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What Do You Need for a Successful Virtual Event?

Virtual events are here to stay, from basic one-way webinars to highly produced, interactive simulations of the in-person experience. Here's how each of the three levels of virtual event production works.

I've worked on several of these, and they are very successful in reaching audiences that would not have attended the in-person event, due to time, cost, location, other obligations, etc. Moreover, hybrid events can leverage top talent to speak at these events and interact with the audience (through polls, chat, and more) in ways they couldn't do if they were just onstage in person. Plus, with no travel costs, hotel nights, food costs, and expenses (on top of the speaking fee), costs to bring in top talent for just an hour are greatly reduced.

In case you haven't guessed it, this is the top tier. It's the hardest to produce, but also the most immersive and involving for everyone.

Like most virtual events and meetings platforms, Webex has undergone significant changes in the last two years. In 2022, the company renamed its Webinars offering to Webex Events and added new features.

The Mid-Level Hybrid Event

Let's step back from the "It takes a village" approach. Take away the lobby. Take away the exhibits area. Take away the opportunity to bump into people that a real event offers, and strip it down to a more straightforward event.

If we make it so anyone local or remote connects into our production tools, and then we produce the content that gets delivered to the audience, and we limit the audience to chat and Q&A on the platform, we arrive at an event that's much simpler to produce. There are fewer impromptu technical challenges bringing random audience members to the stage in front of everyone. They are directed to use chat and text to provide their feedback and contributions.

The producers are still able to deliver a highly engaging presentation, though. It could be on a nice big virtual stage, with graphics and information rendered in 3D, much like Apple does with its keynotes, and what FOX does with their NFL commentators in the pregame. This content is scripted, well-planned, and highly developed, creating an engaging experience for the attendees.

By bringing the key players into a production platform, the producers can integrate them with all kinds of media, however they see fit—greenscreen, virtual environments, virtual objects, real-time data-driven displays, and canned presentations and videos. Even though the mid-level hybrid is more of a one-way experience than high-level hybrid, it still enables attendees to text chat among themselves and push some content back to those on stage.

I've produced several of these where we've used various production platforms and environments to deliver our live produced and pre-recorded content to audiences. Sometimes delivering pre-recorded "look-live" content is even better because it can be made very dynamic through editing, AND the presenters are simultaneously available to comment and reply to the audience in the text chat, directly answering questions that they would not have been able to if they were focused on making the presentation.

The mid-level is not as immersive as the high-level hybrid, and not as costly, but it is still quite engaging and can deliver very successful events.

Low-Level Hybrid Events

Let me be clear that I'm not disparaging this level of hybrid event—by "low" I'm speaking to the resources that must be mustered to make it happen. Generally, the low-level hybrid leverages a business chat application, like Zoom, Teams, etc, and the entire event happens in this platform.

Streaming Media's own Connect events are an example of how this can be used very effectively to run week-long events with dozens and dozens of presenters and huge worldwide audiences—and run them with just a few producers clicking the buttons.

The most basic type of virtual event is exemplified by Streaming Media's own Connect events, with speakers brought in via Zoom (or a similar platform), minimal speaker production value, and audience participation limited to chat and Q&A.

These events do not have the same onscreen effects that the mid- or high-level hybrid productions, but at the same time, they can be produced faster, and the delivered information is essentially very much the same as you would have received at an in-person event with a single person standing on stage.

While they may be "low-level," these events can still be very successful in reaching audiences that would not have attended the in-person event, due to time, cost, location, other obligations, etc. Moreover, they can still leverage top talent to speak at these events live, and interact with the audience in ways they couldn't do just on stage. And again, the cost to bring in such high-level speakers is greatly reduced.

Seldom do these low-level events try to integrate both local and remote presenters or audiences, but instead work within the functions of the platform for everyone involved- producer, presenter, or audience. The "level" of the show does not determine the value that an attendee will receive. In fact, the inverse can be true- The potential is there with reduced production costs to "put it all on the screen," as it were, and reallocate hotel and event space costs to bringing in top-caliber speakers. This can give the biggest value back to the attendee versus a splashy hotel lobby with a decadent food spread.

Upgrades Over Time

When I started producing Hybrid events in the spring of 2020 when every in-person event was cancelled, we had to use production tools to make these shows look good because there was little to no other way to effectively produce the shows we wanted to make. Picture-in-picture, side-by-side with a presentation, multiple people on screen in various views, etc.

Technology evolves fast with demand, and there's a planet full of people, with money, all stuck at home and looking for more—more capability, more features, more functionality, more panache. I can safely say that every online tool is very different in the spring of 2022 than it was two years ago. Even "boring" business chat apps now can pin multiple people side by side, share long videos from the desktop with audio, better handle audiences, break out rooms, and managing who comes on stage, when, with what privileges.

Things that simply were not possible with Microsoft Teams in the spring of 2020, people are now doing regularly in Teams in 2022. The "low-level" platforms have elevated their game because their customers have demanded it. Those paying customers can switch to a competing platform if you don't improve the product, fix bugs, and start giving them what they clamor for. So the platforms are investing and evolving rapidly.

Similarly, the high-end event tools have also improved, adding more interactivity, more functionality, more user-demanded features that help to elevate THEIR product too. The entire hybrid event platform industry is making huge strides right now. Appearing to try and leapfrog each other, by adding features and services that will pull pack customers that left. Event platform Hopin bought Streamyard to add integrated production. Business chat app Zoo, and streaming platform Vimeo have both added a whole events layer to their offerings to pull back customers who went to event platforms that offered a wider scope of services.

In addition, new solutions are appearing every month. Some are nipping at the heels of established platforms, and others, like EvMux, are jumping in with expansive feature sets that immediately set themselves apart from the offerings currently out there. I have a couple of these already lined up for future reviews, so subscribe to Streaming Media to keep the new information coming your way.

I hope my overview of the three tiers of hybrid events has helped you understand the scope of what is currently being done, and what can be done. As you have seen, a "hybrid event" is a wide open description. With this understanding we can better communicate what we are looking to do when we work together.

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So, whether it's a quarterly meeting, an annual marketing show, or an industry event like CES or the International Auto Show, we still need in-person events. But how these events recognize and incorporate remote pre­senters and remote audiences will have to change from what was done pre-COVID. The future of events is hybrid, although these hybrid events will take different forms, depending on the event size, budget, and nature and complexity of the off-site elements. There are what I call "Three Tiers of Hybrid," which represent three different ways to bring local and remote presenters and attendees together.