In a recent survey conducted by Swapcard—an AI-powered event and matchmaking platform for global virtual and hybrid events—352 event planners were asked about the biggest challenges in producing a hybrid event. The majority of respondents (33.5%) selected “engaging two audiences” as the biggest challenge, and 19.2% listed “networking between two groups of attendees.” (Click here to see Swapcard’s full report.)
The results aren’t particularly surprising. After all, questions on audience engagement and networking opportunities have been top-of-mind over the last year as the industry shifted to virtual, reducing the kinds of spontaneous networking opportunities live events are known for. As the industry shifts to a hybrid model—with a small group in person and a potentially larger group tuning in virtually—even more questions arise. How can you make virtual attendees feel included? Should you facilitate interactions between the two groups? What type of technology can ease the process?
To answer these questions and more, we chatted with event and meeting professionals throughout the world. Here are their creative ideas for facilitating effective networking at hybrid events.
Make a clear plan.
For hybrid events, like with virtual events, it's easy for online attendees to disengage—so networking opportunities will need to be carefully thought through. “When we are virtual, every interaction we have needs to be so intentional: planned, coordinated, explained. There needs to be a ‘place’ to meet and both parties need to ‘show’ up,” notes Suzanne Fritz-Hanson, executive creative director for GPJ Experience Marketing in San Francisco. The same concept applies to hybrid. “Networking is most effective when both parties have ‘opted in’ and, especially with virtual, it helps to have a little structure.”
But don't forget to add a little spontaneity.
Like with any good event, don’t forget the value of a few surprise and delight moments. “It’s important to create unpredictable and spontaneous moments for attendees,” says J.R. Spiess, president and CEO of event production company The 180 Group in St. Paul, Minn., who notes that hybrid events can quickly lose some of their excitement if they’re too guided. “Virtual audiences need the same engaging options as in-person audiences, so we make sure to create opportunities for them to connect one-on-one, seek out friends, meet in a face-to-face group discussion or even ‘walk over to the bar’ and start a chat.”
Use technology to connect the two audiences.
Just because people are starting to gather in person doesn’t mean the need for dedicated virtual platforms goes away—instead, give your live attendees access to your platform as well. When planning through your tech solutions, Ashley Hough, event manager at TOPdesk UK in Manchester, England, suggests keeping virtual attendees at the forefront of your mind. “When the stream ends your virtual audience will lose that connection, whereas in-person attendees can visit exhibition stands or network over a coffee,” she points out. “Virtual event platforms are a great way to ensure we don’t lose that interaction.”
On many virtual platforms, such as vFairs, attendees can be matched via virtual matchmaking tools. “In-person attendees can be matched and connect with each other face-to-face, likewise for virtual attendees, or a virtual and in-person attendee can be matched and connect through chat,” says vFairs’s Toronto-based CEO Muhammad Younas. “Using social networking tools can also help with this. Tracking a hashtag across social media and hosting a social media wall at your event increases attendees' exposure to others who are talking about the event, and could encourage them to connect through LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook.”
Ebere Akadiri, a Netherlands-based leadership strategist, recently hosted a 240-attendee hybrid event that included 50 in-person attendees. For networking, she utilized an on-site room where in-person attendees could log onto the virtual platform for a face-to-face video chat with a virtual attendee. “Although some in-person attendees preferred to network with fellow in-person attendees, some chose to log in to the event platform using their phones or laptops to connect with the virtual attendees,” she says.
Let both groups of attendees actually see each other.
We all know the power of face-to-face—and that applies to video communications too. “Visibility is important because it’s hard to pay attention to what you don’t see,” points out Russell Reich, chief creative officer for ADM Productions in New York. “When only one audience sees the other during a hybrid event, it leads to exclusion. The unseen audience feels left out, so their interest and participation drop off.”
Spiess agrees. “When it comes to networking in these settings, it’s crucial to provide all attendees—in-person and virtual—with opportunities to communicate and connect face-to-face,” he says. “For us, this means creating timed one-on-one interactions, group discussions in breakout rooms and using virtual platforms to integrate into in-person environments. … Video networking apps are a great production feature to bring people together for networking events. We also use message boards, chat feeds and digital kiosks that connect people in both virtual and in-person settings.”
For an added step, consider having both in-person and virtual speakers, and make sure they take questions from both audiences.
Consider a group chat for all attendees.
We’ve all become accustomed to group chats during virtual events—so why not carry the experience over to hybrid? Consider an ongoing chat or discussion group that in-person attendees can also join—just make sure it’s smartphone accessible, so guests aren’t tethered to their laptops.
For Akadiri’s recent hybrid event, for example, she utilized a large screen that allowed in-person attendees to see what virtual attendees were writing in the chat. “The virtual chats helped the moderator to take questions from both virtual attendees as well as the in-person attendees,” she says. “We also encouraged virtual attendees to engage with each other in the chat while the session was going on.”
Younas also suggests connecting attendees via group chat. “Virtual chat rooms can be accessed by both in-person and virtual attendees, thus expanding each audience's potential reach,” he says. “Both in-person and virtual attendees can also create their own user profiles on the virtual platform, [which] allows everyone to be able to search and connect with others based on common interests, fields of expertise, job titles and more.”
Add virtual attendees to breakout rooms.
If your event has breakout rooms or activities, consider using technology to include both in-person and virtual attendees, suggests Alpharetta, Ga.-based marketing consultant Stephan Baldwin. “The virtual attendees can either be a group or interspersed with the in-person groups. Make sure that the venue has the hardware and technology needed for virtual attendees to participate meaningfully and successfully,” he says, adding that breakout games like Bingo and scavenger hunts can be fun icebreaker options for both groups.
Send virtual attendees the same swag they’d get in person.
Another way to make virtual attendees feel included? Send them the same swag or giveaways that the in-person attendees are getting, such as lanyards, IDs, welcome packets or bags, etc., says Baldwin. “Also, send items that will be needed for networking activities that virtual attendees can participate in,” he adds.
Lean into gamification.
Friendly competition is always a smart way to unite a group—and there are plenty of options that work both in-person and virtually. “We’ve designed games into the experience in the past that create teams across the audience, both remote and in person,” says Ken Madden, the Dallas-based head of engagement for GPJ Experience Marketing. “Through shared goals and challenges, this can create some extremely unique opportunities to network.”
And with a little creativity, games can also be a fun way to tie things back into an event’s mission. “We have a client in the tire industry whose corporate symbol is a blimp (guess who!). We’ve done live events for them that have an actual blimp floating around the ballroom,” says Reich. “If you’re in the room, it’s fun and exciting. If you’re a remote audience member simply watching it, though—ho hum. For a hybrid event, we’d propose two blimps, one controlled by each audience in a race against the other. Or perhaps the competition could mix the two audiences."
Top photo: A number of new hybrid studios are popping up throughout North America, including Worre Studios in Las Vegas, a 25,000-square-foot venue that opened for public booking in April. The tech-forward space hosts 250 people in person and as many as 250,000 live participants virtually. The groups can communicate through real-time chat and audio communications features. (Photo by Jerry Metullus)
This story was originally published on Connect's sister site, BizBash.com, here.