Technology / September 01, 2014

A case study on integrating virtual attendees

by Fred Gebhart

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Do you want to increase paid attendance for your next event? Go hybrid.

Do you want to expand your reach to a wider audience? Go hybrid.

Do you want to build new revenue streams? Go hybrid.

Those are a few of the reasons PCMA is taking more and more of its events into the hybrid world.

PCMA has found that adding virtual attendees by live-streaming select sessions during its physical events is a no-lose proposition. The 2014 version of Convening Leaders racked up a record 40 percent increase in attendance, breaking records for both physical registration in Boston and virtual registration worldwide.

“We strongly believe in face-to-face events,” says Carolyn Clark, PCMA’s vice president of marketing and communications, who has led the hybrid charge. “It is difficult for people to see eye-to-eye when they are not face-to-face, but there are always people who cannot attend a physical event who can attend virtually. Not only does our virtual audience grow from year to year, having hybrid access has motivated more people to come to the physical version of the same event the next year.”

Moving into the hybrid space is also increasing PCMA’s international presence, in what was previously a largely North American market. This year’s Convening Leaders attracted attendees from 20 countries. Many attended virtually to avoid international travel costs. Many who attended virtually this year will attend in person next year.

“An average of 23 percent of virtual attendees convert to physical attendees within the next 24 months,” says James Parker, president of technology provider Digitell. “Think of online attendance, which is typically free, as a funnel that drives paid physical registration.”

Cannibal Concerns
The one thing developing your online audience won’t do is eat into your physical attendance.

Parker compared today’s associations with National Football League team owners in the 1960s. The owners were terrified that televising games would cannibalize physical attendance and cut into team revenues. The reality is that television emerged as one of the most successful—and profitable—marketing tools the sports world has ever imagined. Televising games boosted visibility, interest, advertising revenues and physical attendance.

“That same scenario is starting to play out in the association world,” Parker says. “Our data shows that the larger your online audience, the more effectively you will drive future physical attendance.”

PCMA sees similar trends. The three most important reasons virtual attendees choose to attend online instead of in person are budget (48 percent), schedule conflicts (23 percent) and lack of time to travel (13 percent).

“Cannibalization is people’s biggest fear of the hybrid space,” says Jennifer Kush, PCMA’s director of experience marketing. “It doesn’t happen. Instead, you are getting an engaged, committed audience coming to you. The industry is finally starting to embrace the reality that we have been seeing since our first hybrid event.”

Monetizing Hybrids
Even the most ardent advocates of hybrid events are quick to point out that virtual is not free. PCMA created the Virtual Edge Institute to explore some of the practical elements needed to take physical events into the hybrid world.

The equipment and technologies needed to stream sessions from a physical event can seem overwhelming at first, but don’t have to break the budget. One reason is that many events already have cameras, microphones, lighting, graphics and other elements used to record sessions that can also be used for streaming.

Dedicated Internet bandwidth may add costs, but careful scheduling of all of your streamed sessions into one or two rooms will limit the total expenditure for content acquisition and transmission.

Content capture has three major aspects to consider. One side is the cost for equipment, personnel, bandwidth and other elements needed to capture the action.

A second side is recording that content and selling it, either to attendees who want recordings or to other buyers who did not attend. Content recording, capture and sale is the business that brought Digitell into the association world.

Digitell and similar vendors typically sell a variety of conference packages that include recordings of all sessions, specific education or interest tracks, or individual sessions. Another possibility is to sell rebroadcasts of specific sessions or tracks.

Some associations sell “simu-live” broadcasts that have fixed beginning and ending times. Others sell on-demand access that gives viewers more flexibility. Meeting sponsors can even repackage sessions around different engagement points for certain audiences or offer a series of “Best of…” broadcasts to maintain audience engagement and enthusiasm once the actual event is over.

A third side of content capture is sponsorship.

PCMA is already testing sponsorship of its broadcasts. Just as vendors sponsor physical elements such as tote bags, vendors can sponsor the virtual elements that create a hybrid event. One of the association’s most successful programs was a virtual version of its ever-popular lunchtime product demo.

Three sponsors purchased 20-minute lunchtime segments available only to Convening Leaders online attendees. Attendees saw a 10-minute prerecorded product demo followed by 10 minutes of live Q&A. Moderator Mary Reynolds Kane, PCMA’s director of online marketing, used live questions from the virtual audience.

“The technology demos were a huge success,” Clark says. “Our sponsors were happy because they had an audience that was actively engaged with them. Our attendees were happy, as 93 percent of them said they would attend again. We were happy with the engagement on both ends of the demo and with the $5,000 sponsorship from each of the companies that participated. As many ways as there are to monetize a face-to-face event, there are even more ways to monetize a hybrid event.”

There is also the simple expedient of charge for virtual registration. Registration fees could be a viable revenue source for some event sponsors, but probably not for PCMA. Virtual attendance for PCMA events plummets when there are even nominal registration fees.

In 2013, the association charged virtual attendees for its annual Summer Education Conference. Hybrid registration fell from 279 in 2012 to 86 in 2013. With no registration fee for virtual attendees in 2014, online attendance soared to 440. The group saw a similar pattern charging for an Education Conference rebroadcast. The free event drew 82 attendees in 2013, but only 40 when a fee was charged in 2014.

“Different industries have different successes in different areas,” Clark says. “We didn’t do well charging for continuing education online, but medical associations have been very successful with the same model. The difference is that medical attendees need CME credits for licensure. Continuing education is not required in our industry.”

Marketing Runs the Show
One of the biggest changes resulting from moving into the hybrid world is internal. In most organizations, the physical meetings are part of the education department. But the virtual side of hybrid meetings are more a marketing function.

“Hybrid events are a marvelous opportunity to engage with larger audiences than you have ever attracted face-to-face,” Kush says. “The online extension of what you are doing with your physical event is a natural fit for marketing. Brand extension is very clearly a marketing function, not part of education.”

That division of labor calls for close cooperation between education and marketing departments. At PCMA, the education team makes the final selection of event sessions while marketing chooses which sessions to include in the online program.

“The real watchword for the future is ‘engagement,’” Kush says. “More and more event elements are being created to actively engage the audience online and all year. The days of planning an event, staging it and filing it away are coming to an end. Going hybrid is a very effective way to grow your audience, keep them engaged, keep them loyal and coming back for more.”

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