Effective events for digital and in-person attendees
For the past two years, event professionals have been trying to redefine hybrid events in a world that hasn’t quite made its way back to normal. Despite our best efforts, the further we dig to understand what these mixed events will look like, the more we realize that “hybrid” is going to be a fluid continuum.
Some things, of course, are certain; like the indisputable excitement over returning to in-person events! There are elements of meeting, learning, and sharing in-person—specifically the ways we connect with other people—that just haven’t been replicable online. However, the events industry isn’t eager to walk away from the amplified reach and data that digital brought with it, leaving an understandable desire to find some way to combine the benefits of each.
That being said, the lack of definite answers about the hybrid category has led to a lot of stress and confusion, as event marketers look to usher in these new events. At Swoogo, we’ve heard partners, prospects, and customers alike, grapple with their own understanding of what hybrid is supposed to look like, and whether the most obvious structure—equal experiences of the same event for digital and in-person attendees, with distinct ways to bridge both audiences—will work with their tools and events.
This guide is the first piece of our team’s effort to demystify the hybrid category, and we look forward to continuing to share as we see more successes, more failures, more data, and especially, more events.
In this paper, we’ll look at:
When digital events began to emerge as a broad category in 2020, the industry was in the midst of an existential crisis: we simply couldn’t go on as we always had.
The rise of digital events can’t be attributed to the desire for more attendees, the broader selection of speakers and content, the digital advertising opportunities for sponsors, or even the robust customer behavioral data we’ve been able to pull from them. Digital simply became popular because it had to; the ensuing benefits were an unexpected, pleasant surprise.
Hybrid events, of course, are messier.
While the reasoning behind the hybrid event push is clear—retaining audience reach, increasing event ROI, and harvesting better customer data—the direction for it isn’t; maybe because hybrid events are such a new creature. A new creature we need to think about in an entirely different way. The digital advantages listed above can be embraced without taking on the behemoth effort of creating experience parity across multiple audiences at a single event. When we try to run two events at once—and connect them in a meaningful way—many of the advantages simply disappear. The experience is diminished for participants on both sides, as compromises are made to address the other audience, and the load on the organizer becomes almost impossible to manage.
As we dive into breaking down hybrid for this guide, we’ll talk about it as two distinct methodologies: Hybrid Strategy and hybrid events. The former—our strong recommendation—is easier and more cost-effective to employ, engages audiences for a longer period of time, brings with it the advantages of digital events, and delivers strong, unique experiences across the board.
It does not focus on creating simultaneous, equal experiences, nor creating a day-of-event audience communication stream (though community remains centrally important). Thus, a Hybrid Strategy doesn’t employ hybrid events at all; instead, we add a freestanding and long-lasting digital counterpart to any in-person event. In this approach, we relegate “hybrid events” to, perhaps, what they were all along; a nice idea, a big dream—nothing but a myth.
A Hybrid Strategy combines a discrete in-person or digital event, with a longer-term, loosely structured online component. You may have also heard a Hybrid Strategy called community hybrid, a 365 event, or an ever-vent.
The point of a Hybrid Strategy is twofold:
In a Hybrid Strategy, the function of the online component is not that of a freestanding event, but instead a gathering place for content, sponsors, and most importantly—people. In most cases, the online component will stretch before, during, and after the in-person or main event. Here’s what that looks like:
Let’s say you’re planning to have an event once a quarter. Your online component would open before the first event began, for news and networking. Then, after your first event ended, you would make your day-of-event content available for rewatching, or allow those who weren’t able to attend in-person to watch it for the first time.
As you roll out your second, third, and fourth events, your content library and online event community grow, and your reach extends exponentially. Attendees become more engaged, content becomes reference material, and sponsors can carry on more and longer conversations. Meanwhile, your event staff only has to build your online community once, and can keep their focus squarely where it belongs: running excellent in-person events.
