September 21, 2021
By Mike Fletcher

If content was considered king before the pandemic, the enforced move to virtual and subsequent evolution to hybrid event formats has seen content’s ascendency from monarch to deity in the space of just 18 months.

Not only has the planner content role evolved from in-room to online, but it has also now evolved again with organizers needing to consider a blended balance of both digital and physical content streams that will keep two different audiences engaged in the event offer. Digital content strategies are now at the forefront for planners and marketers alike. 

In a virtual event environment, without the distractions of venue, the show-floor bar, or bumping into someone you haven’t seen for a while on your way to an educational session, the online attendee’s focus is squarely on the content.

They want to know what they’re going to learn, who they’ll learn it from, and how they’ll continue their learning and development journey with on-demand sessions and follow-up content, long after the event has finished.

So, how do you do this? How do you develop content for the stage that will bring attendees back into the room, while curating virtual content for broader reach and a 365-day brand engagement strategy?

Step one: Set your objectives

First things first, your virtual event isn’t the same as your in-person one. Broadcasting what’s happening onstage to a remote digital audience isn’t a hybrid event and charging online viewers to sit and watch a series of pre-recorded YouTube videos won’t result in positive delegate feedback.

Your mix of in-person and online content needs to carefully considered, by first setting strong goals and objectives.

Basic questions to ask should include:

  • Why are we doing this event?
  • Who is it for?
  • What do we want to gain?
  • What do we want our two different audiences to learn or take-away?
  • How will we measure success?

Some further content-led goals may include:

  • Does the event form part of a wider sales, marketing or communications strategy?
  • Do you want to share knowledge, information or demonstrate products?
  • Do you want attendees to be able to communicate with one another?
  • How will you track attendance, engagement and attendee satisfaction?

Clear KPIs will inform your content agenda and help you to determine the right hybrid format and the necessary engagement tools to make your content more accessible and participatory.

Step two: Understand your audience

When it comes to your audience, consider offering personalized content steams based on different attendee profiles.

For example, a recent virtual conference on the subject of digital transformation segmented its content into sessions that focused on healthcare, manufacturing, supply chain management, and pharmaceutical. Senior executives from these four sectors were targeted with specialized content on different days, before they were all brought together for a concluding session, which covered sustainability.

The four sector attendee profiles were supplied by the sales team, based on companies who were already using their digital services or were considering working with them. The C-suite seniority meant that the content needed to be high-level and in-depth, requiring a full day for each stream.

Maybe feedback has informed you that your in-person audience has chosen to attend rather than view online because they enjoy the more fun elements of getting together with peers. In that case, you may wish to add gamification or ice-breaker sessions.

If you’ve made it clear that an in-person ticket will get the full event experience, while an online ticket will purely focus on the content, don’t then expect digital viewers to get up and do a virtual yoga class during one of the in-person networking sessions.

Introverts and extroverts engage with event content in different ways. Being able to curate the right content for the right audience is one of the big advantages of the hybrid model.

A more introverted audience profile for example, may engage more with anonymised polls or chat functionality. But they won’t be impressed if you hijack their webcam and beam them onto a live video wall to ask a question to a speaker onstage in front of a physical audience.

Step three: Decide on your hybrid format

There’s a lot of terms being banded around currently for hybrid formats - ‘Hub and Spoke’, ‘Match of the Day’, ‘Ted Talk', ‘Echo’, ‘Book-end’, and ‘Community 365’ are just a few of the ones I’ve heard recently.

Basically, they boil down to whether or not you want to use a studio, complete with moderator, production team and optional guests to serve content to the digital viewer and how you want to disseminate content both during and post event.

Many planners find that bringing speakers into a studio to deliver online content inspires them to raise their game from sitting at home in front of a webcam.

Combine that with additional support - like having a professional coach able to guide them through a rehearsal, or the opportunity to practice with auto cue in a rehearsal room - and improved results are guaranteed. 

Also. there is only so much anyone can do with a speaker who has poor broadband and an untidy bookshelf behind them. Get them into a studio however, the whole thing becomes more harmonious and the production team can help your speaker to lift their slot creatively. 

