Why hybrid events aren’t going away soon

hybrid engagement 2290434541_e4a4ce2896_o
I’m a big fan of hybrid events (events designed to provide a worthwhile experience for both local and remote audiences), but I think Dannette Veale is hankering after those Jetsons flying cars, based on this recent quote:

In the future, says Dannette Veale, global manager of the Cisco Live and Networkers Virtual event, there will be no more live vs. virtual discussions. The two experiences will overlap so completely, that what we now perceive as two separate environments glued together through some “hybrid” sleight of hand will merge into a single, seamless stream of content, entertainment, and engagement that can be accessed from either end of the physical to virtual spectrum…
…In the future, there will be no more hybrid events—a term that implies the cobbling together of two separate realities into one hiccuppy, Frankensteiny, excuse to multi-task. The future of events as Dannette Veale envisions it is one where the learning is über compelling, the engagement is exhilarating, and anyone can participate.
When there are no More Hybrid Events, by Michelle Bruno, posted January 10, 2011

I wish I were as optimistic as Dannette Veale when she predicts that live and virtual will “merge into a single, seamless stream of content, entertainment, and engagement”. It would be great—but it isn’t going to happen any time soon.

It’s the last term, engagement, where I part company with Dannette. While content and entertainment can be easily and effectively streamed now, engagement, arguably the most important ingredient for a successful event, cannot be created by a single stream, and suffers from signal delay issues that are very difficult to overcome.

Effective engagement requires many-to-many channels
Effective engagement amongst remote attendees requires many-to-many channels. If I am a local attendee, I can wander up to a group of people in conversation and listen and engage with anyone present. I can be aware of multiple simultaneous connections and can initiate and switch conversations with ease. But a remote attendee is restricted to (usually) one or (at best) a few streaming feeds produced at the event site. These feeds are not under remote attendee control. I’m not aware of any hybrid events that provide individual, real-time, two-way AV connectivity to more than a modest number of remote attendees, since the number of streams required increases as the square of the number of participants.

We have a hard time providing a few simultaneous streaming channels now, let alone the hundreds or thousands that would be needed to effectively match the experience of live attendance at an event. Including a chat room for remote attendees, as Cisco currently does, is a pale substitute for the rich real-time interaction that routinely occurs face-to-face.

One possible way to live with bandwidth limitations while providing a better remote experience is to develop systems that, while providing a small number of two-way connection channels, dynamically switch the limited channels between attendees who are currently active. This is analogous to the fishbowl group conversation technique I often use at Conferences That Work; at any one time, a limited number of interactions are possible, but the people in conversation can “swap out”, while everyone else watches and listens. Such approaches are still at the research stage, but while welcome, they still will not create the kind of seamless engagement Dannette implies.

Currently, the best hybrid events do a decent job providing text-based back channels for remote attendees to comment and ask questions, and remote emcee ambassadors can help to bring these attendees into the room and offer them some compensatory content, e.g. presenter interviews, that the local audience doesn’t necessarily get. But without individual, real-time, two-way AV channels for remote attendees, their experience will always be significantly inferior to that of local participants, and I don’t see this state of affairs changing soon.

OK, maybe one day soon we’ll all have rock-solid 10MB+/sec connections to the internet, with OC-768 lines feeding our local ISP. All at a cost that’s too cheap to meter. (Don’t hold your breath.) Even if this glorious day arrives, however, remote attendees will still face another fundamental problem.

The effect of signal delays on engagement for remote attendees
Anyone who has used the fledgling group video chat services available on the web (e.g. tokbox, tinychat, and, recently, Skype) knows the limitations of these services. Some of the flaws, like poor video & audio quality and unreliable operation might be alleviated by the availability of high bandwidth links and appropriate internet backbones, as described and desired above. What is harder to mitigate, however, is the signal delays that video conferencing routinely introduces.

