January 19, 2023
With the resurgence of live meetings, hybrid meetings and events are becoming more prevalent. For many, a hybrid meeting means a livestream or videoconference of the meeting provided for the virtual participants who no longer go to the office or are uncomfortable traveling. In reality, our goal should be to offer virtual employees and attendees a similar level of input and engagement as those onsite.
Recently, Leading Edge Training Solutions (LETS) introduced a new concept that we have incorporated into the design and planning of hybrid meetings. In addition, we are also incorporating specific technical elements to provide for increased engagement between live and onsite participants at hybrid meetings and events.
The term for this is Hybrid Equity, which we define as the ability for virtual participants to have the same level of engagement and impact on the outcomes of a hybrid event as the onsite attendees. As you can imagine, this increases the complexity of design, facilitation, and technical requirements. With the increase in the number of virtual participants attending hybrid events, the increased cost, planning, and preparation are worthwhile. Due to the pandemic, we have never faced a similar situation before. So let’s start by reviewing how we got here.
Before the pandemic, we designed and produced hybrid events for clients, which were typically multiple locations, typically hotels with onsite participants brought together through a virtual platform and a central broadcast location. All sites were able to view the broadcast at the same time for the big tent or general sessions. When it came to workshops, the local sites would conduct the workshops onsite, and there may be a teach-back element via the virtual platform to all locations simultaneously.
The pandemic changed what hybrid events look like due to the combination of quarantine requirements, risk of exposure, and the increased number of participants uncomfortable with traveling. We have found that the percentage can be as high as 10 to 20 percent of participants in this category, compared to a high of about 5 percent before the pandemic. Therefore, the idea of a hybrid event or meeting has changed to become an event where the onsite and virtual participants need to interact simultaneously with the same people.
Many times in meetings, webinars, and workshops that I attend, we identify participants as live or virtual participants, with the “live” participants being those in the room and the “virtual” participants being those online. I feel we need to change the identification to either onsite (meaning those in the room) or virtual (meaning those using their computer, iPad, or other device). The distinction is important; all participants are live.
The virtual participants are not watching a recording of the event; therefore, they are live. From a planning perspective, we need to think of virtual attendees as live in order to ensure we treat them similarly to the onsite participants from an engagement perspective. The only way we will ever genuinely start to create a fully inclusive hybrid meeting is when we think of everyone as attending live. Now, let's focus on the hybrid events of today once again.
Planning for Inclusion
As with all events, meeting planners start with the event’s objectives and plan the engagement and interaction to support those objectives. Usually, they start with good intentions concerning the virtual participants but do not have the expertise to understand the needs of the virtual participants. That is when our virtual participants become viewers of the event, not active participants.
Recently I attended the onsite portion of a hybrid event where we were not handling the virtual component. My Account Director had the opportunity to observe the virtual side. The virtual component consisted of a camera pointed at the presenters and their PowerPoint presentations, utilizing a YouTube stream. No one was asking questions for the virtual participants. It was an excellent example of how Hybrid Equity principles could have been applied to increase engagement.
Although onsite participants mainly interacted with speakers by asking questions during the presentation, the event planners could have increased the hybrid equity considerably with an onsite producer or moderator monitoring the comments/questions on the YouTube stream, raising their hand, and asking the question on behalf of the virtual participant. Adding a small video mixer to share both the speaker video and then the PowerPoint presentations as separate sources would also increase the aesthetics of the livestream.
When your virtual participants feel included, they are more likely to stay engaged, even if they aren't the one asking the question. That means they are also much more likely to meet the event's objectives.
When planning for hybrid events, we utilize a planning process we refer to as AV2, which stands for Audio, Video, and Venue. We want to assess these three key areas to ensure that we are setting the event up for success for both the onsite and virtual participants to have the same level of impact on the outcomes. I will briefly touch on each area here, but stay tuned for more detailed articles, such as the use of audio in smaller, interactive workshops, as they pertain to improved hybrid equity.
When seeking to improve hybrid equity, audio is arguably the most crucial area of focus. When virtual participants have difficulty hearing, can't hear at all, or consistently get the dreaded reverb sound, they will tune out and most likely turn off the event. The first decision is whether the virtual participants must be able to talk to the onsite speaker and participants. If the answer is yes, and the group is larger than ten participants, then I highly recommend consulting a production team to help with the technical aspects of the audio plan.
In many general sessions, virtual participants only need to hear the event—just as the onsite participants only listen. If there is Q&A offered during the meeting, there are two options to increase hybrid equity. First, you can either use chat for Q&A with a moderator or producer asking the questions when they come in. Second, you can give virtual participants microphone rights to ask their questions during the event. If you use the chat option, make sure that you have someone to repeat the questions and state who is asking them. I usually like the script to be along the lines of, “I have a question from Sally, one of the virtual participants. Their question is…”
When handled like this, all the virtual and onsite participants know that they are important. If possible, and if there are questions in the queue, in the first 3-5 questions asked, one of the questions should come from your virtual audience to let them know their questions will be addressed as well. You will then start to see more questions coming from the virtual audience as well.
Video in and of itself increases engagement, so all hybrid events should always include video. At a bare minimum, you should have the speaker or panel members on video. W recommend a two-camera setup as the starting point, one focused on the speaker(s), usually operated to follow the speaker, and one on the audience. This is usually static, so the virtual participants can see the onsite participants. In smaller, more intimate sessions, we recommend adding a monitor for the speakers and onsite participants to see the virtual participants as well.
We use video in many other ways to increase engagement, which will be addressed in more depth in a subsequent article.
Once there is an audio and video plan, always be sure the venue can accommodate all the requirements. I recommend waiting until you have determined your audio and video requirements before choosing a venue. This allows you to approach venue owners and managers with specific requirements. One of the non-negotiable requirements is a dedicated hard-wired internet connection for the hybrid event itself. This connection should not be shared with the conference Wi-Fi, if provided, and should not be shared with the venue either.
After internet connectivity, it is best to look into the electrical layout, particularly the location of outlets relative to the camera and technical table setup. Remember to add space for the production team's setup and both operated and static cameras mounted on tripods.
Your virtual participants can interact seamlessly with your onsite participants if you plan appropriately and have the appropriate technical configuration. Your speakers must also make a concerted effort to involve the virtual participants as they do with the onsite participants. Remember, everyone is live in a hybrid event. With the proper planning and preparation, everyone can feel like they are attending live—which they are!
Lee Deaner is President of Leading Edge Training Solutions, a leading producer of virtual and hybrid events, informational meetings, and training programs since 2009. He is also the co-author of The Virtual Events Playbook, available on Amazon and from Amplify Publishing.