Planning6 Min Read

Boosting Attendee Engagement at Virtual & Hybrid Events

On November 4, 2020, Socio CMO Corey McCarthy gave a presentation at Event Tech Live on strategies for engaging attendees at virtual and hybrid events. Below is an excerpt of her presentation.

I’ve spent the better part of 20 years working in marketing at events from all sides — the organizer, the sponsor, and attendee. One thing we can all relate to is that it’s difficult getting attendees to events, even in the best of times. 

For most of my career, I was the youngest person on the team and seen as the most “techy,” which put me in the position of figuring out how to blend the digital and analog worlds. And here we all are — figuring out that space between digital and analog. 

In this session, we’re going to explore how to optimize attendee engagement all the way through your event. 

We will cover:

  • The hybrid attendee journey
  • Hybrid event design
  • Hybrid event technology
  • Hybrid-crossover plans
  • Community engagement
  • Storytelling 
  • Production value

Using Segmentation to Personalize the Attendee Journey

First, the question we need to all ask ourselves: Why will attendees come to a hybrid event?

This is where we need to take a step back and consider what the event experience will be like for each attendee group. Take a page from marketing and think about the attendee journey and how you can segment your attendees. 

In-person, virtual, and hybrid is one way to segment, but what if we dove deeper and took a look at breaking out titles and industries where it makes sense? By homing in on who will be there, you can not only customize the attendee experience, but you’ve also just opened up the ability to sell targeted sponsorships.

Breaking out audiences is easy if you have the segmentation baked into your event design, starting with registration. When registration is set up with your attendee journey in mind, people can choose from live, virtual, or blended experiences. Once an attendee’s event preference is chosen, organizers can segment each group and curate a meaningful experience with custom content and networking opportunities. Each attendee’s registration information flows through the platform, automatically populating their profiles. As they access the app, their experience can be segmented further based on the designed event journey. Maybe virtual event attendees have a special moment of delight waiting just for them? While different from the in-person experience, that moment of delight can add value. 

Socio registration ticketing

From there, attendees can engage with content and networking groups specifically curated for them. Another perk of segmenting your attendee base is the ability to create focused sponsorship packages that give vendors a chance to be the only company seen, or have special access to their target audience.

To successfully segment and create experiences designed to engage, you have to have the right technology in place that brings the two groups together seamlessly.

Some of the key features that will make your life easier include:

  • Registration
  • Streaming
  • Networking 
  • Engagement 
  • Community 

A challenge I think we’ll see when attendees go back to in-person experiences is that they’ll quickly forget about their virtual counterparts. This is where event design and attendee journey mapping become critical. 

Event Design with the Attendee in Mind

Event design will be the delivery system for your attendee journey. I urge event planners to go back to their high-level strategy and rethink everything. This shouldn’t be a painful exercise — think of it as an opportunity to truly make a dent in the event universe.

Start with your event strategy:

  • What are you looking to accomplish? 
  • What do you hope your attendees take away? 
  • Does the attendee value change for virtual versus in-person? 
  • What is the big draw on each side? 
  • Do you plan to bridge the gap between the two event venues?

When making tactical plans and figuring out your event flow, your strategy should guide your decisions. Make sure you create a journey map for each possible attendee experience.

Check out the winning presentation from Socio’s EventHack Hybrid Games episode on hybrid event design.

To bridge the gap between virtual and in-person attendees, event platforms become the main venue. If you show priority to the live attendees, you risk losing the engagement of the virtual attendees, which will diminish the perceived value of the event. Event designs need to be in place to keep this from happening.

Event Technology is the Great Equalizer 

As we move deeper into the hybrid event landscape, chat becomes the great equalizer between virtual and in-person events. From what we’ve seen, chat is one of the most exciting parts of an event, and sometimes even the star. Having a chat function that’s native to your event platform allows both attendee groups to participate in the chat simultaneously. This is key!

Live presenters and moderators should have screens available and monitor all of the chats. Moderators can integrate some great points from attendees to add value to the conversation. Done right, this is a powerful engagement tactic that keeps everyone focused and interacting with your content.