Research has shown that signal delays of less than a quarter of a second can seriously affect both the interpersonal understanding of conversations and the free flow we take for granted when we speak to another person face-to-face. Terrestrial links often suffer delays this large, and satellite circuits require a minimum of .5 seconds for a simple round-trip signal. It’s unlikely that these limitations will be overcome soon, except for remote attendees who are close (in channel terms) to where an event is being held.

Furthermore, though I’m not aware of research in this area, signal delays also mess up our habitual ability to read body language responses (mainly facial). Most people, in my experience, are not consciously aware of how well they can “read” interest, boredom, agreement, and emotions on others’ faces. Body language is telegraphed almost instantly and is hard to mask. When we lose the immediate feedback from experiencing how others around us respond to what we say and do, we lose a highly significant channel for connection.

The report of hybrid events’ death was an exaggeration
The difficulties of providing a comprehensive many-to-many channel experience for remote attendees, when combined with the subtle yet important communication degradations introduced by signal delay will, in my judgment, ensure that hybrid events will be around, live and kicking, for a long time yet. What do you think?

Photo attribution: Flickr user catspyjamasnz

Why The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

The Revolution will not be televised finalA number of people have asked whether EventCamp East Coast (EC²) will be livestreamed. The answer is a qualified “no”, and since this is a different choice from those made at the original EventCamp in New York City and EventCamp Twin Cities I thought I’d explain why.

We’re concentrating on the face-to-face experience of the local audience at EC² for three reasons. Two of these factors are straightforward, while the third requires clarification.

The first reason is philosophical. The conference organizers—Traci Browne, Lindsey Rosenthal, and I—want to create an effective, uncomplicated event. Serving a remote audience well, as was done at the recent EventCamp Twin Cities, adds a significant level of complexity, not only to the organizer’s workload but also to the demands on presenters and the local audience to integrate the two audiences successfully.

The second reason is a matter of logistics. We three organizers enjoy busy professional lives, and possess a limited amount of time to make EC² the best conference we can. Creating an excellent remote audience experience (we wouldn’t be satisfied with anything less) would significantly shift our focus from other important components of EC².

The final reason is event design related and, perhaps, the most fundamental. The Conferences That Work design that we are using adds a default requirement of confidentiality to what happens during the conference. Let me explain what this means and why we’re doing this.

The thought of providing confidentiality at a conference may seem strange or counterproductive, especially these days where event sessions are routinely streamed and videoed for anyone who wants to watch. But in fact, there’s always been a need at some meetings for a commitment to confidentiality.

The classic example for a need for confidentiality is diplomatic meetings, where, to make best progress, participants need to be sure that what is said isn’t broadcast to the world. In this case, the reason for off-the-record conversation is to benefit relationships between the institutions that the diplomats represent.

But there’s another reason why confidentiality can be useful when people meet face to face; the personal benefit of the participants.

Perhaps the most well known example of events that provide this kind of environment are the 30 years of Renaissance Weekends, where participants “CEOs, venture capitalists, business & social entrepreneurs, Nobel Laureates & Pulitzer Prize-winners, astronauts & Olympians, acclaimed change-makers of Silicon Valley, Hollywood, Wall Street & Main Street, Republicans, Democrats & Independents” agree to the following policy:

All participants are expected to respect Renaissance Weekends®’ tradition of the candid and welcome exchange of diverse opinions, safeguards for privacy, confidentiality, and non-commerciality, and family ethos. Comments, behavior, or public references which could compromise the character of Renaissance Weekends® are unacceptable.

In my experience, all peer groups can benefit from this kind of environment. For example: more than once I’ve been told by different doctors I know that they regularly meet with a small group of their peers to confidentially discuss professional issues. In each case, the doctor I was talking with said, in effect, “There are some things that I can only talk about with other doctors.” The Conferences That Work format extends this kind of possibility to any peer group, and I believe that providing this opportunity can be important to any group of people with a common interest.

