Sunday, February 28, 2010

Virtual Attendees are Real People Too! – 5 Mistakes with Hybrid Events

Last week I attended two conferences simultaneously, one in Cancun, Mexico (MPI Meet Different) and the other in Santa Clara, Ca. (Virtual Edge Summit)  Such is the life of a virtual traveler!  While I certainly missed the face2face interaction at both events, the experience of navigating two conferences at the same time was very interesting, to say the least.

Both events had their highlights, including some great program content, but my “Ah Hah moment” this week was the realization, that event professionals have much to learn about perfecting the virtual attendee experience.   To be fair about it,  most organizations have not been playing in the Hybrid or Virtual event arena for very long, so it is reasonable to expect there is still much to learn about them.

Before going any further in this discussion I feel compelled to clear up a distorted perception, by some event professionals, as to what a virtual attendee is, and isn’t.

  • Virtual attendees are real human beings, and just as “live”as their face2face counterparts.
  • Event professionals (myself included) need to discontinue referring to face2face participants as “live attendees.”

For Hybrid events, the core challenges, for organizations, are to:

  1. Build community among the virtual and face2face participants, thus creating a common bond to the event.
  2. Design an engaging experience for all attendees.

It is not sufficient to slap a virtual component onto a traditional meeting, and then label it a Hybrid event.  That approach will certainly lead to failure.

The dynamics of staging a Hybrid event are different, and more complex than its conventional counterpart.  Event professionals must Learn to understand virtual attendees expectations.  They must become event engineers, and craft the event with consideration for both the face2face and virtual attendee components.

So what are the most frequent mistakes made by Event Professionals in creating/operating Hybrid Events?  Based upon my own experiences, over the past year, here are  my thoughts:

Mistake #1:  Poor Customer Service –This is perhaps the most unforgivable error an organization can make.  Most meeting attendees realize there will be challenges and problems with any event.  As long as they are able to obtain customer service support promptly, the situation will usually resolve itself.  As a virtual attendee, it is very frustrating to ask for help, and not get any response.  Two simple solutions to avoid this problem are:

  1. Assign a staff/team of CSR’s (customer service representatives) to watch over each of the virtual components of the event.  Make sure they identify themselves to the attendees.
  2. Have very clear and explicit instructions within your conference promotion and confirmation materials advising attendees how to obtain assistance if they need it.

Mistake #2:  Inadequate Internet Bandwidth to Support Event — The lifeblood of a Hybrid conference is the online access provided to produce and operate the event.  Sadly, many organizations attempt to cut corners with this essential technology, usually due to expense, and in doing so they may be jeopardizing their chances of providing any respectable online experience for their virtual customers.

Four suggestions:

  1. Dedicated “hard-wired” Internet lines (At least T1) should be installed in each room where webcasting will take place.  These access points should be used only by the webcast provider, no one else.
  2. WiFi Access — is a nice benefit to provide attendees throughout the conference area. Please make sure you have sufficient number of “hot-spots” to accommodate your volume of attendees.
  3. Electrical Power — If you anticipate heavy use of laptop computers you should arrange for extra power drops in your meeting rooms to make electrical connections safely available.  An unexpected spike in electrical power usage could lead to a power failure, bringing down the entire event :(
  4. Backup Bandwidth — having a second line available as a backup, should the primary line crash, is advisable, in an ideal world.  This may be an expense your organization may not be willing to bear.

Mistake #3:  Poor Attendee Engagement Strategy — Ignoring or leaving virtual attendees without interaction opportunity, while face2face attendees are active, is a disaster and perceived by many as a “virtual slap in the face.” Session Breaks, Coffee Breaks, Social events, Group face2face exercises and Q&A are the usual culprits.  Event Professionals should consider, when developing the program, these time slots as an opportunity to enhance the virtual attendees experience. Some Suggestions:

  1. Speaker Training — ask and expect your presenters to welcome virtual attendees at the beginning of the session.  If there is a group exercise, then the speaker should somehow address the virtual audience too.  During Q&A equitable time should be dedicated to responding to virtual attendee questions.
  2. Back Channel Monitor — Have someone monitor whatever social media channels you are using as a conversation agent (i.e. Twitter Hashtag).  This person should identify themselves to the virtual participants.  When questions or comments are made, make sure those are called out in the overall dialogue taking place.
  3. Interview Speakers/Attendees during Breaks — Treat your virtual attendees to exclusive “journalism style” video or audio interviews during breaks and social events of any sort.  This is a huge value enhancement!
  4. Post Pictures — Create an online photo album and post pictures for all aspects of the event and make those available to the attendees.