Content dissemination could feature the in-person presentations being recorded but not streamed on the day and then edited, mixed with live virtual sessions and delivered on a different day.

Advantages of this format are huge – only one event to organize at a time, and less cost to capture but not stream the video.

Presentations can then be delivered "live" online with Q&A elements added and the presenters participating again but virtually.

Any attendee who didn’t get to ask a question in the physical room could then rejoin the virtual session and ask via the anonymised chat functionality.

Planning content for these example formats obviously needs to take additional factors into consideration, such as timezones, speaker commitments, investment in a professional emcee and more production resource.

However, by adding on studio content, additional sessions and asking your speakers to play a larger part, you’ll gain a richer library of broadcast quality content that could be disseminated online for the rest of the year to build community or generate a new on-demand revenue stream.

Step four: Content audit

Staging a blend of in-person and online event activity will of course see your content requirements grow so it’s important to revisit the audience profiles and review what’s being scheduled against the event goals and objectives.

It’s also a good time to understand if speaker content is available in various formats – infographic, slideshow, video, eBook and so on. This will help you offer downloadable content for online viewers and help you to plan what assets can be made available post-event.

You may also need to plan a promotional campaign to attract the right audience to your hybrid event and/or set out your credentials in a particular specialism via thought-leadership articles, press releases, video content and advertisements.

Your choice of format may attract new sponsor interest and provide opportunities for sponsored content or tailored brand messaging when viewers log onto the platform.

How many times have you sat at your desk waiting for the live stream of a conference keynote to begin while being forced to watch an empty auditorium slowly fill up or, even worse, stare at a visual place-holder? Your content strategy needs to consider not only the educational content but also what content attendees will see when no-one is on-stage or on-screen.

Here are a few virtual event ideas to drive focus and engagement:

  • Engage virtual audiences during the in-person welcome with live polls, feedback surveys, quizzes, or session preview videos.
  • Use a mobile event app to send push notifications.
  • Use gamification.
  • Offer a variety of content.

Remember: A non-linear attendee journey can offer more format options

Instead of running sessions consecutively one after the other and forcing your virtual attendee down a linear event path, viewers should have a choice of:

Five different digital content formats to hold audience attention

A studio hub can improve speaker performance

Let’s now look at five different content formats that hold the attention and keep hybrid attendees from zoning out or logging off. The right mix of these will provide you with an engaging programme plus a library of assets that can be reused and redistributed after your event.

1. Thought leadership

Interviews with industry leaders and visionaries in their field will provide virtual viewers with deep, insightful thought-leadership. Find speakers who will draw registrants. Interviews with thought-leaders via webinars or live on stage can be recorded, repackaged and posted to the event microsite.

2. Research-based

Marketers, researchers, academics and scientists are just a few of the possible speakers who may have conducted interesting studies to share with your audience. Or, consider using your visitor database or online registrants to conduct a survey and deliver the results in a dedicated session or segment it into bite-sized deliverables. Administering the survey before the event will give these audiences an added reason to attend and discover the results.

3. Client insight

Tap into your client’s insight for case studies, white papers, video tutorials and other forms of shareable online content. When deciding whether this pre-existing content will provide added value for a wider virtual audience, consider the community cross-over, along with your client’s social reach.

4. Product or service training

Staging online product or service training reduces the amount of travel and printed materials involved in the process of giving employees the knowledge and tools to do their jobs more effectively. Cut down the tedium and create virtual training programmes that include video scenarios and augmented reality-powered simulations.

For a hybrid demonstration or training format, why not get in-person delegates to ‘buddy up’ with virtual audience members in one-to-one workshops or small group break-outs.

5. Studio analysis

Use the studio format to record guests discussing what is taking place on the physical stage, which can then be made available to in-person attendees on-demand or broadcast to the auditorium later in the conference programme. It’s the equivalent of the half-time analysis in a football game and is designed to offer additional learnings and insight. If the in-person session is being streamed to the virtual viewer, the studio is temporarily redundant so it’s a good way of making better use of resources to create more shareable content.

Improving speaker content

Delegates around the world have been mentally drifting during live event monologues for years but because they hadn’t physically walked out of the room, we always count them as “present”.