At every Conferences That Work event I’ve run, there are some sessions where the attendees decide not to share the proceedings publicly—in a few cases not even with other participants at the event. A common example is a frank discussion of the pros and cons of commercial tools and services available to attendees. And it’s not uncommon for a session or two to delve into work- or industry-related issues where attendees are looking for support and advice from their peers. Although these sessions are in a minority, it’s impossible to reliably predict in advance whether a specific session will turn out to require confidentiality.

All sessions at Conferences That Work have a recorder assigned to them, who makes notes or otherwise records the session. Because of the default requirement of confidentiality, unanimous agreement of the session’s attendees at the end of the session is needed for the recording to be made public.

In conclusion, it’s likely that the recordings of most of the sessions at EventCamp East Coast will be made available publicly, but they won’t be streamed live. So if you’re interested in fully experiencing EC², please join us on site in Philadelphia! I hope this article has explained why we’ve made these event design choices, and I welcome your comments and questions.

The cost of hybrid events

ECTC equipment 2Reading Sam Smith’s frank article about the resources and effort that went into the production of the remote component of EventCamp Twin Cities (ECTC) got me wondering.

I counted ten full-time staff needed to create the remote component of this amazing event, which delivered an impressive participative and immersive remote audience experience.

1 Virtual Event Design Consultant / Project Manager
1 Virtual Emcee: The Host of the Remote Broadcast
1 Tech Director: Calls the show, video camera shots and switches
1 Twitter Moderator: Captures questions, comments and ideas from the audience
1 Soundbyte Tweeter: Tweets Out Speaker highlights under the event’s Twitter ID
1 Main Session Cameraman
1 Studio Cameraman
1 Mediasite Tech: Manages video, audio and VGA feeds going into Mediasite system
1 A/V Tech: Manages the House signals
1 A/V Tech: Manages the Video and Audio Switches for Remote Audience

Most, if not all, of these people needed to be around for at least half a day before the live event. And none of them (I hope) are normally paid minimum wage.

Then there’s the equipment and technology that was used:

2 Cameras: One for the main room and a second for the studio
2 Camera Tripods
1 Riser – to make the tripod sit over everyone’s head
2 Studio Microphones (These are linked to webcast – but not house sound.)
3 House Sound Microphones
1 Media Site Player (this is the webcasting gear)
1 Video Switcher
1 Interview Studio (Table, Chairs Backdrop, Professional Lighting)
1 Twitter Hashtag
1 Event Twitter Account
1 Webcast Player (Mediasite provides this – but can be configured)
1 Intefy System (Virtual Front Door that shows video, schedule plus twitter streams)
1 Hosting Server for Storing and Hosting Streaming Video
3 Laptops for Virtual Emcee, Twitter Moderator and Fact Based Tweeter (if not the same person)
Various and sundry cables to connect and power everything

All this does not usually come for free. I’m not privy to the financial details of EventCamp Twin Cities, but I do know that much of the above was donated by the companies and personnel involved, and that this generosity is and was much appreciated by all of the local and remote attendees. These substantial sponsorships of the event made it possible to offer free remote passes to the remote audience, making it easy for 500+ people to tune in and enjoy a superb remote audience experience.

What I’m wondering about is the economics of creating hybrid events when the time of donations disappears, and the fine folks at companies like Intefy, SonicFoundry, and Allied Productions & Sales, need to get paid for their time, equipment, and expertise.

I’m guessing that the regular price tag for a setup like the one used at EventCamp Twin Cities might run in the region of $30,000. (Please, those of you who actually know what these costs are; stop laughing and enlighten us.) If so, that translates into a cost of around $60 per remote ECTC attendee.

Perfectly justifiable if that attendee would otherwise have to pay for a plane, accommodations, travel time etc. to attend in person.

But not free.

