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. But there’s a potential drawback to hybrid events.

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?

12 thoughts on “A potential drawback to hybrid events

  1. Hi Adrian! I agree with you that trust can definitely become an issue for hybrid events. However, I think there is one additional concern: in a face-to-face environment, people are often nicer and more civil, looking to network and make the best impressions. In an online environment, people tend to be more honest, and more specifically, brutal, with their critiques and interactions. Hybrid events just change the overall form of interaction between individuals in a group setting. I think as planners/event professionals it’s just going to be important to note these possible issues and try to prepare for them as best we can.

    1. Lindsey – that’s an excellent expansion on what I wrote! Yes, remote audiences are potentially more likely to be snarky, since they may feel more anonymous when they’re not physically present.

      One way to lessen this discrepancy between local and remote audiences would be to provide remote attendees with a short “suggested code of conduct” notice, either at registration, or, better, right before they are connected to the event stream.

  2. well adrian i can give you an immediate metaphor and that is a televised concert.

    perhaps a hybrid event is “closed circuit” with limited access to known individuals. but even then, if it’s a fairly large number, and they are strangers, that will definitely impact live event behavior.

    being on TV makes it exciting but one also becomes very conservative. it’s just a different environment altogether. the anonymity of the audience and their possible large size can be intimidating. it can also create added excitement– if you’ve ever attended a major sports event that is being televised you see how people go crazy when they think the camera is on them.

    it’s not better or worse, but it is different. one example, at pops we could not do our standard live show “fooling around” when we were on TV. i always felt that was a loss of fun for everyone. — jl

    1. Thank you Justin for pointing out that we have had analogous situations in the broadcast world for a long, long time! I immediately thought about the studio audiences that have been a fixture of televised shows since the earliest days of TV.

      I like how you describe what happens as turning the environment “conservative”. When we know that the audience for what we do and say is larger than just the people in the room and we don’t really know who might be watching or listening, we are likely to become more cautious, more afraid to take risks.

  3. Adrian,

    I think hybrid events are still too new to draw hard conclusions. I wonder if there will be an inverse proportion between the required trust of an event and the impact of a virtual group.

    1. Kevin, I agree – who knows how what’s considered socially appropriate may change over time with this relatively new event format?

      When remote audience members can register anonymously, however, I doubt that local attendees will ever be open to the extent I’ve seen consistently when they are the only audience.

  4. Adrian,

    You raise some very good points regarding the code of conduct for individuals at an face-to-face event vs. online. There may also be a difference when you consider business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-consumer (B2C) events.

    In B2B, many companies are very familiar with webconferencing/webcasting, which is similar to the “broadcast” metaphor raised by Justin. Because webinars have become commonplace for B2B events, I believe that adding a hybrid component, such as a webinar, a virtual environment or social media, is a natural extension. B2C conferences may differ as the use of this technology is fairly new.

    1. Cece, thanks for your comments. I agree that adding a remote audience is going to become an increasingly popular and doable option, especially for B2B events, and that B2C adoption is likely to lag.

      But, as hybrid events (whether B2B or B2C) become more common, I think it’s important to be aware of the possible effect on the local audience of knowing that an anonymous remote audience is virtually present. The advantages of opening up an event to additional remote attendees have to be weighed against the resulting creation of conference environment that feels less safe.

  5. Adrian,

    Your point is well taken, and one might argue that there are lots of reasons to keep things simple with an in-person audience (the complexity of doing a hybrid event well, the idea of trying to appeal to both audiences is challenging, there are no interactive exercises that work well across web and in-person, etc…)

    BUT (and the truth always starts with BUT), you have to ask yourself, from a business perspective, what are you trying to do? If your goal is to create a meaningful experience for a small group of people, then I agree with your philosophy. If, however, your goal is to reach a large number of people with your story, spread the gospel and record your event for replay, then I think it would be foolish not to consider the hybrid event.

    There is some give and take. Your goals will determine how much to give and what to take. It may not be as simple as determining what provides the best experience for the people in the front row.


    1. Well I agree with you Will; the design you use depends on your goals. A mentor of mine, Jerry Weinberg, coined what he calls the Law of Raspberry Jam:

      The wider you spread it the thinner it gets

      which can also be expressed as:

      Influence or affluence; take your choice

      Over the years I’ve found this “Law” to be accurate; the more people you reach during an engagement, the weaker the average experience is. Conferences That Work are less about preaching a gospel to many and more about creating the best possible experience of learning and connection for each participant, and this places some constraints on the process. But I’m always open to experimenting with different formats to explore new possibilities.

  6. It’s really very simple.  You add a virtual component to your event when you need to reach a wider audience who, for some reason cannot attend your live event.  That’s it…not very complicated at all.

    If your meeting’s purpose is to gather a small group of people together in one location and provide a “safe” environment for them to open up to one another, then you probably don’t want to make it a hybrid event.  There are ways you could but first and foremost, do you need to?
    The only problem I see are planners who try to turn their event into a hybrid event just because it’s cool or others are doing it.  Strategy first, logistics second.

    1. Hi Traci!

      I don’t disagree with you. The point of the post is that some people might think that they can simply add a remote audience to a face-to-face event without potentially changing the character of the event in the ways I describe.

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