Now, we have the technology to show if an online viewer is engaged, what content they’re interested in or even if they’ve opened a new browser tab in front of your virtual event content.

For years, event planners have been guilty of leaving content and delivery up to the speakers. But in a hybrid environment, planners need to ensure speakers not only deliver interesting and engaging content but that they deliver it in the most interesting and engaging ways.

Four ideas for guaranteed speaker success

Scripts and rehearsals can improve speaker content

1) Scripting

Scripting speakers in virtual environments is a sure-fire way to ensure presentations are delivered concisely and sincerely. In the live environment, autocue can be used to ensure that sessions run to time and don’t run over. Virtual viewers who log-on at a pre-scheduled time, only to find an in-person session is still running, are more likely to log-off and not return.

2) Rehearsals

Speakers need to rehearse both what they’re going to say and how they come across when delivering content.

How many times recently have you seen someone on a news channel in a badly lit room speaking to the news anchor with their iPad camera pointing straight up their nose? Often these are important officials or members of government who should have had media training in how to present virtually by now.

Don’t let your speakers get away with unprofessional presenting. If they really must present from home, make sure they have flattering lighting, professional sound and an eye-level camera. If they don’t, they need to be in your studio.

3) Variety

I recently saw a presenter flip to an overhead camera angle to illustrate an idea rather than present it on a slide. I can still tell you every detail of that drawing. Variety creates memorable moments.

4) Audience interaction

Make sure your speakers understand the virtual platform and that they’re comfortable conducting polls, moderating questions, creating word clouds and encouraging audience participation.

Why should you invest in a professional emcee?

Invest in a professional facilitator

With the rise of virtual and hybrid events, the moderator role has evolved way beyond the CEO trying to host the conference or just having somebody with good subject knowledge chairing panel discussions. It requires television broadcast skills and the ability to engage both in-room and online audiences across different venues, timezones and cultures.

The professional facility, moderator, studio host or emcee may have a show-caller communicating vital information into their ear-piece while they’re interviewing someone on-stage and, at the same time, be monitoring questions from the virtual audience.

An emcee needs to be able to read both the physical and virtual room continuously to keep energy levels elevated and maintain engagement.

A good emcee can also help you prepare speakers, liaise with content providers, maintain the energy levels both in the room and online, plus navigate anything technical that happens to go wrong.

Most of all, moderators have the advantage of experiencing all the successes and challenges of other company’s hybrid events and are therefore able to guide clients through some of the most common pitfalls so that they don’t make similar mistakes. It’s why an experienced emcee should be brought onboard early in your planning cycle.

Post event

Once your event is over, take a moment to take stock of how the content was received. This is the moment where you can look at what worked, what almost worked, and what could’ve been done better.

Allow attendees the opportunity to provide feedback. Have a look at the questions they asked during the event as well as in your post-event survey.

Check-in with your sales or account management teams as they will often receive verbal feedback on the quality of your content. This information should help you understand what to change for future hybrid events. Some content may just need a slight adjustment to make it work while some formats you may want to drop altogether.

The most important thing to remember though is that it’s your audience that should define what hybrid content means to you.

If, for example, you deliver event programmes for a pharmaceutical or healthcare sector, you may require more in-depth content accompanied by downloadable assets or technical briefings. If, on the other hand, you plan for more creatively-driven events, you may want to incorporate more collaborative brainstorming sessions, workshops and networking. 

Conclusion 

Hybrid has opened up new possibilities for digital content and planners are being encouraged to experiment rather than rely on how they’ve always done things.

It’s an opportunity to expand the horizon of events by surrounding a central activity with digital activation, which provides meaningful value to your audience for 365 days of the year.

Hybrid has brought into focus how important content is for year-round audience engagement. It’s up to you as planners to get out there and try different ways to engage multiple audiences experiencing the event from different locations.

For more information on Hybrid event strategies, download our eBook

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Mike Fletcher

Mike has been writing about the meetings and events industry for almost 20 years as a former editor at Haymarket Media Group, and then as a freelance writer and editor. He currently runs his own content agency, Slippy Media, catering for a wide-range of client requirements, including social strategy, long-form, event photography, event videography, reports, blogs and ghost-written material.
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