Another thing to bear in mind is that the costs to provide the two-way interactivity that was a hallmark of ECTC were largely fixed; they’d be more or less the same if 100 or 1,000 people had showed up. In the former case, the cost becomes $300/attendee—an amount that might be a concern for many event planners working with small or highly specialized target audiences.

I don’t see many possibilities for reducing the personnel numbers and outlay required to run a good hybrid event. I expect that equipment and bandwidth costs will decline in the future, but I’m willing to bet (and would love to be proved wrong) that the expense involved to add a remote audience with the capability for meaningful participation will remain a significant component of a hybrid event’s budget for a long time.

What do you think of the hybrid economics I’ve described? Can you provide better figures for the expense to add a remote audience to a hybrid event? Will the relative costs and rewards act as a deterrent to you to add a remote audience—or do you see them as an income producing opportunity?

Image attribution: Noah Wolf Photography

A potential drawback to hybrid events

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Recently, there’s been a lot of buzz in the events industry about what are being called hybrid events where there are two audiences: people physically present, the local audience, and people connected to the event remotely, via Twitter, chat, audio, and video streams, the remote audience.

Event planners are excited about this new event model because it has the potential to increase:

  • overall audiences
  • interaction between attendees
  • exposure for the event
  • exposure for event sponsors and the hosting organization
  • the value of attendee experience through new virtual tools
  • the likelihood that a remote attendee will become a face-to-face attendee in the future

Because of these positives, I think it’s likely that events that include local and remote audiences will become more popular over time, as we gain experience about what formats work and become proficient at resolving the technical issues involved in successfully hosting these event environments.

But there’s one thing we may lose if we add a remote audience to our events.

At the face-to-face conferences I run, attendees start by agreeing to a set of ground rules. These ground rules create an environment where participants can speak freely and ask questions without worrying that their individual statements or viewpoints will be revealed outside the event.

It’s hard to convey the difference this assurance makes to the climate at Conferences That Work unless you’ve attended one. The level of intimacy, learning, and community is significantly raised when people feel safe to ask “stupid” questions and share sensitive information with their peers.

I’m not sure that it’s possible to create the same environment of trust when an unseen remote audience joins the local participants. Believing that everyone will adhere to a set of ground rules is risky enough when everyone who agrees is in the same room as you. To sustain the same trust when an invisible remote audience is added is, I think, a significant stretch for many people. If I’m right, the end result of opening up a conference to a remote audience may be a reversion to the more common environment of most conferences today, where asking a question may be more about defining status than a simple request to learn or understand something new.

Do you think that hybrid events can be designed so that they are still safe places for people to ask questions and share around sensitive issues? Or do you think I’m over-blowing the whole issue?

Content versus conversation

Content vs conversation 515731969_9df2505684A few days ago during an #eventprofs chat I tweeted Cory Doctorow’s remark (made in 2006 in a boing-boing post): Conversation is king. Content is just something to talk about. This inspired a variety of comments from such #eventprofs luminaries as @JeffHurt @MichaelMcCurry @lyksumlikrish @JaredGoldberg @camerontoth and @samuelsmith.

Here’s the point I was trying to make.

Sure, we need to have content at our events – something to talk about. But content is everywhere—I don’t need to go to an event to get content! If I never left my office again (now there’s a thought), as long as I paid my internet provider’s bill each month, I could choose, receive, and absorb content for the rest of my life.

And what a miserable life that would be.

I need connection, engagement, conversation to make my life meaningful. And, in my experience, so does most of the human race.

Content these days is ubiquitous. Face-to-face events are the places for powerful, life-changing connection and engagement. That’s why we need to make them the best possible environments for conversation we can. And when we do, our conversations will naturally encompass the content that is meaningful for us.

That’s why, for me, conversation is king.

Image attribution: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tonz/ / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

14 things I learned at EventCamp 2010

(Part two of my reflections on EventCamp 2010, held February 6th in New York City. Part One here.)

