Should you host your next conference or meeting both in-person and online? Also known as a hybrid event or multi-access event, this approach is becoming more and more popular. In this article, I'll discuss the pros and cons of hybrid events, and what to keep in mind when considering doing an event both online and in-person at the same time.
If you missed my first article on alternatives to Zoom video conferencing, hi! I’m Tony, and I’m the Community Program Manager at Team SPI. Since 2007, I’ve been hosting gatherings in person and online, from running a coworking space to weekly mastermind groups to multi-hundred-person conferences over Zoom and other platforms. I’m always looking for the best possible tools to help people connect in meaningful ways.
I’m super focused on creating experiences that are accessible, inclusive, and meaningful. As we’ve all had to deal with the balancing act of in-person and online meetings of various kinds, I’ve been looking for ways to have the best of both worlds. We can keep a lot of what we learned from this time, so our meetings and events can be that much more rich and available to people going forward. And hybrid events—ones that offer an in-person as well as an online experience—allow your audience to join and engage with your event no matter where they are.
Let’s get to know what it looks like to host a hybrid gathering, and why you might (or might not) want to give one a try. Here's what we'll be covering in this post.
- What events can be made hybrid?
- Is hybrid worth the trouble?
- Advantages of hybrid events
- Disadvantages of hybrid events
- Tips for organizing a great hybrid event
- In summary
What Events Can Be Made Hybrid?
Hosting a gathering both in-person and online is more work.
Events & conferences
It’s hard to imagine big conference-level events taking place anywhere but in person, but online gatherings mean the ability to scale up to thousands of participants all around the world, without the need for renting out a venue and asking people to fly in. When people don’t have to book a flight and a hotel to attend, your event becomes a lot more accessible!
Some of your team wants to meet in person, while others (for various reasons) would prefer to meet from outside the office. While it’s always tricky to mix in-person and virtual participation in a meeting, careful planning can make it a possibility.
We’re all dealing with enormous Zoom burnout, screen fatigue, and just generally being done with video happy hours—but there are still plenty of ways people can and do enjoy participating in social programming online. The trick is to design ways of engaging that actually meet people where they’re at, instead of just assuming everyone’s going to be on video.
Is Hybrid Worth the Trouble?
Hosting a gathering both in-person and online is more work, but doing so opens up access to a much wider portion of your audience.
Whether that’s worth the trouble will depend on your goals for the program, the needs of your audience, and your capacity for facilitating what are effectively two different programs simultaneously. Let’s break down some of the strengths and weaknesses of going hybrid, and get you what you need to get rolling!
Advantages of Hybrid Events
Going hybrid offers some powerful benefits:
More people can participate.
More forms of access mean more people can join. No matter what you do, someone isn’t going to be able to join one form of gathering, but they may be able to join for another. If you’re hoping to reach a wider array of people in your network, the more avenues the better.
People can join from anywhere.
Geography is a huge constraint when producing an event—no matter where you hold an in-person event, it’s likely going to be inconvenient for a good number of people. This is especially true for anyone with accessibility considerations or loved ones who have them, and doubly so during a pandemic!
Hybrid is more inclusive.
People deal with a variety of challenges you may never know about. Some people get anxious riding a subway or driving a car; some people are sensitive to bright light and sound, some people just get nervous around other people. Plus, life happens, and sometimes people aren’t feeling good about leaving the house and being among other people. Beyond this, people have all manner of physiological constraints that make meeting in person difficult.
All of this is to say: offering multiple forms of engagement is inherently inclusive.
Online offerings do come with their own accessibility tradeoffs (see my thread on that here), which are worth accounting for as well, but ultimately more people will find an option that works for them when they have more than one to choose from.
Multi-access opens up our imagination, giving us more than just two options for how we gather. While hybrid thinking leads to a fixed duality of synchronous programming (offering an in-person and virtual option for the same moment), multi-access reminds us that our experiences, learning, content, and gatherings can happen at different times, in different spaces, for different people, in different ways.—Cantor Rosalie Will, Rabbi Esther L. Lederman, And Rabbi Leora Kaye, “Don’t Call it Hybrid: Multi-Access is the Future for Jewish Communities”
Disadvantages of Hybrid Events
Not everyone should immediately jump into hybrid events; in fact I would rather you assume you shouldn’t do it until and unless you’re sure you need to and you’re sure you can do it well. A few challenges to consider:
They’re more work.
