Crossing the divide: how hybrid events can unite physical and virtual audiences
A view from Dax Callner

Crossing the divide: how hybrid events can unite physical and virtual audiences

Juggling agendas, managing time zones and creating shared experiences can be aided by technology.

It’s hard not to be sentimental about the days when all a compelling event seemed to need was a cool stage, big speakers and a bit of razzamatazz. Fuel it with ample amounts of food and drink and the attendees would do the rest to make the event a success.

Those halcyon days are long gone, beaten to a bloody pulp by Covid-19. If the emergence of virtual events over the last 12 months has taught us anything, it’s that event marketers have to understand technology a whole lot better if we are to remain relevant. The question is: What technology? And: What do we do with it?

One thing is clear: future events are likely to include a mix of digital and physical participant experiences. Clever thinking and innovative technologies are needed to bind divergent audience journeys together – especially when it comes to enabling human interaction, which is what events are really about.

Supercharging events with digital visitors

Many current predictors are suggesting that future hybrid events will involve a small number of live attendees and a larger digital audience. That isn’t necessarily so – no one can say with certainty that physical events will shrink in size post-pandemic. That aside, digital certainly offers the ability to supercharge audiences for all events – there is essentially no limit on the numbers of participants who can join virtually.

Many events take place over several days. That might be great for people who’ve travelled to exotic destinations for the physical event, but one can’t expect virtual participants to devote that much time. This throws up the question of ‘How should hybrid work from an agenda perspective?’

And time zones matter as well - a virtual attendee in the UK isn’t likely to sit up until 3am so they can join the post-event networking party for a show in Vegas. Careful time zone planning is a must. One event we are running involves repeating key elements of the agenda three times. The first slot is recorded with a live audience, followed by a Q&A session. Then, as new time zones come online, the recorded presentation is repeated, at the end of which a live Q&A session is held with the speakers, so the later attendees get as rich an experience as the first ones.

Delivering digestible content

There is a concern that people attending virtually don’t give their full attention. Here’s a dirty secret – neither do people attending physically. How many keynote speeches have you been to where members of the audience are looking at their phones or even have laptops open? The truth is everyone is distracted, and we need to factor that into content plans.

The question – for both live and virtual audiences – is how do we create an agenda composed of highly digestible content and opportunities for opt-in deeper dives? At virtual events, we’ve shortened presentations to just 15-20 minutes. After the presentation, anyone who wants to know more can join a separate discussion with the speaker. Why wouldn’t this also work for live attendees?

One of the biggest challenges facing hybrid events is how to get people who are attending digitally and people attending physically to interact with speakers. Technology can help – such as all attendees using their mobile phones to ‘raise hands’ or submit questions at Q&A sessions.

Connecting attendees using matchmaking techniques


Helping people network gets even more interesting. We’re experimenting with robust profiling tools to identify a broad array of personal and professional interests which we use to connect people with one another. And we’re hoping to tackle natural shyness by matchmaking online, offline, and between the two – using mobile devices and talk-booths to enable conversations across the physical/digital divide.

Hybrid events are coming and are here to stay. As an industry, we need to get tech-savvy fast if we are to prevent pure-play tech firms coming in and disrupting the sector. We can do this – we are experts at managing live events and dealing with all the uncertainties and ‘what ifs’ that comes with them. On top of that core skill, we need to layer on new digital skills that cater to our new online audience. Those skills can be used not just for digital audiences but to create and enhance the experiences of all audiences.

Dax Callner is strategy director at Smyle.

Topics