A case study on integrating virtual attendees

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.”

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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 ConcernsThe 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 HybridsEven 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.