hybrid conference

Better Connected: Engaging Virtual Meeting Attendees

Groups that host hybrid conferences don’t want their virtual attendees to feel left out. That’s why many are turning to staff, volunteers, and other experts to make sure the virtual audience feels just as connected as those onsite.

Hybrid conferences—where an in-person meeting is blended with an online component—come with a lot of benefits. Among them: allowing members to attend who would have otherwise been unable to due to travel costs or other factors, boosting nondues revenue, and broadening an association’s global reach.

But one thing that can make associations wary to jump into a hybrid event is fear that online participants will feel less engaged and immersed in the conference than their in-person colleagues. Virtual attendees are likely to have this same concern, too.

What we found with the online community is they get great content, but they don’t get to see the hands-on stuff, and that’s often what’s most inspiring for these folks.

However, meetings—whether association-related or not—are doing more to make their online participants feel welcome and heard. Here are three ways that meetings have gone about fostering the virtual experience:

Live guides. At Google’s I/O developer conference, which took place in May in San Francisco, the organizers boosted their efforts to engage the event’s global audience, known as Google I/O Extended.

According to an article on BizBash, previous conferences only allowed remote viewers to watch a live stream of the keynotes and breakout sessions. However, this year, the 3 million (yes, 3 million!) people who experienced the event online were given some additional access. That’s because Amanda Matuk, executive producer of Google I/O, added four teams of “live guides” to the event. These were pairs of reporters and camera operators who traveled around the event, providing a live look at some of the other experiences.

“What we found with the online community is they get great content, but they don’t get to see the hands-on stuff, and that’s often what’s most inspiring for these folks,” Matuk told BizBash. “So we’re doing this as an experimental thing to try to get more engagement on the non-session content.” Guides also responded to requests from viewers and live streamed from the evening events.

Chat facilitators. Back in 2015, the EMDR International Association (EMDRIA) decided to expand its in-person annual conference to a hybrid event. Working with iCohere, the group was able to come up with a successful strategy for engaging its largely international membership. For example, people from 17 countries participated online last year.

But, as EMDRIA’s Continuing Professional Education Coordinator Sara Sturtevant shared on a 2016 iCohere webinar, part of that success was the result of having staff and volunteers serving in different roles than would be required at an in-person-only event.

One role that EMDRIA introduced at its hybrid conference was a “chat facilitator” who was dedicated to connecting virtual attendees with people actually sitting in the session room. Sturtevant said EMDRIA found some of these chat facilitators by going to local colleges and recruiting some tech-savvy students who needed money. Another good source for chat facilitators: Member volunteers from within an association, she said.

Virtual emcees. As the previous examples show, a well-executed hybrid event is much more than simply live streaming the speaker. At the very least, it requires some type of virtual emcee to engage with the online audience.

Similar to chat facilitators, virtual emcees can lead discussions on social media or the event platform during the event and interact with the audience when the speaker takes a break for the live audience. They also can make sure questions from the virtual audience get answered.

For example, at previous National Speakers Association conventions, the group livestreamed a talk show to bridge the gap between the in-person and virtual audience.  Between the broadcast of each main stage session and concurrent session, emcees interviewed presenters, attendees, and NSA leadership. Roving reporters, who were NSA members and attendees, also brought those all-important hallway conversations to the virtual audience.

What other steps has your association taken to make your virtual attendees feel more connected to the face-to-face event? Please share in the comments.


Samantha Whitehorne

By Samantha Whitehorne

Samantha Whitehorne is editor-in-chief of Associations Now. MORE

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