Hybrid Event Research Goes Academic: Help a Student Dissertation Out
Last month Paul Cook at Planet Planit pinged me about doing an interview with Alex Tate, a student at Sheffield Hallam University in Sheffield, United Kingdom. Alex is in his final year of Event Management, working on his dissertation. The topic? He’s studying the value of hybrid events to the conference and meetings industry.
While I know dissertation topics can range from mainstream to myopic, I couldn’t help but feel bullish that students seeking an Event Management degree are getting exposure to the latest trends in event design and meeting technology. Particularly when this is coming on the heels of the groundbreaking research Meeting Professionals International (MPI) Foundation is doing on hybrid events.
We did the interview via Skype chat, which left both of us with a ready-made transcript. Alex will no doubt add it to the piles of digital notes he’s making for his final paper, and to inform his survey instrument.
And me? Well, it felt like a ready-made blog post. So here’s our chat for your academic review.
If you haven’t already, Alex would also really appreciate you taking a moment to complete his survey.
Alex Tate: Firstly, Would you be able to give me a brief overview of how you became involved in hybrid events and your background of working with them?
Erica St. Angel: Sure thing. I head up the marketing team at a company that manufactures webcasting hardware and software. We've been using that platform, called Mediasite, to do demos with clients. And while we predominantly sold to higher education and corporate in the past, we used to go to their conferences and record their speakers as a way to highlight the possibilities of the technology. We started doing that in 2003, and around 2005 (when I came on board) we had more people wanting us to record their stuff than we had people to do it. We began charging to do the recording, and in 2007 we started a formal division, Mediasite Events, dedicated to taking face to face conferences online. That same year we also held our first User Conference, and we decided to record all of the sessions. We didn't stream live that first year, just captured for on-demand (which by our definition isn't hybrid). In 2008, we streamed all 3 tracks for 2.5 days, and we've been hybrid ever since, selling a fully online option to attend. And we're now webcasting over 450 events each year for our clients, mostly conferences and corporate meetings who need to take the program who people who want to be there, but cannot due to travel conflicts, budget, work, family/life...
Alex Tate: Ok thats great, really interesting stuff!... so how would you define a hybrid event to someone who isn't aware of this concept?
Erica St. Angel: We say at a minimum it’s when you complement a traditional face to face event with viewing over the web. And that viewing is happening in real time, so there's the opportunity for the onsite and the online audiences to interact with the presenters and ideally, each other.
Alex Tate: So, considering this, do you think there are misconceiving factors about what a hybrid event is? For instance do people still believe that watching on demand is a hybrid?
Erica St. Angel: Yes, I do see that, but even though we've been doing this for almost ten years now, it really is still early days and those definitions will continue to evolve.
Alex Tate: Great. Ok, over the last few years there has been a huge emerging demand for social media such as Twitter, Linked in and Facebook. Do you think this has contributed in any way to the emergence of hybrid event technologies?
Erica St. Angel: ABSOLUTELY! Sorry, didn't mean to yell. The thing I find many meeting planners don't account for is that the online audience wants to be heard. That can mean asking questions through a dedicated platform like ours (where online people don’t see what's being asked, but a moderator in the room asks the question so it's heard by the onsite audience and the online attendees who are watching.) Or that could be through social media, where it's publicly available for all to see in real time, even if the live conference content is locked down. Or a dedicated portal that's sits under the brand umbrella of the organization hosting the conference.
Alex Tate: Ok, that’s great. So do you think hybrid is reshaping the events industry as the concept becomes more well-known?
Erica St. Angel: That's a great question. I do think there are elements of hybrid that are now making their way back into face to face. But there are still huge perceived obstacles to overcome: namely most people making the leap for the first time are fearful of cannibalization so they either don't start selling the online pass until they've reached their desired onsite numbers, or they only make a small portion of the onsite event available live online. But where there's some interesting crossover happening is treating other people onsite as hybrid attendees. I’ve see times where there are concurrent tracks and people use social media, and potentially the live webcast stream to multitask while in a session, keeping tabs on both concurrently. That's definitely not for digital amateurs, but as you see conference attendees who have grown up online, it's a natural evolution. Probably the biggest takeaway for me personally as a meeting planner is marketing differently to the onsite and online attendees, but looking for as many ways as possible to bring them together before, during and after the event. Part of that is through content, live and on-demand, but part of it is keeping the online conversations alive, infused with the excitement generated from being face to face. It's definitely organic for our own event right now though, not part of a spelled out tactical guidebook per se. But much of daily social media management could probably be described that way. One other thought on the effect of hybrid - it's mirroring what I see happening in online education. In ten years from now, some predict instead of people going onsite to university for four years or more, students will curate their own education online, taking courses from the best instructors to earn a badge or certificate instead of an actual degree.
Alex Tate: That’s really interesting stuff! I have read something on this which was very interesting.
Erica St. Angel: Bottom line, hybrid lets more people get the information they need in real-time, and that should be something education-driven organizations pay attention to.
Alex Tate: That will be great for my research actually. Ok so my reading has revealed that many people attend conferences to network and many would argue this experience isn't the same with hybrids. I know you say how hybrids are becoming more exciting and interactive but what is your view on this?