Hybrid-Crossover Plans: Bridging the Gap Between Virtual and In-Person Audiences

Think about where you have the opportunity to bridge the gap between your in-person and virtual attendees. 

  • Include speakers that participate both virtually and in-person
  • Offer blended roundtable discussions and dedicated networking “spaces” and times
  • Offer gamification that awards crossover connections between the two groups
  • Keep the live chat flowing through one centralized system
  • Have speakers and moderators call out and give credit for ideas from chats
  • Create unique opportunities for sponsors to engage with both attendee groups
  • Centralized polling and Q&A are also a way to engage the audience within the same ecosystem

Designing authentic touch points between both sets of attendees can be assisted through gamification tools in your event platform. Depending on your audience, gamification is a great way to drive engagement between your virtual and in-person groups. Give each attendee a special code so when they connect with an attendee from the other side, they can swap codes and earn points for each new connection. 

Community is the Tie that Binds Attendees and Content Together

You’ve worked hard to collect the right people to come to your event, now what? Community is the tie that binds attendees and content together.

Most people are unaware that Google will shut down their 3rd party cookies in April of 2022. With heightened focus on data privacy, communities will become an increasingly more important part of a company’s marketing mix. For the organizations where events are a profit center, creating a walled garden where sponsors and attendees can interact with each other 365 days a year offers a prime revenue source.

Socio communities

The year-round nature of a community allows event organizers to rethink their event timing. Hosting a 3 to 5-day event in a virtual setting isn’t going to be sustainable. It’s likely not what will happen for the in-person version of the event as well. In-person events will be smaller, shorter, and more regionally focused.

A community has a lot of other benefits, and the repeat engagement will create deeper relationships between attendees. Giving attendees the chance to digest the content without drinking through a fire hose will also make it more impactful.

Communities become the point of distribution for not only event information, they also serve as a content hub. Community members can stay engaged with surveys, research reports, case studies, networking opportunities, podcasts, or any other content you have to share.

Engaging Attendees Through Storytelling

In a hybrid world, we might want to think differently about how we structure our in-person conversations to translate for virtual attendees.  

This will require two major elements: Storytelling and upleveled production quality.

Storytelling specifically addresses Zoom fatigue. There was a great quote from Event Nerd’s CEO, Damany, at Socio’s EventHack Hybrid Games. “Zoom fatigue is real but you don’t hear anyone discussing ESPN fatigue,” he said. This is because ESPN was designed to keep you engaged. This is where we get to think like marketers and television producers.

What’s our story line? Who is the guide (think host or moderator) that will bring us along the journey? We thought about this a lot when we put together the EventHack Hybrid Games. No one wants to hear someone drone on. We all need to learn to be more concise. With this in mind, we decided to cut the hacker presentations from five to three minutes in favor of a Shark Tank-style conversation with the judges to mix it up.

Along the EventHack story line, we also changed up the media format with intro videos where we encouraged everyone to get outside and film themselves walking around their neighborhoods. Seeing people in the real world has been a delight! They’re moving and lit with natural light — who knew that would be so exciting! We play the intro videos before each team presents. They’re also a strategic element of our run-of-show. The videos provide enough cover so we can switch speakers in and out while arranging the screen according to our template.

Because of the way we’ve designed the run-of-show, the hour flies! There are multiple voices, movement, and a quick pace. When producing our in-person events, we’re going to need to rethink our story lines. It’ll be important that they translate into the virtual world, keeping both sets of attendees engaged.

Upleveling Streaming and Production Value

Another obstacle we’re going to face is how to properly layer the camera shots and stream them into your event platform — Zoom is obviously not going to cut it. This is where having an RTMP player will be critical. Most professional-grade streams won’t have chat, polling and Q&A. An event platform with an RTMP player (Real-Time Messaging Protocol) can connect to most streams, giving event producers the flexibility to uplevel their production quality while keeping engagement features for both audience groups intact.