Adrian at EventCamp 2010
Image kindly provided by Sofia Negron Photography

As at every good conference, it was the people who made EventCamp 2010 most memorable. I can confirm that #eventprofs are just as cool face-to-face as online! To be warmly accepted in New York City by members of a virtual community that I joined just ten weeks ago, and to enjoy curiosity and interest about my book and Conferences That Work from members of the professional events industry for many years was a great experience for me.

I made and strengthened many relationships at EC10, and I learned some interesting things. Hopefully some will be new to you as well. Here’s a summary:

  • Paul Salinger: 1) Oracle runs thousands of events every year. Oracle’s European face-to-face meeting attendance was falling. Making them hybrid events (f2f events with a simultaneous remote audience) has turned this around. 2) But Paul is not a fan of the current generation of commercial virtual event platforms.
  • Twitter is being used successfully to drive retail sales to physical venues (e.g. “first 100 people to whisper “puppy” at our New York store get a free cupcake”).
  • In a similar vein, Jeff Hurt kindly explained to me how FourSquare is being used to cross-market between businesses that are close to each other (“check in at this hotel and get a free drink at the neighborhood bar tonight”).
  • How to price attendance at virtual events compared to the price for traditional attendees? No agreement at EC10 – one person had successfully charged the same (~200 people, half present half remote) which surprised most people. Someone suggested trying a contribution model.
  • Robert Swanwick recommended posting video clips of conference presenters online before the event starts, giving participants an advance look so they can better choose the sessions they attend.
  • Tools for event streaming: Robert mentioned Procaster for stream editing and his product twebevent [Jan 2013 update: alas, twebevent is no more] which is available in a free version.
  • Jeff Hurt gave everyone a Post-It note and asked us to “write what you want to learn in this session”. He had the notes read out, while simultaneously grouping them into similar themes. Then Jeff  facilitated a session discussion and exploration of these themes, while skillfully weaving in his own comments and thoughts. This was a simple and effective technique for letting groups effectively explore the issues they want to explore.
  • Have an “MC of remote audience” who monitors the back-channel (usually a hashtagged Twitter feed) for audience questions and comments and communicates them to the local audience.
  • Find out who your brand champions are (specific customers who are enthusiastic evangelists for your products/services), stay in close touch with them, and be real nice to them!
  • Google “social media releases” to find out about how to write them – they’re not the same as traditional press releases. You can build social media releases on pitchengine or prweb.
  • What’s the most common technical problem for hybrid events? Not enough Internet bandwidth! Mary Ann Pierce told us that for several thousand people, she supplied dedicated 100MB service!
  • Here’s a great idea of Jeff Hurt’s to help to keep a balance between the needs of face-to-face and remote audiences during a session. Periodically, have the f2f audience hold five-minute discussions in small groups, while the speaker interacts directly with the remote audience!
  • Remember that the typical attention span of an attendee at a session is about ten minutes. Consider switching your mode of interaction frequently to hold attendee interest.
  • Don’t just stream events. Record the stream and make it available on demand. A lot more people will watch it that way.

That’s my list. If you were at EC10, feel free to add yours!

First impressions from EventCamp 2010

(This is the first of two posts about EventCamp 2010. This one contains my first impressions; tomorrow I’ll write about what I learned there.)

EC10 - you had to be there...
EC10 - you had to be there...

Yesterday I attended EventCamp 2010 (#ec10) in New York City, a remarkable one-day conference organized by a colorful group of folks who coalesced around the #eventprofs hashtag on Twitter. In one year, their online connection generated enough energy to fuel the hard work needed to put together and run a successful face-to-face and simultaneous online conference for progressive event professionals from all over the U.S. A big shoutout to Christina Coster, Jessica Levin, Mike McCurry, Mike McAllen, their volunteers, and all the other folks involved for all their hard work putting EventCamp 2010 together.

