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The age of the hybrid event is here. As associations contemplate returning to in-person gatherings, the advantages of virtual—including serious time and money savings for your members—can’t be ignored. To engage the largest audience in the most personalized way possible, a hybrid event that combines in-person offerings with virtual ones is the way to go.

The hybrid model comes with some challenges, of course, including logistics, technology, engagement, and more. But the juice is worth the squeeze. Following a few best practices will help you navigate this new frontier to maximize the benefits and engage your base for years to come.

What is a hybrid event?

A hybrid event is any in-person event that has some online component. This could include a livestream of the in-person sessions, on-demand content, a gamification component, a remote keynote speaker, a Q&A with both in-person and online audiences, or any number of other possibilities.

There are no rules here and no audience expectations because everything is new. For example, you might discover that your event becomes 80% virtual and only 20% in-person based on your audience preferences.

What are the advantages of a hybrid event?

If your association is like most, you’re eager to replace lost event revenue from 2020 and fuel future growth by retuning to a full-fledged in-person conference and expo. Plenty of your members are chomping at the bit to get out of their homes/offices and connect in person once gain.

However, budget cuts and lingering fears related to COVID-19 mean people won’t be returning to your event in droves just yet. In-person attendance will likely be low for years to come. A virtual event offers an opportunity to serve your base with high-quality content from afar.

A hybrid event is the best of both worlds. It’s a chance to regain the magic of an in-person experience while engaging people virtually—and generating revenue on both fronts. Chances are you invested in virtual event infrastructure in 2020, so the potential for hybrid is already there.

What are some best practices for hybrid events?

1. Simplify your offerings based on your association’s differentiators.

It’s easy for your event to become a three-ring circus of sessions, certifications, whiz bang technology platforms, cocktail hours, rock bands, and more. Some of this was a risk before the pandemic. Now more than ever, your event (and all your association’s offerings) should focus on what you do best. What sets you apart from competitors? What is the highest-value service you provide for your members? What do you offer that people can’t find anywhere else? Highlight these differentiators in your event marketing as well.

2. Understand your audience.

The answers to a few key questions about your members and prospects will guide the decisions you make about your hybrid event—including the size of your venue, registration price, engagement strategies, and the percentage of your event that goes online.

  • Are your members and prospects ready and willing to travel again? 
  • What is the No. 1 reason people attend your event?
  • Why might people NOT attend?
  • Do people place a higher value on your networking or your content?
  • Are people looking for certifications? Can these be delivered online?
  • How important is a hands-on, face-to-face exhibit hall experience?
  • What is the ROI of in-person offerings compared to virtual ones?
  • What does your association offer that can only take place in person?

3. Choose your tech last.

There are hundreds of tech solutions that you could include in your hybrid event. Most of them aren’t actually necessary, and some of them add unneeded complexity and the potential for technical difficulties. After answering all the questions in No. 2 above, choose the tools that will best serve your base. For more insights on technology, have a look at New Tech Won’t Save Your Crappy Marketing.

4. Focus on value.

A big-name speaker fills seats but may not offer insights your audience needs to hear. A well-known entertainer may get rave reviews from attendees without generating enough ROI for your association. Focus on value first. Ask yourself: Does this help people solve their challenges? Does it enable goals? Does it present new possibilities? Does it foster meaningful connections? Is it purposeful? Does it align with our cause? Also consider whether it generates ROI for your association. 

Seize this Huge Opportunity

A hybrid event is a huge opportunity for your association to serve the needs of your members in a curated, personalized way while generating much-needed revenue. Amid today’s challenges, people are tackling more responsibilities than ever. Be part of the solution. Distill your event down to only the most powerful resources and deliver them in a way that honors people’s preferences. Cut everything else.

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If one of the main benefits of your association or your annual conference is “networking” you have a problem. LinkedIn was made for networking. Sure it’s not industry specific and it’s not as personal, but it is free. Nearly every industry is represented there, so there’s bound to be individuals from your sector who are eager to connect and collaborate. There’s probably a special interest group too.

If another big benefit of your association or event is “thought leadership,” guess what? LinkedIn is giving you a run for your money there as well. LinkedIn is loaded with great ideas, insights, strategies, tips and tricks that could apply to your members’ businesses. Again, this content might not be 100% tailored to your specific space, but it’s free and it’s somewhat helpful.

What Am I Paying For?

For both networking and thought leadership, your potential members can invest precisely $0 and get a huge return in the form of somewhat relevant contacts and information. By comparison, your membership dues and event registration fees will seem like a big investment. People will want to know: “What do I get in return for investing so much money?

Quite often, an association will answer this question by saying, “We’re focused exclusively on our sector! We’re unique and customized to our space!” Also quite often, that same association will host a conference featuring big-name experts from other industries. Suddenly your argument of “we’re unique and focused” doesn’t hold up.


People will want to know: “What do I get in return for investing so much money?”


Payton Manning Won’t Cut It Anymore

A celebrity keynote speaker like Payton Manning, Erin Brockovich, or Steve Wozniak draws a crowd. They leave audiences feeling inspired and uplifted and, quite often, entertained. People go back to the office bragging about how they saw an A-lister live in the flesh. They might even have a notepad full of motivational quotes and pithy one-liners to share with their team. They likely also have a mittful of business cards from networking sessions and cocktail receptions.

Prior to 2020, these might have been reasons enough to invest time, money, and travel into your annual event. But they just don’t hold up any more. When faced with health and safety considerations, serious budget constraints, and a dire workforce shortage, your members and prospects are forced to prioritize their time and money. They simply can’t justify expensive entertainment, generic insights, and networking opportunities that they could get elsewhere—for cheap or free. 

Look Back Five Years

Look back at your annual conference agendas for the last five years. How many keynote speakers were from other industries? How many sessions featured presenters from other sectors? If a lot of your content isn’t specific to your industry, you will need a stronger answer to the question “What am I paying for?” If your strongest benefit is networking, then we’re back on LinkedIn where we started.

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