Socio RTMP Player

In a hybrid event, these complications mean that Zoom is dead. Organizers will need to work with their AV companies to capture live or blended presentations and seamlessly stream content to virtual attendees. A few considerations: 

1) How will the stream arrive? 

2) How will virtual attendees access streams?

3) How will live and virtual attendees interact?

The first is answered with an RTMP player that takes the professional stream and makes it available within your event platform. Here attendees can access live streams and on-demand recordings in the agenda through an intuitive click of a button.

One of the reasons event organizers have been quick to use Zoom is its chat, polling and Q&A features. Most professional-level streams don’t have these features.

With native engagement features, live attendees can ask questions and take polls from their mobile devices while sitting in the audience, and within the same system as virtual attendees. More importantly, they’re all in the same chat environment, which is an important step toward blending virtual and in-person events into a seamless hybrid experience.

What are the best tricks to manage complex virtual events?

Simplify as much as possible. One of the most complex parts of running a hybrid event is managing the in-person and virtual speakers, as well as getting the right people on screen at the right time without glitches and clunky transitions.

Managing speakers is tricky. There seems to be a correlation between the number of PHDs a person has and their inability to operate computer cameras and microphones. Leaving enough time ahead of the event to do a proper dry run and a little speaker training goes a long way.

Once your speakers look and sound good, you need to figure out where they’re going to live before and after going “on stage.” Is it a Zoom green room? If you’re running a Zoom green room as breakout room with your live stage as another breakout room, it’s easy to teleport speakers between rooms without much issue.

The downside is that when you have too many speakers in a Zoom room, the production quality diminishes quickly, and is even more negatively impacted when speakers use high-res cameras. In this situation, they drag the quality of your stream down further.

You can solve production quality issues by moving to a streaming service like StreamYard and Socio Streaming. Videos look amazing and there are professional-looking bottom thirds, banners, and other features that offer a polish that Zoom can’t compete with without a creative suite like OBS.

The trick with platforms like StreamYard and Socio Streaming is that you can’t have more than 10 speakers in the room, whereas Zoom can have more (but with the video quality issues mentioned above). Why? Zoom is an app on your computer and the other streaming services are web-based. Fun fact: the 10-person limit is a web browser constraint, not a streaming system constraint. Many streaming services are actively hacking this, so stay tuned.

Until we’re able to figure out how to squeeze more speakers into a web browser streaming service, you’ll still need a Zoom green room. From the Zoom green room, you’ll have to send people over to the live stream and then instruct them to come back to the green room after their presentation if they need to stick around for a Q&A session.

Switching people on and off the screen is also a compilation that should be well thought out and simplified when possible. One trick is to build these transitions into your run-of-show and mix up the content with a pre-recorded intro video or sponsor advertisement. Hiring talent to draw images or having the hosts ask the audience to take a live poll are other good ways to create meaningful breaks and leave enough time for the production crew to get the right people in the right place before going live.

Ideally, all of the speakers would live within the streaming service that natively lives within your event platform, allowing speakers to interact with the live chat and other event functions in one intuitive ecosystem. We’re getting close to this day. 

Another way to simplify complex virtual events is to streamline everything with one, end-to-end system. If there are multiple tracks, try segmenting attendees by track and tailor their event platform experience to show only the tracks of sessions they selected. Cutting down on unnecessary noise will create a better attendee experience.

So we’ve covered the keys to creating attendee engagement in virtual and hybrid events:

  • The hybrid attendee journey
  • Hybrid event design
  • Hybrid event technology
  • Hybrid-crossover plans
  • Community engagement
  • Storytelling 
  • Production value

This might seem daunting to some, but I see it as an opportunity for event organizers to be game changers and as Steve Jobs would say: “dent the universe.”

Please feel free to reach out on LinkedIn, Twitter, check out Socio, and join us for the EventHack Hybrid Games.

Corey McCarthy
Corey McCarthy
Award-winning B2B and B2C marketing executive. Fueled by chocolate chip cookies. Signature catchphrases include "Watch this" and "I got you."