The Return to
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Best of Both Worlds

How to Keep Your Hybrid Audience Coming Back for More

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Hybrid meetings have allowed associations to reach new audiences, attracting people who might never have attended without a virtual option. Smart organizations will take steps to bring them back to the next event, maybe even in person.

With some people still unable or unwilling to travel as the pandemic persists, hybrid meetings have allowed associations to attract more attendees than ever before. But how do you hold on to these new attendees and keep them coming back for more?

The answer, say experts, is a mix of two key strategies: extending the event experience by creating community around it, and using the data you gather to give attendees what they want and how they want it.

A primary reason people attend meetings—in person or virtually—is to connect with others, and you can help that process along even before day one, says Betsy Bondurant, president of Bondurant Consulting.

“Taking time to personally engage with these folks before the meeting even starts can help,” she said. “I’ve seen some organizations who do virtual happy hours or get-togethers once a week or once a month a few months in advance of the meeting. People can get the opportunity to meet each other more casually, so they have some connections when they actually see a few names they recognize in the online feed for the attendees who are there.” These preconference meet-ups should include both virtual and in-person attendees, she noted.

You can keep building community after the event is over, too. “There’s this idea of lengthening the term of engagement,” Bondurant said. “Really curating some of these post-event get togethers. What did you learn? What was your favorite takeaway from the meeting? Those types of things can be very valuable.”

A primary reason people attend meetings—in person or virtually—is to connect with others, and associations can help that process along even before day one.

Make It “Sticky”

Don Neal, founder and CEO of 360 Live Media, doesn’t the like the term “hybrid meeting.” He prefers to think of these new offerings as “omnichannel events.”

Like Bondurant, Neal believes that omnichannel is all about long-term reach, and he urges associations to think of their events as if they were programs on a streaming service like Netflix. People aren’t always in the mood for the same type of program, but they know that Netflix is where they want to turn when they’re ready to watch something.

“What [streaming services are] doing is they’re leveraging their knowledge of your use of data over the duration of the year,” Neal said. “So that’s how you keep the ‘stickiness’ of people who come to your digital event or your in-person event and create value that you deliver over the course of the year digitally.”

Associations should track who is coming to which events and use that data to promote programs that the data shows will likely pique attendees’ specific interests. Because hybrid allows both in-person and virtual attendance, a lot of data can be gathered.

Neal noted that each time a person comes to an event—whether they pick digital or in-person—they have a specific goal in mind.

“They’re not looking for just the general information,” he said. “They’re looking for individual specific information about their careers or their business or their profession, and that’s where associations that are thriving and creating stickiness are most successful.”

Neal says the yearlong approach can be particularly effective when used together with audience segmentation. He cites the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics as an example.

“They launched a brand-new event last year called ASCEND,” he said. “That’s a good example of an organization who really has built a lot of stickiness with their members and, frankly, a brand-new audience. Sixty-three percent of the people who went to that event in 2020 had never been to an AIAA event, so they brought in a whole new audience, many of whom were international. And they’ve been having events throughout the year—what I’ll call pop-up events—for specific communities that have created a lot of stickiness.”

Cultivate FOMO

Even as you work to keep your new virtual attendees coming back, you might be able to persuade a few to try the in-person event next time.

Bondurant said it’s important to make virtual attendees feel like they’re part of the event and valued during hybrid experiences. But there’s nothing wrong with giving them a taste of what they miss by not being there live.

“I think people have recognized that you create FOMO, fear of missing out,” she said. “Like, ‘Oh my gosh, look at all this great stuff they’re doing, and I can’t be there. So, I’m definitely going to get this approved in my budget for next year.’ That’s from people witnessing what’s happening at the live event, which can drive future attendance in person.”

And while it may take some strategic rethinking to get into the mindset of a yearlong event strategy that meets members where their needs are, that shift will drive success in the long run, Neal said.

“I’m not saying this is easy, but there’s no turning back with this,” he said. “The genie is not going back in the bottle. Live, in-person events are going to exist and I think be much, much better next year and forever more, but the digital component is going to be essential for success.”

Rasheeda Childress

Rasheeda Childress is a former editor at Associations Now.

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