn’t work for us all. If Metallica announces a YouTube-streamed concert tomorrow, they’re guaranteed millions of live viewers. They know their audience, and their in-person concerts demand a hefty price point, not to mention the ability to stand in a field for three hours.

Events don’t have it so easy, with audiences’ attitudes, wants and needs varying wildly from sector-to-sector – there is no dedicated fanbase. There is also no one-size-fits-all for hybrid events. Would a web developer conference work well online? Sure. How about the Southampton Boat Show? Unlikely.

But the point is, do we know that for sure? When was the last time you sought to understand your audience – through researching their online behaviour, conducting market research, or triangulating third-party data? Understanding accessibility and social mobility are fundamental, and the industry is catching up. But it’s more than that, too. We’re more than a year and a half into the biggest societal step-change we’ve seen in over a century. Audiences are changing, their behaviour is changing, and now is the time to check back in and understand your audience.

With so many new variables to consider, you must listen carefully to your audience, monitor your audience and your competitors, and pay very close attention to the technology that can best empower experts. Think of events in 2021/22 as a magic triangle; event PR and comms must now prioritise people, purpose and platforms.

Technology is a basis, but audiences need more

Technology, in our view, should be complementary – an enhancement, not a replacement. In the same way that tech has helped those with accessibility requirements, we should also consider it as essential for those who simply want to see the world, and events, in a different way.

Anyone can set up a pretty zoom registration link, right? But let’s not forget the substance behind the style. Fundamentally, whether the event is online, in a London hotel, from a Dubai skyscraper, or a Rocketship on Mars; your audience want to know, WIFM. What’s in it for me? Be helpful, drive value, deliver what matters; you can bet you’re on a path to success.

So events are back. And nobody truly knows what the future holds for them. What we know? An audience is an audience, remote or live. Events are back, and its time to live them.

Speak with one of our experienced consultants about your media monitoring and communications evaluation today.