Josh Shepherd, Event Tech Strategist
I worked on an event for a client wherein all previous years it was executed as a week-long user conference in rotating cities, but this past year we converted it to a community hybrid approach. It was executed two days per month for six months. The attendees registered once and were able to return to the event as often as they preferred without needing to re-register each time. Content was added every month to the overall content library which grew throughout the duration of the event.
Each month, there was a slight revamp to the experience within the digital venue. Changing the graphics and backgrounds with the seasons, current events, or themes made it feel both familiar and new for returning attendees.
The event brought out some interesting results. Measuring the attendees who returned each time vs net new each month was a very cool metric. The overall unique attendee numbers across the time the community event was open vastly beat previous years! The number of people who returned every session was amazing. People started engaging with the digital event days before and after each set of live days—with a continual trickle in between.
In a post-Covid world, everyone is excited to return to in-person, but even with a return to the week-long in-person format, there’s great potential in creating a longer community event with continuing education sessions. This extended format allows for continued capitalization on both extended engagement of in-person attendees, but also the expanded audience reach found through the community event format.
Some key benefits of employing a Hybrid Strategy for your events in 2022 and beyond:
Ok, you caught us; a Hybrid Strategy is, in some ways, a type of hybrid event. Still, there are some important points of differentiation to consider here:
Running your Hybrid Strategy should have a nice home-y feeling to it—because you’ve done this before. By looking beyond the notion that you must run two events at once, merge two very different audiences on the event day, or create content bridges to address both sets of attendees, you boil a Hybrid Strategy down to two event types that you already have experience in creating: in-person and on-demand virtual.
With that in mind, you may find the building blocks of a Hybrid Strategy to be pretty familiar; you just may use them a little bit differently in 2022. Here’s what you’ll need to make it happen.
Registration for your event will require more complexity than just an in-person event would. Where you may already have several registration pathways for your in-person attendees, speakers, sponsors, and other types of guests, you also need to create tracks or pathways for those who only wish to visit your digital hub.
Conditional visibility rules are a great way to make your registration form and system work for all types of registrants, without doubling your workload or creating two distinct online event destinations—after all, you would still need some kind of website, even if you only ran your in-person event. Some examples of in-person fields that aren’t relevant to virtual-only attendees include: dietary restrictions, proof of vaccination, flight information, accessibility considerations/requests, etc.
If you’ve been following us so far, you’ve probably already realized you need a strong, digital event core to support your Hybrid Strategy. As you evaluate digital event partners, consider that you’ll need:
And some things you may not need anymore:
Admittedly this is the part where we’d typically suggest some technologies that will work well as your digital event hub, however, we happen to have a really strong preference on this one, and … well, it’s us.
Because your digital component should be able to live on its own, it’s important that you beef up your hub with plenty of opportunities to keep the conversation going and (maybe more importantly) avenues where your audience can reach you.
You’re probably familiar with these or similar engagement tools, as they’ve been used for digital events, and in many ways their purposes stay the same as you consider them for a Hybrid Strategy. Still, there are new questions to ask yourself and your tech vendors when you apply these tools to your freestanding digital component:
While every event will be unique, here are some of our favorite tools to consider:
Pigeonhole Live is a multipurpose engagement tool that can live on your digital hub next to your on-demand content. It adds a lot of rich features to your event, like chat, polling, Q&A, and more. It also has moderation capabilities and the ability to program questions and polls in advance, so you can leave it running even after your team’s signed off for the day.
Bonus—Swoogo users can get a pretty rad discount on Pigeonhole Live through us, so hit your Account Manager up for details.
Tawk.to is a free tool that can act as your digital help desk. Remember in-person events, where you could just walk up to the check-in desk any time you had a question? Ah, simpler times. With Tawk.to, you can connect your audience with your team and triage requests to the correct person as quickly as your temp check-in staff could have found someone with the right answer. Quicker, actually. See, digital really is amazing.
The Tawk.to widget can be placed right in your event hub to keep your audience happy, connected, and in the right place.