EC10 was billed as a hybrid conference. While I’ve used the term hybrid to refer to conferences that are a mixture of peer conference and traditional conference, the #eventprofs crew use it to describe a conference that’s both face-to-face and online. Some 70 of us came to NYC, with an unknown (to me currently) number virtually. Since even I can’t be in two places at once, I couldn’t experience what it was like for the remote audience, but I’m very interested in reports from members of the #eventprofs community who attended online.

One really cool thing that the EC10 organizers did was to stream live interviews with each sessions’ leaders right after the session ended. This gave the remote audience exclusive extra content, with even the opportunity to ask questions directly afterward (remote questions were also answered during the sessions). It was like TV award ceremonies, where the cameras go backstage and the TV viewers get content that the physical audience doesn’t. The interviewer was the remarkable Emelie Barta, who I’d recommend to anyone needing smart media-savvy company promotion. While I’m handing out kudos, all of us owe a big vote of thanks to Core Staging who donated their time and equipment to make it happen for both the live and virtual conference.

When I walked through the door of the charming Roger Smith Hotel, I had never met a single member of #eventprofs face-to-face. That changed in the next few hours as I fell into conversation with #eventprofs luminaries at Lily’s Bar, and later 22 of us took cabs for a meal at Piolas. Those little Twitter avatars I’d seen over the last few months were replaced by real live people. What fascinated me was how the spirit that I had felt in our online conversations came right through face-to-face. And no longer was our conversation restricted to 140 character tweets and blog posts.

I was really surprised by the professional diversity of the folks I met at EC10. Convention center managers, trade show presenters, hotel sales managers, social media consultants, trade booth designers, association staff, marketing professionals of every stripe, show service vendors, eco-event organizers, event management gurus, the list goes on. I didn’t meet anyone who seemed to be a direct competitor of anyone else – everyone had their own niche, servicing a unique set of needs. Perhaps this is a reflection of the fact that the events industry is HUGE ($100B per year), but it was cool to learning more about the field from every person I spoke to.

We had a full day of sessions on Saturday from 8:30 a.m. – 5 p.m. The program had several sets of simultaneous sessions; I chose sessions on creating a hybrid event, integrating social media on-site, creating an online conference community, and balancing the needs of face-to-face and remote audiences. The latter was my favorite, run by the skillful Jeff Hurt. Jeff showed himself to be a master of finding out the group’s needs and then leading a focused discussion that uncovered many useful insights. (And he even ended on time!) I also enjoyed Samuel J. Smith‘s fishbowl (a favorite group technique of mine) on the on-site integration of social media. But every session contained nuggets of useful ideas and information.

For me there were only a few minor negatives to the event.

  • I was disappointed that the conference program ended up having no free time slots for alternative sessions proposed by several conference attendees. I offered a couple of sessions related to Conferences That Work, but with worthy pre-announced sessions filling all the time we had, I didn’t get a chance to lead a session. (OTOH, there was widespread interest in my book, and I sold many copies, making my suitcase a lot lighter on the return journey to Vermont.)
  • The hotel’s wifi connection often buckled under the strain of live streaming and the highly connected attendees, which led to somewhat unpredictable Internet connectivity.
  • The clever unannounced lunchtime entertainment was entertaining, but took away time I would have preferred to spend on our energetic mid-day conversations.
  • Deirdre Breakenridge’s closing general session was, for me, the weakest. While a knowledgeable and likable speaker, she didn’t ask the audience what we wanted to hear about, and gave a prepared talk that didn’t really grab my interest. It was noticeable that, unlike other sessions, the #ec10 Twitter stream reflected very little of what she said.

After a high-energy but very enjoyable day, those of us who didn’t have to jet off somewhere else retired to Lily’s once more and from there, walked a block to Connolly’s where I greatly enjoyed dinner with Karen Levine, Jenise Fryatt (the famous @lyksumlikrish – my favorite Twitter name), and Traci Browne. And then I staggered off to bed…