SXSW POV: What’s Next for Hybrid Events

Michelle Francis, Account Director, Studio Rx 

When virtual events became our reality, healthcare went all in. Our brands ripped apart plans, reimagined content and redefined measures of success. We harnessed technology that transformed customer engagement and expanded reach beyond what’s possible on the show floor. As COVID-19 protocols lift and we shift to hybrid events, will we loosen the reins on technology and innovation for our online-only audience? Attending SXSW gave me a peek into what might be next for hybrid events.  

My online badge gave me access to discussions on fascinating topics by fascinating people. I spent days swimming in exclusive content but didn’t find enough options to explore personal interests or feel connected to the live event. Lounges, parties, and activations—or anything closely resembling these kinds of interactions—weren’t available to me as an online attendee. Of the over 500 “Special Events,” only about 10% percent were available online. VRChat, their Metaverse component, was hard to access and didn’t draw a hybrid audience. Of the few people there, almost nobody was at the live event. There were multiple steps to access the platform, one of which was a long period of waiting for them to accept your friend request. It felt like a missed opportunity to connect hybrid audiences in a meaningful way. 

Other things just made for a bumpy ride. One of the core online offerings—on demand video—wasn’t available until the next day and at times listed incorrectly. Live channel content was haphazard and confusing. Audience members weren’t mic’d up during Q&A so I couldn’t hear the questions, and the presenter rarely repeated it before providing an answer. There was a tense moment during Featured Speaker Scott Galloway’s “Provocative Predictions” Q&A when he was confronted by a member of the audience. Clearly something poignant was happening but it was completely lost on me. I later found out through media coverage that he was being questioned about the impact of his actions on transgender issues.  

During their panel on “Re-inventing Live Events for a Post-Covid World,” representatives from Eventbase, which provides mobile apps and event tech for SXSW, and Salesforce reinforced my experience by discarding the idea of delivering a balanced hybrid event. Virtual engagements are good at delivering on content, but unable to deliver lasting emotional connections. Hybrid online offerings will be an augmentation of the live experience and a place where you primarily watch live streaming content or on demand video. Forward plans for both companies are focused on creating a frictionless live experience for things like badge retrieval and safety protocols. SXSW may be offering exceptional experience, but you must come and get it.  

Someone’s disability, location or resources may make attending live difficult or impossible. Others are taking a slower approach to large group events, and some people just prefer to network and learn from a private space. Our healthcare clients and audiences are no doubt just as excited to be back together and eager to tap back into the value of face-to-face interactions. It’s understandable to assume resources may be redirected to live events, deprioritizing a brand’s virtual offerings. If we don’t make room to experiment with technology, we risk losing the interest of our newly activated online audience and the opportunity for brands to communicate in fresh, innovative ways.  

This isn’t a POV about the Metaverse, but all things are indicating it’s time to lean in. Elements of the Metaverse have the potential to transform the way we connect healthcare audiences in deep and meaningful ways. The avatar took center stage at SXSW and all the ways we can personalize, accessorize, and help express who we are in social virtual spaces. XR and AI worlds are combining to create realistic and responsive avatars that can create new opportunities for learning. Creating an avatar is easy, fun and a comfortable entry point for virtual engagement. Apple’s VR headset is expected to drop this year and give people access to immersive worlds like never before. We can continue to develop standard tactics like MOA and KOL videos, but we can also gamify the experience in a virtual world where avatars can interact together with dynamic visuals, graphics and data.  

What’s next for hybrid events isn’t exactly an SXSW trend but it’s something our healthcare brands are going to have to navigate. We have all the tools to create balanced, value-based hybrid experiences. The lure of live events doesn’t have to slow momentum; success will come down to choosing the right tech and using it in smart ways to meet the needs of your business and audience. Nurturing a dynamic, user-friendly online experience contributes to inclusivity and provides an opportunity for brands to create lasting, memorable connections for more people.