Setting Goals for the New Hybrid Exhibit Challenge

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To quote my favorite hip hop line of the 90s, “Don’t call it a comeback!”

Comebacks are for celebrities trying to restart dormant careers. The event industry isn’t making a comeback—it’s making a recovery; it’s evolving. And all signs point to the fact that recovery will launch with hybrid events, which, on the topic of evolution, will be the dominant framework for moving forward.

Hybrid events will offer exhibitors attractive and compelling opportunities to engage audiences. We may still have strictly virtual events for a while; remounting an in-person trade show takes a tremendous amount of work, not to mention coordinating venue schedules and other business services against city and state health guidelines. An in-person-only trade show without a virtual component is challenging because of those new health and safety standards—and estimating the number of attendees after the Covid hiatus is difficult, even if show organizers limit the number of in-person registrations. The hybrid event, certainly the next wave in event marketing, will combine what we have learned from virtual events with live trade show practices to deliver, potentially, the best of both worlds.

Hybrid events are more than a simple blending of virtual and live; they will have a unique existence that draws on the other two but results in an entirely new entity. There is an abundance of material that details the nature of the events, but please note: we are talking about exhibiting. Understanding hybrid events and having a successful ‘show’ are not the same.

Counting bodies, live or virtual, and implementation of best practices are only part of the recovery. We’ve been in reaction—triage, candidly—mode for more than a year. Now a critical activity is to set goals so we can develop actionable strategies for exhibiting success.

Our hybrid exhibit goals will tap into everything we know about both virtual and live events. Let’s look at what we’ve learned about those two iterations of trade shows before articulating hybrid exhibit goals.

Goal Setting for Virtual Events: What We’ve Learned:

Winning strategies for virtual event participation have taught us important goals are:

Engage the audience: Our presence at a virtual show has to offer compelling engagement. Participants might devour content, but there are either too many distractions—on and off-screen—or the virtual exhibit floor doesn’t excite us. The virtual exhibit needs to provide an experience; it can’t be something that does the job of an existing corporate website.

Collect relevant data: On the heels of engagement, the goal is to gather data about people who visit the virtual exhibit. Yes, you can get a list of registered attendees, but honestly, not everyone who registers attends. (Most data, like that from Bizzabo, suggests 50% of the registrants actually attend.) How do you learn about those who visit your exhibit? How do you determine their interest level? Their buying plans? Their budgets? Built-in Interactivity will help you forge a meaningful connection for gathering data. If your virtual exhibit is not interactive, you won’t get a very good return on your investment, nor will you learn a whole lot about the specific audience that visited your site. You need to lean on the organizer for appending data to what you collect at your exhibit. When you contract to exhibit at a show in the digital or live space, you are not merely buying space; you are buying access to your market.

Acknowledge the power of outreach in the form of event promotion, sponsorships, or social media. How will your target market know you’re exhibiting at the virtual event? How will they find you, aside from stumbling across your blue link? Much like live events, you need to reach out to your audience and do something to grab their attention. And while we’re on the subject: how will you follow-up once you’ve determined who visited your exhibit? There is wisdom in the traditional pre-show/show-site/post-show matrix, which advises us to have a RELEVANT post-show follow-up ready before the show opens.

In all likelihood, you can craft additional goals from your experiences with virtual events. Not only that, reminding yourself about all you learned from purely virtual events takes away some of the sting from not having been live.

Goal Setting for Live Events: What We Know:

Although there is no quiz, let’s review what we know (or remember) about goal-setting for live events.

Capitalize on the power of face-to-face. Before, when we talked about trade shows, we pointed out that they were among the last vestiges of in-person meetings. And then they disappeared! With live events in recovery mode, we never want to take in-person for granted. Be judicious about the people who staff your exhibit. Invest that small amount of your total budget in staff training. Now that you understand how much it means, don’t waste the face-to-face opportunity.

Celebrate networking. Depending on the size of your exhibit—it might be smaller than in the past, at least initially while organizers sort out health and safety measures—engage not only with single attendees but with those traveling in groups. Those people appreciate the chance to get together again—use that sense of reconnection to foster networking. Again, staff training will help this level of engagement.

Remember that education—about products, services, and more—remains the number one goal for event attendance. How will you teach attendees about your products and services? Many of the interactive methods we used in the past won’t work anymore. No one wants to use a touchscreen interface or AR goggles that haven’t been appropriately sanitized after the last user. Work with your exhibit partner to develop phone-based Interactivity. Old-school theater presentations might be another option.

Create a memorable brand experience in your space. Partner with an exhibit design and fabrication house; initially, you might think you should return to the show floor with something modest. Not a good idea! Match your attendees’ celebratory mood.

Like with virtual goals, you can probably add your own. Your specific vertical industry and your knowledge of the audience will dictate additional goals—and again, you can tap your previous experience and the expertise of your exhibit partner.

Goal Setting for Hybrid Exhibits: The New Frontier

Before we set goals for hybrid event participation, let’s explore the landscape. Audience expansion is one element; there is the potential to reach many more people than at either virtual or live events. We aren’t going to get much guidance from past show audits, so creating an attendee profile is essential. Consider all the possibilities: perhaps online attendees are not able, for one reason or another, to attend the live show. On the other hand, many people are suffering from Zoom fatigue and can’t wait to see people and products in real life. The predictions indicate that attendees returning to in-person events will be more focused, serious, and directed than attendees in earlier years.

How do you set hybrid exhibit goals to help you create brand experiences that build loyalty, influence buying or prescribing habits, and deliver a favorable ROI—not only in terms of visitors and leads but also social media growth, brand awareness, and favorable press?

What are some of those goals?

Take ownership of the hybrid experience. Show organizers are not exhibitors, and they will not come up with exhibiting solutions for us. They can set directives for sightlines, health and safety standards, crowd management, and the like, but they will not map out the exhibiting process for you, only the framework. Harnessing the power and potential of hybrid exhibiting doesn’t have to be as overwhelming as it might feel. Rely on your exhibit partner to set you on the course for success.

Create a symbiotic relationship between the two elements of the hybrid exhibit. There needs to be a connection that allows, if you can imagine, the attendee to go back and forth from one platform to another—and recognize the consistency of the experience. Frankly, you could have exhibit visitors who take a seat somewhere in the convention center and listen to your product theater on their laptops or phones. This is the new world order.

Engage audiences on multiple levels. As we pointed out earlier, the engagement on the actual show floor will differ from the way it used to be. New ways of delivering education and connection will replace old ways that could jeopardize health and safety—plus, the new methods should have the same level of Interactivity for both the live and the online participants. Hybrid exhibiting allows you to tap into the best of two worlds, bridge the experience gap, and blur the lines between the two.

Develop data collection methods for both audiences. The data fields can be the same, but the harvesting of data will be different. Mobile apps will probably replace older show-site methods of data gathering or lead collection. The interface for both live and virtual visitors can be the same. Ensure online data capture with Interactivity such as downloads, games, or other methods that facilitate connection—not dissimilar from what you will use on the show floor. Integrate the technology tools at your disposal for a recognizable, seamless experience. It’s not unthinkable that a person will attend the live show one day and the virtual show the next. As you see the possibilities inherent in hybrid exhibiting, you will develop your own tools.

The recovery is coming, and now is the time to plan for it and take advantage of the exciting potential of hybrid exhibiting. In the end, deploying the right balance of an in-person, online, on-demand, and remote equation is the only way to stand “over the competition…towering!”

21 Questions To Ask