Speaking of temp staff, you can also hire Tawk.to’s team of professionally trained, native English-speaking agents to help you answer your chats for just $1/hour (Yes, you read that right). It’s easy to use, incredibly cheap, and can help you add a personal touch with optional video chat. This feature means your help desk can stay on for your out-of-timezone event community at all times and should help you and your event team rest a little easier.
Walls.io is an embeddable social wall that you can put on your digital event hub (or any other page) that pulls content from public social media sources via hashtag. Optionally, it can also pull information from a form you can provide to your attendees and aggregate both types of messages into one cohesive engagement wall.
By sharing content from other attendees 24/7, you can easily create a sense of an always-on community; audience members get an instant feeling of not being alone in a digital room, even when they log in at 2 AM in their pajamas.
In many ways, your digital engagement tools will be shared by your in-person attendees when they come back to rewatch your content or engage with your wider audience network post-event. Still, it’s important to have some fun at your in-person event—here are some tools we love for keeping your audience’s attention.
Glisser has a variety of excellent engagement tools designed to enhance in-person presentations. From an accessibility standpoint, we love their slide sharing feature, which allows attendees to follow along with a speaker’s presentation on their phone. This makes it easier to see for those who are far away, and gives every audience member a better chance to read and digest what’s on each slide.
Glisser also allows speakers to build polls and quizzes, generate word clouds, and integrate other fun games and ideas into their presentations.
InGo is a social media tool that specializes in driving attendance for your event. By employing social media logins as a registration option, the software creates instant social proof by notifying potential registrants that other members of their existing networks will be at your event, too.
Conversely, InGo allows attendees to search for others within their network that are attending the event. This in turn creates more hype around the event and facilitates more engagement and networking during the event. Using InGo can help you reduce drop-off by reminding registrants of others in their network who are coming with cool messaging such as, “Your event is in 3 days! Jon and Kirsty from your network are looking forward to seeing you there”. InGo also speeds up the registration process (if a registrant opts-in) by pulling information from social networks to auto-fill relevant fields.
As we dive into this section it’s important to take special note of its title—when we talk about hybrid strategies you might not need to consider streaming as a high-priority capability. Instead, let’s explore video and video capture.
Because your digital event community will rely on pre-recorded video to consume your content, it’s a great idea to have a production team onsite at your in-person event, to ensure you’re capturing your speakers in a way that will feel high-touch when it’s viewed later on. While a lot can be done to create visual interest in post-production, there’s simply no replacement for good lighting, good angles, and high-quality footage.
Speaking of post-production: getting your videos in shape can equate to a lot of work and with it, a lot of money. While those who are running large events with big budgets will likely outsource the bulk of this work to a video production agency or freelancer, high-quality content is still within reach for a marketer or planner without a ton of money to throw at the problem.
Socialive is a broadcasting tool that gives laymen producers an easy way to create curated video with graphics, multiple layouts, and the ability to cut between cameras. While the platform was originally created for broadcasting to social media, the software quickly grew into a popular video editing tool with the rise in popularity of digital events last year. Still, its social integration tools are intact, giving you more options for how you want to distribute your content.
Another piece of tech that many marketers don’t know can function as a post-production tool is Vimeo.
While we’re all likely familiar with Vimeo as a video hosting service, the Vimeo content creation studio packs in a wide range of excellent, professional-quality content production tools for you to use right in the app.
Post-production aside, Vimeo also gives you great insights into your audience’s viewing behavior, and lets you build great marketing tools right onto your stream—like providing an in-video, clickable CTA during or after your content.
Mobile apps are enjoying a place in the spotlight at the moment, with their apparent function as a bridge between in-person and digital components of “true” hybrid events. While this probably is the case if you move forward with that event type, in a Hybrid Strategy the mobile app plays a different and more traditional role.
In a Hybrid Strategy, the mobile app lives as an accessory to in-person engagement. Digital visitors simply don’t need access to a second screen’s worth of content, so when you’re eliminating the need for two audiences to interact, the value of a mobile app for your online audience diminishes.