You’re going from producing one program in one medium to two programs in two forms of media. They require different skillsets, additional staff, and more overhead. Doing either format (online or in-person) is challenging enough—doing both at once is an order of magnitude greater in difficulty.
They’re hard to do well.
In many cases, a given event is going to have a native format it was originally designed for. An in-person event that’s being adapted to go online, for example, will require extra attention to ensure virtual participants have a quality experience. It’s often hard to avoid the feeling that virtual participants are second-class citizens compared to the people meeting in person.
Remote participants can feel excluded.
People who are online are never going to be able to feel the same kind of connection people feel when they meet in person. Inevitably, people who meet in person will have more serendipitous encounters and side conversations, which enrich the experience for them in a way that virtual participants just can’t reproduce in the same way.
Fortunately, there are ways to mitigate these challenges and take advantage of the opportunities these new approaches afford. I’ve compiled some of my most important tips for you in the next section!
Tips for organizing a great hybrid event
Taking into account the above tradeoffs, let’s get to work planning a great hybrid event!
Get clear on your goals.
This disruption gives us a chance to step back and investigate why a given gathering is happening in the first place—don’t just scramble to re-create what you’ve been doing all along, just because you’ve always done it that way. Make sure you know why you’re doing it! Getting solid on this will be critical in informing how you approach designing your experiences.
Focus on making both of them great experiences on their own.
To the extent possible, online participants should feel like they are participating in an experience designed for them, and not just tuning into something that’s really supposed to be in real life.
That means both experiences should be designed with their respective audiences in mind. If additional programming or effort needs to be dedicated to the online event to make that more of a complete experience, do what you have to do.
This gets much easier when you…
Designate a dedicated remote production team and ambassador.
Think of a sports broadcast—there’s a team of people at the venue producing the event for in-person ticketholders, but there’s also a whole other team of people who are working to create an enjoyable television broadcast.
Similarly, when you have separate people who are focused on the in-person and online experiences, each can focus on doing their job well.
You can then have someone on the online team play “ambassador,” representing the online participants in person on their behalf. This ambassador can ask questions or contribute perspectives from the online community, bringing their participation into the physical realm and helping those folks feel represented.
For public-facing broadcasts and events, the person in this role might also be monitoring social media chatter as well.
Consider time zones.
Extending your offering online means accounting for where people will be viewing it. If you’re in the eastern time zone in the USA and want people from the west coast to join, you probably don’t want to do an event before 12:00pm ET (9:00am PT). Similarly, if you want people from Europe to join, earlier tends to be better.
If your event falls outside those time ranges, just make sure you’re clear in your communications so people can plan accordingly. Get in the habit of always appending times with their time zones, so people don’t get confused.
In other words, don’t tell people an online event starts at 12:00. Tell them it starts at 12:00pm ET. For bonus points, include a link to a handy time zone calculator! I love Every Time Zone for this.
Design for asynchronous participation while you’re at it!
Giving people the option to join in person or online substantially widens the potential audience for your event. If you want to widen the scope much further, consider adding one final layer of engagement—asynchronous online participation.
While it’s clearly not the same kind of participation you get from a synchronous experience, people who are unable to attend an event they really want to attend can in fact still feel very much like they have been a part of the event if you give them quality ways to engage with the content and conversation before and after the event takes place.
Are there question prompts you can offer to asynchronous participants before the event happens, so they can be invited to contribute their questions or responses? Can those responses then be read aloud during the event, so you can record how people react? Can you then post the recordings along with followup posts after the fact, so the asynchronous participant can keep the conversation going from there?
All of this, fortunately, is useful in extending the impact and meaning of a program for the synchronous participants as well, encouraging continued engagement long after the event has ended.
Focus on quality over quantity.
People aren’t necessarily starving for more time in front of their screens, so if you do one event really well, people will be more likely to make time for it. If you try to do too much all at once, you spread your own resources thin and risk overwhelming your audience with options—leading them to skip everything.
When you’re really able to focus your energy on one great experience, however, you can figure out exactly what works best—and then, when you’re ready, you can roll that out to expanded programming from there.
Identify your business goals, talk to your people, design both experiences separately, and iterate!
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