Down here at the end of the earth we have had a bit of a different experience to the rest of the ProductTank world, with our elimination of COVID-19 in the community allowing in-person events to be run for most of the second half of 2020 and most of 2021. So, we have been able to observe what a post-pandemic ProductTank world could look like.
So, what does it take to run an effective hybrid event? We have learned a few tricks along the way.
The main thing we have learned is that even though we have had much shorter lockdowns compared to the rest of the world, working from home has gone from being a perk to table-stakes for most technology companies in New Zealand. It’s now common for companies to allow teams to work from home for 2 – 3 days per week, usually synchronized so all team members are either in the office or at home at the same time. This means that our audience is no longer consistently in their offices on weekdays.
In 2019, we started to experiment with recording and live streaming events, which meant that pivoting to online-only events during lockdowns was straightforward. Once the lockdowns were lifted, we committed to continuing to livestream our Meetups, effectively turning them into hybrid online/in-person events. The result of this is that prior to the pandemic we would have 100 people sign up for an event, and on average 60 show up on the day. Post lockdowns, this shifted significantly with only around 30 to 40 of 100 showing up in person, however, our livestream audience would also be around 30, so the net audience is around the same.
While this is probably in part due to the availability of the livestream, we have observed that other Meetup groups in Auckland (who did not livestream their events) also took a significant hit to their in-person attendance. We attribute this mostly to the work from home trend—attendees are not willing to come to the central city solely for a Meetup event.
Venue capacity has always been an issue, with free events meaning that no-shows are common. Hybrid events add more complexity with most event platforms not making it clear if an attendee will be there in person or not. We created a simple workaround for this in Meetup – create a RSVP question asking if the attendee will come in person. This is never 100% accurate, however, it’s enough to help event organisers to get a general idea of online vs in-person attendance and keep nervous venues happy that they will not be overfilled (which can be important given social-distancing requirements).
The rapid maturing of online meeting tools during the pandemic has meant that livestreaming a hybrid event is not that much harder than running an online meeting, and many more people now have the skills to do this. We started out using Zoom Webinar and recently moved to using Streamyard. We learned that both tools make it easy to gather multiple feeds together for an online audience.
These tools can also allow events to run across multiple locations. Our most complex event to date was a NZ-wide collaboration with ProductTank Wellington where we had multiple presenters joining us remotely from locations across the country and live audiences in Auckland and Wellington, showcasing what is happening in Product outside of the main centres. The same techniques have enabled us to easily bring overseas speakers to NZ audiences while still retaining an in-person element to the events for networking.
Tools such as StreamYard make it remarkably simple to bring together multiple video feeds from presenters. Mounting a Smartphone on a tripod using a phone mount adapter makes adding a video feed of a room easy. The cameras on most phones are up to the task of providing a good quality view of the audience and presenter. You can use a power pack and USB cable to ensure that your phone of choice doesn’t run out of battery power while capturing video. Streamyard also makes mixing in a view of presentation materials (e.g. slides) really easy.
While video is easy, good quality sound is harder. We started off just using the built-in phone mics to capture audio from a room, however we very quickly learned that these were not good enough—poor sound ruins the experience for an online attendee. After some experimentation, we settled on a wireless microphone setup that has a single receiver and two microphones—a lapel mic for a presenter and a hand-held mic that can be used by the event MC and for Q&A from the room. The wireless mic receiver connects either to the phone capturing video, or to a laptop that is connected to the Streamyard session. These systems are good to use as they’re relatively inexpensive.
One area that we are still working on is venues that have a PA system—getting sound to and from the PA system and livestream can be complex. We are currently experimenting with using a small mixing desk for this—these can now be purchased quite cheaply.
We learned that having both an in-person and online audience means that the event MC needs to balance taking questions from both. The MC must remember to repeat questions from the room for those on the livestream, as the mics in the room might not pick up the person asking the question. One way to simplify this is to use a platform such as Slido to take questions from both those in the room (using their phones) and those on the livestream—this also means that questions are visible to everyone and can be upvoted, which helps the MC to prioritise questions.
Hybrid events mean that event organisers need to think about the different timing needs of in-person and online attendees. Our events are usually advertised to start 30 minutes before the presenter gives their talk, allowing time for attendees to get to the venue and providing some networking time. So, we must be explicit about the presentation start time for online attendees to avoid them joining the livestream too early.
Having a livestream available makes it very tempting for attendees to not make the effort to attend an event in person. Therefore, event organisers must make coming along in person as attractive as possible to overcome this friction. In previous events, we avoided publicising the presence of food and drinks at an event to avoid attendees coming just for that. However now we promote this more actively to make the event more attractive to attend in person. Talk up the value of networking and provide activities to make networking less intimidating for newbies. These additions can have a massive impact.
Presenters and content
It’s important that organisers help presenters understand the implications of their content being live-streamed. When speaking to a room it can be easy to forget that the audience is much wider than just the small group in front of them. Ensure that presenters give their informed consent—and consider not live streaming an event if they are at all concerned about this.
Hybrid events are a little more complex than all in person or all online. However, the effort is worth it to cater to the changes in society that have been driven by the pandemic. They also make an event more inclusive – they can make it easier for those with family and/or childcare commitments to attend an evening event. And they can help ProductTanks and presenters to reach a wider audience – we have had folks from Europe, the USA and even Sri Lanka attend events from our small corner of the South Pacific!
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