Instead, mobile apps should be used as an amplified version of their pre-2020 function; places for in-person attendees to find event news and updates, get notifications, find their sessions, find each other, and discover sponsors and other stakeholders they’d like to meet.
More importantly in 2022, using an event app to check-in at sponsor booths, answer poll questions at in-person sessions, or unlock lunch or drinks at the bar helps you capture more (and more accurate) audience data. In a moment where we’ve seen firsthand the power of knowing how your attendees interact with your event by way of digital event data, bringing that hunger for data-driven insights to your in-person event is essential to proving efficacy and ROI.
You may also want to consider implementing a mobile app that allows attendees to stream on-demand content to their handheld devices; after all, at least 30% of all video content is viewed on smartphones or tablets. Minimum.
To break that down, the key benefits of using a mobile app in your Hybrid Strategy are:
With those benefits in mind, here are the two types of apps you might consider, as well as our recommended providers.
All-in-one apps are designed to solve for information, engagement, and discovery in one place. This app type is ideal for moving in-person attendees around the room, keeping them involved in content and presentations, and introducing them to sponsors, stakeholders, and other attendees.
The advantages of using an all-in-one app are:
EventMobi is an all-in-one solution for event apps that includes all of the capabilities listed above for engaging attendees before, during, and after your in-person event—key to your overall Hybrid Strategy.
EventMobi has an easy-to-use app builder to help you include the components you want and organize your information. If you need to make changes later on the app will automatically update, leaving attendees with the most up-to-date version automatically. The EventMobi app is available in both the Apple and Android app stores.
Basic apps are more informational than a true addition to your event experience. While this app type helps attendees get around and see who else is participating, they often lack engagement features and data-gathering opportunities. This may make an all-in-one app seem like a no-brainer, but the price point for basic apps is typically much lower for a product that’s capable of getting the core functions of a mobile app done.
The Attendee Mobile app by Swoogo can be added to your event on a per-event basis for a one-time fee of $500 per event—a significantly lower-cost option than its all-in-one app counterparts.
Attendee Mobile has several core functions pre-built, and you can add tons of custom functions from your Swoogo event pages by integrating them. The core of the app is informational, giving attendees access to speaker, session, sponsor, and agenda details at their fingertips. However, any web page in Swoogo is fully mobile responsive, and can live on the Attendee Mobile app as well; that means gamification and engagement tools you use on your event site can be available through your app.
As a Swoogo user, this is a fantastic option from a data perspective—because it’s automatically and natively synced. You don’t have to worry about duplicate data entry on sessions, speakers, sponsors, or attendees.
In a Hybrid Strategy, networking remains as important as ever—it’s just segmented between in-person and pre- during- and post- event online attendees.
Because much of your audience will attend asynchronously within your digital component, strong and easy to use networking tools go a long way to fostering a true event community instead of an online content library.
Still, networking is a big word for a lot of different kinds of tools. While we certainly haven’t exhaustively covered all options, the following providers sit within three easy categories of networking technology types.
Grip is one solution for making sure your attendees are meeting with the right people. Grip’s artificial intelligence-backed algorithm suggests which people attendees should meet with based on mutual goals. This matchmaking style is super-effective when you’re looking at a huge library of other attendees; which may be the case when you’re running a long-term digital component with an extensive event community.
Instead of putting the burden on attendees to do background research and figure out who might be the most beneficial to connect with, Grip’s smart suggestions narrow down the list to help each visitor meet more of the right people more quickly.
Intermittent Twine networking sessions are a great way to continue fostering spontaneous connections within your digital community long after your in-person event has ended.
Twine creates topic-based chat rooms where the event organizer can curate relevant, timely, or meaningful questions for participants to discuss. Creating designated Twine chat times for your digital community means delivering the serendipity that’s often missing from any type of online event or component, and keeps visitors coming back for these headline networking sessions even after they’ve consumed all your online content; a perfect time to put new marketing messages in front of them.