Erica St. Angel: It’s a mix, a different kind of experiencing, but I think it can be very interactive. True at a face to face event you get the birds of a feather luncheon, the cocktail hour, the big party, the line for coffee. But online, if the organizers have done their part right, you can actually learn a lot about everyone you are conferencing with. They'll have a photo, name, organization, social bio, whatever they choose to bring to the online party, and in my experience, that online interaction sometimes takes the networking farther faster than just exchanging business cards. But you have to be onboard with being online - you have to feel comfortable being yourself in a digital world, and there are a lot of people, who are not yet in that camp. Hence their skepticism. But we wouldn't have Facebook with like 1 in 6 people on the planet with a profile, if online networking wasn't fulfilling.
Alex Tate: Yes, I can see how generations could affect this and see this differently.
Erica St. Angel: One note about online networking - and maybe this is more granular than you were planning to go. There are different ways to build the online face of an onsite event. Many try to make it feel like a virtual world, like Second Life, but most people I talk to tend to abandon that approach because the majority of conference goers are more used to the look and feel of Facebook, LinkedIn and to a lesser extent, Twitter.
Alex Tate: That’s very interesting with the social network aspect again.
Erica St. Angel: It’s all so connected. For our own event, we've chosen to abandon anything that looks physically like a conference, and instead infuse a social network with the vibe of onsite - tons of pictures, tweets, links to sessions, embedded video, the way you would consume a conference if you were watching online from afar, say like TED or SXSW. The difference is the online people fall into two groups, one group gets passed the velvet rope to actually engage with the speakers and onsite attendees about what's happening in real time, and one group can see what's happening, interact a bit, but can't actually watch the live video feed, so they get the buzz one level removed, which (we believe) makes them pine to be a part of it all, and hopefully gets them to register - onsite or online - next year.
Alex Tate: Ok, wow, that’s really useful. So in terms of the current economic climate, do you think this has influenced hybrid events? In the case of costs and travel, etc.
Erica St. Angel: Absolutely. In the US at least meetings were under fire in 2008-2009. Many organizations public and private instituted meeting bans, travel bans and you had to find a way to bring people together, get them the training they need. It’s funny, whenever gas prices spike, we feel like there's an increase in hybrid buzz. But most of the early buzz was in virtual, i.e. "you don't have to meet face to face, you can do it all online!" That's just not where we fit. Something magical happens when people get together in real time face to face, and we still think that's the ideal when it is possible. But if the economy or time conflicts get in the way, that's when you look at hybrid. The other offshoot of hybrid events, aside from reaching a larger audience, is that in the process of taking the content online, you also create an instant archive that people both onsite, online and who didn't attend can access (and some conferences earn additional revenue for). When you already have it because you recorded live, it's a big value add.
Alex Tate: Ok, this is all really good and will be a great contribution to my research. We've discussed the value of hybrid events and I can see there are major benefits. Would you say there are any major disadvantages to the hybrid concept in your view?
Erica St. Angel: It does take work. As much as I'd like to say you just bolt it on, and you can do that and still have okay results, it really does need care and feeding slightly different from your onsite event. And there's the fear of cannibalization. We just haven't seen those numbers bear out though - in our own event or in the industry. We're funding research with MPI right now to help quantify that but in our own data, we see about 10-20% of our audience go online, each year, and both our online and onsite attendance keeps going up for us (happily!). You also need to be solid in your tech plan for hybrid - if people have paid to watch online, you better go live when you say you'll go live. Not a disadvantage per se, but it raises the stakes for your tech partners.
Alex Tate: Ok. Sorry, can you explain the idea of cannibalization? I am not really familiar with this.
Erica St. Angel: Oh my, sorry! If you haven't gone hybrid before, you or your team or your boss probably will think at some point, "If we offer it online, people won't come onsite. We'll have no one in the audience, no one at the party, no one in our exhibitors’ booths." Honestly it's the same thing you see in higher education, faculty fear "if I stream my class live, none of the students will show up and I'll be lecturing to an empty classroom." Again, we don't ever see that bear out, but it’s a fear, that the online audience will cannibalize your onsite audience. And as a meeting planner, I go through it every year personally, even though I know better!
Alex Tate: Ah right. That really helps, thank you. I can see how that could be an issue.
Erica St. Angel: It's probably the number one obstacle you’ll face in evangelizing hybrid meetings.
Alex Tate: Ok, well this has been fantastic, I think you have given me a lot to discuss. Just one last point, bit unusual but, if you could make a short statement to promote and endorse hybrid events, what would this be? And how could you communicate this?
Erica St. Angel: Hmmm...Well, the medium would be a webcast, cause that's what we/I do :) and message would be slightly different than what I've presented in the past. I believe the skills required to take an event from face to face to hybrid are the same skills that are going to serve planners well into the future. It's about 24/7/365 relevance - real-time information, communication, networking. And in the hybrid events world, this happens during your face to face event, but it also lays the groundwork for the onsite attendee, the online attendee and the individual who was not in attendance to keep the conversation going. And that’s to the benefit of their own education, their own personal learning networks, and to the benefit of your own organization, conference and brand. [And FYI when I say webcast, it’s because we go live each month with a different topic related to hybrid events.]
Alex Tate: OK, that’s brilliant, I will check that out.
Erica St. Angel: Good luck with your research! And I do hope you'll share your results when all is complete.
Alex Tate: I really appreciate your time today, many thanks for that. Yes of course, I will update you on my findings when I complete this. Has been great talking to you, I have certainly a lot to think about and I’m sure it will be of great usefulness.
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