Online events, specifically hybrid conferences, are enormously powerful. Held synchronously with face-to-face meetings, they can help you broaden your reach by offering content to a new group of people.
They also involve technology tools which are being introduced and refined at wildly fast speeds. There is little consistency across organizations when it comes to structure, pricing and content access so creativity and innovation opportunities abound.
On a practical level, streaming an event can overcome physical and budgetary barriers to make access easier for a wider audience. However, it has also been consistently shown that cannibalization of your face-to-face conference is not an issue. If people have the funds to attend face-to-face, they will. You may even see a conversion rate of online attendees registering for the face-to-face conference the following year.
At my previous association, EDUCAUSE, we saw tremendous success in our online annual conference, which we started in 2009. Streaming live sessions, as well as providing content specifically for the online audience via interactive webinars, opened us up to new attendees, widened the scope of potential speakers, and allowed for imaginative content creation. In regards to networking, we provided the now classic virtual networking lounge and game room for online attendees to connect with one another, but we also experimented with robots that connected the online with the face-to-face audience at events that couldn’t be streamed.
The lessons learned from EDUCAUSE’s online events portfolio have travelled with me to my current association, the Medical Group Management Association (MGMA), which is conducting its first synchronous online event this year.
What happens when you open the virtual door?
We found that we drew in a different sort of attendee by allowing aspirants and support staff who didn’t have the funds for the physical event still to participate. Equally, we were able to approach different speakers – increasing the number and variety of presenters on our roster – because we could offer them the opportunity to present offsite. Specific online sessions were a chance to open communication channels between speakers and attendees around particular content, making the virtual event singular as a learning experience.
Beyond the interactions between the online audience and speakers, we also learned that people attending online will host their own events, inviting colleagues from their own physical organizations to watch the sessions together, and even use some professional development funds to arrange mini receptions for their colleagues to connect and communicate. Watching sessions as a team under one user login also means that you get a big bang for your buck – the event experience isn’t limited to the one person whose name is on the registration list.
Hybrid events can be difficult to pull off. But people love to be synchronous, and want to be live. We’ve seen attendees logging in from Australia at 4 a.m. Who doesn’t love to attend a conference in their pajamas?
Overall, the insights being offered and the ideas being shared within your professional community don’t have to be trapped within the walls of a conference center. Going online is a way to move the conversation outside, to expand your community, and to engage and inspire new people – even at four in the morning.