Spinning up instant 1:1 meetings is one of Swoogo’s best features, but it’s also a great tool for easy advance meeting booking for your digital audience.
Meetings created through Swoogo’s 1:1 networking functionality are hosted entirely on Swoogo; no need for attendees to bring their own Zoom link or exchange phone numbers in advance. Meetings are invite-only, private, and must be accepted by both invitees, putting attendees in full control of their schedule, and who they want to meet.
Using a 1:1 meetings tool within the large network of your digital community helps attendees book and meet more quickly and efficiently, making the most of their time in your online space (or at your in-person event).
It probably won’t come as a surprise that implementing a Hybrid Strategy will have more associated costs than hosting a single event type on its own.
Because you’re running both an in-person event and maintaining a robust online presence (likely including several pieces of connected technology), you’re essentially footing the bill for two separate events.
As unappealing as this may sound, the expanded reach, audience size, and recurring attendees you gain by maintaining your digital community, have the power to significantly increase your ROI, even as your budget grows.
Here’s where your money should be going, and how you can expect your spending to change:
Hoping to save some cash? Look for a hybrid event platform that doesn’t nickel and dime you by charging per registration or per event. And in case we didn’t mention—with Swoogo’s subscription, you get unlimited registrations and unlimited events, not to mention 30+ free integrations.
As we return to in-person events in general, it’s imperative that we remember the considerations that should already have been in place to make your event accessible. (This isn’t a comprehensive list, but one to get you started. Please research additional considerations to ensure your event is fully accessible for all.)
When we apply this specifically to your Hybrid Strategy, we expand those considerations to our online audience. While you may already have taken this list into account, we hope you’ll find some opportunities to make your event and digital component a friendlier space for all.
As hard as we try (and believe us, we’ve tried), we can’t wish taxes away. Employing a Hybrid Strategy undoubtedly has the most complicated tax ramifications, as you’re dealing with two types of events that are each taxed separately. Sales tax within the United States is complicated because it varies for each state. If you’re running a large hybrid event spanning multiple states and countries, it can get a little sticky unless you’re a tax professional.
Cue Avalara. Avalara is a tax software platform that helps businesses get tax compliance right. Taxes aren’t an area that you want to be “good enough” at because you might work hard, but the IRS works harder. We recommend using Avalara to make your life a lot easier (and so you don’t have to use the words economic nexus thresholds very often).
Psst. Swoogo is fully integrated with Avalara. So bring on your event taxes!
If you want to learn more about sales tax for hybrid, virtual, and in-person events, then check out our 2022 Sales Tax Guide (we even broke down the economic nexus thresholds for Every. Single. State.)
If we had the ability to take one piece of wisdom and really make it stick as you approach implementing your Hybrid Strategy, it would be this one: you have nothing to worry about.
In the chaos that is trying to understand hybrid, many of us have forgotten a core truth—we already know how to run a Hybrid Strategy.
When we give ourselves license to explore beyond the idea of a single-instance, true “hybrid event,” we reduce this mountain to the molehill it is—an in-person event and an online event community. The methodology we laid out here is designed to give you everything you want out of your event—in both its in-person and digital format—while taking away the one thing you don’t need: added stress.
Another important reminder before we leave you: a single-format event is beyond good enough.
If reading this guide has still left you in a place where your workload feels immense, and questions are still swirling, we recommend taking a step back and doing what you do best: run an event. You may find a digital component is easy enough to add later on, or that you’d rather stick with digital events as a whole. Both are fine. Neither is fine. Your events are going to be fine, and more importantly, the experience will be much better than fine. Approaching your events portfolio from a place of confidence and experience is the most important rule.
We wish you the best on your in-person, digital, or hybrid journey. And, as always, we always have your back. If you’re a Swoogo customer, we encourage you to reach out to your Account Manager for any further advice or clarification. If you’ve yet to join the Swoogo family, our friends at [email protected] are always happy to provide more detail around the contents of this guide.