Mistake #4:  Dysfunctional A/V Integration — I have seen many instances of organizations offering their meetings/events by webcast, only to exclude the a/v presentations (i.e. Powerpoint, Video, etc.) provided to accompany the event.  This mistake may significantly diminish the impact of the event, and alienate your virtual audience.  A solution:

  1. Integrated Webcast Application — There are customized applications available that will integrate slides, a Twitter Feed and the Video together on one page.
  2. Customer Service — Have a customer service representative assigned to babysit these applications to be available to respond to any questions or concerns that may arise.

Mistake #5:  Education Misaligned with Event — A common mistake made by organizations is to pick speakers for their events, based upon their credentials, or “celebrity status,” without really understanding their ability to connect with an audience.  A Poor choice of a keynote speaker can be a huge black eye for the event and the organization.  To avoid this problem:

  1. Do the Research — When making speaker selections, make sure their message is aligned with the education goals of the event.  Also, view video samples of their work, and ask for/check references.  It will be well worth your time investment.  Speakers that do a great job of engaging audiences and interacting with them are the best choice for a virtual audience.
  2. Selective Webcasts — If offering webcasts at only a certain number of events choose the sessions to be presented online wisely!  Select topics/sessions that will offer a benefit to virtual attendees and avoid the “talking head” sessions that offer  little, or no interaction.

From start to finish, a visible effort must be made by the Event Management team to welcome and engage virtual participants in all aspects of the meeting experience.  Whether its the advance marketing materials, the event website, or the meeting itself, virtual attendees must be consistently acknowledged.  Social media  should be used as a tool throughout the life-cycle of a Hybrid Event, to enhance that process!

Remember, virtual attendees, at least a portion of them, may be potential customers who are testing the waters with your organization.  Your success in making each attendee feel warm and fuzzy about the event experience, virtual or not,  sends clear signals as to your organization’s commitment to customer service.

In a competitive business world this accomplishment goes a long way to distinguishing a great organization from a mediocre one.

Question:  Have you had challenges at a hybrid event that I haven’t addressed in this article?  What were your solutions to fix the problem?  Please share those with us.

Follow Michael McCurry on Twitter

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Glenn Thayer February 28, 2010 at 2:21 pm

You touch on some very important points. As more meetings and events are offering a virtual element for attendees, considerations must be made far in advance. I see two parties responsible for this task, marketing/communications (developers of the meeting’s content) and production (the producer of the event and the A/V team).

We should also realize that streaming the live event online is just a webcast. It should only be considered a hybrid meeting if the virtual audience can interact with the live participants/presenters in real time.

Mike, your commitment to provide great feedback allows organizations that are navigating into the virtual uncharted territory to continue to push forward. This brings more value to their attendees as they dial in the virtual approach.

Reply

Michael M McCurry CMP February 28, 2010 at 2:39 pm

@Glenn Thayer,

I agree with your assessment, however I think the Event Manager must take some ownership for the event design, in addition to Marketing and the Production vendor. Its not good enough for an Event Manager to be tactical anymore, they must be strategic also.

Yes, you are absolutely right that an event is not Hybrid until there is interaction between the virtual and face2face (Not Live !!!) audience.

Glenn, thanks for your contributions to this conversation and appreciate all that you do as a professional emcee/facilitator, by the way!

Mike

@michaelmccurry

Reply

Glenn Thayer February 28, 2010 at 2:59 pm

We must also remember that there is a huge difference between event design and content delivery/content design. Even though our industry education is making event managers more strategic in their roles, many are still removed from the strategic content design process. As we know, it is all in the planning.

Glenn

@glennthayer

Reply

Michael M McCurry CMP February 28, 2010 at 3:10 pm

@Glenn Thayer,

Agreed, Glenn, I understand the full distinction in what you are saying. I actually believe the next generation of Event Professionals will need to develop skills in the strategic content design process.

So much education content these days is really mediocre, largely due to the fact that organizations ignore good adult learning practices when designing their events.

It is a fascinating subject and one that I am studying quite a bit to figure out how I can help lead our industry in this area.

Thanks again for contributing.

Mike

@michaelmccurry

Reply

Cece Salomon-Lee March 1, 2010 at 10:53 am

Mike,

This is great feedback regarding the hybrid event experience. Our goal is to explore ways to bridge the virtual and in-person experience, such as the live webcam and Ustream interviews at our recent hybrid event.

And I agree with you, all are “live” attendees – some are just virtual while others are physical!

Best,
Cece
InXpo

Reply

Dana Freker Doody March 1, 2010 at 11:25 am

Mike — Great post!
Only thing I can think to add is that even if having an Integrated Webcast Application, also publish where else the slides, feed, etc can be seen. If your data is actually being fed on several different platforms, publish all of them so the user can follow where it is best for them. (I guess this only applies to free webcasts.)
For example, and this admittedly may have been user error, for one hybrid event I had some trouble logging in with Twitter on TwebEvent but was able to have browsers open for Livestream and Tweetchat that accomplished the goal regardless.

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