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Higher Ed Events: Ready for a Much-Needed Makeover

Higher Ed Events: Ready for a Much-Needed Makeover

redefining higher ed

On campuses across the country, events have been reimagined. “Hybrid” is here—but what does that really mean for event planners and marketers in the higher-ed space? Beyond that, what types of events should be hybrid? As face-to-face gatherings become a reality again and higher-ed leaders catch their collective breath, it’s time to take a step back and look at what we’ve learned—and where we need to go from here. And how marketers should approach this new, dynamic industry.

For higher education marketers and event leaders, March 2020 will be not soon be forgotten. Not only was that the month of initial lockdowns in the US due to the pandemic, but it also represented a massive change in the day-to-day lives of higher-ed events—colleges and universities scrambled to move recruitment events, reunions, alumni weekends, and other gatherings online. This once-in-a-lifetime moment resulted in a mad dash to go virtual, and an entire arsenal of digital solutions was thrown at the problem. In a matter of a few short months.

Some were successful, and many were not. But amidst all the uncertainty, innovations also emerged as events were reimagined, new strategies to reach and engage a broader audience and create boundless experiences were trialed. The result? New event formats, or what we call “delivery models,” to support a multitude of event types and audiences that have been tested and proven nearly two years later. Enter our new normal. College campuses are open again, and marketers and event professionals are often tasked with organizing hybrid events, which combine in-person and virtual programming and delivery.

But what does “hybrid” really mean? And what types of events should be hybrid? As face-to-face gatherings become a reality again and higher-ed leaders catch their collective breath, it’s time to take a step back and look at what we’ve learned—with the added benefit of being able to put event goals and audience needs back at the forefront of your events program.


Solving the Puzzle of Hybrid Events

“How can we make our next event hybrid?”

Taken at face value, this request might seem rather simple. But it leads to a lot of questions. Does “hybrid” mean a speaker in front of an in-person audience with simultaneous streaming to an at-home audience? Or is it hosting two separate event experiences, one for in-person and one for virtual audiences? And where do you even begin to market these connected, but separate, experiences?

Perhaps it means watching the same video—and then moving to in-person groups and digital breakout rooms for discussion? As we move out of the all-digital environment of the pandemic, higher-ed institutions have a much larger menu of options from which to choose.

While this may seem a bit intimidating to some, the reality is that new event formats for higher-ed events is a huge positive. Offering hybrid options can vastly expand reach, engagement, and ROI—if done right. And while defining your event parameters can feel daunting in these changed circumstances, it becomes manageable if we zoom out, putting goals and audience needs first.

So, what are the key characteristics of a hybrid event? It’s pretty straightforward:

  • Two distinct audiences—virtual and in-person—with different needs, requiring individual agendas to create interest and spur engagement.
  • Shared experiences and content between the two audiences, so that each group feels like a part of something meaningful and connected.

The next question ask is this: how hybrid events impact your efforts for campus recruiting, alumni events, and more.

How Different Experiences Impact Your Higher-Ed Events Program

Every event type you choose has unique value to your college or university. Let’s take a quick look at these now:

Virtual Attendee Drivers

  • Learning & engagement   
  • Unparalleled access 
  • Budget savings   
  • Time savings   
  • Personal accommodations  
  • VIP virtual event

In-Person Attendee Drivers

  • Learning  
  • Travel
  • Deeper relationships   
  • Networking
  • Connecting in-person   
  • VIP/exclusive access   
  • Proximity   

The Shared Digital (Hybrid) Experience

  • Website and registration
  •  Video on Demand
  • Anytime, anywhere access  
  • Attendee-to-attendee connectivity   
  • Post-event connections  
  • Smooth, sophisticated technology that enables engagement

While in-person events provide more opportunities for relationship building, socializing, and networking, virtual and hybrid events are a boon to marketers because they provide greater access across time and geography for attendees to learn and connect through digital interactions.

Additionally, virtual events introduce cost and time savings for both attendees and the event hosts. The event’s content becomes the common ground for the two audiences, along with attendee-to-attendee connectivity through digital resources and experiences. Planning with this perspective in mind ensures that each group feels equally served and satisfied—the hallmark of any successful event.

How Marketers in Higher-Ed Need to Approach Hybrid Events

Build an engaging event website

Let’s start with the event website. As your marketing mix delivers interest and eyeballs to your event website, that website must give each audience the key logistical, agenda, programming, and price information they need to make that decision. There is no getting around the fact that hybrid events add complexity to the attendee journey.

Compare the virtual event vs in-person event experience

Put yourself in your prospective audience’s shoes: What will my experience look like if I attend in-person? Where is the venue and what does it look like? What are the venue’s safety and cleanliness policies? What networking or training opportunities will there be? Can I also get them online? Will there be any content exclusively available to in-person attendees? And, of course, what are the costs associated with each experience?

Consistency is key

Your event website needs to deliver all this information (and more) for both the in-person and virtual attendee, and it should do it in a way that feels like one event. Consistent branding helps both audiences feel like, whatever choice they make, they will be participants in a shared, valuable experience.

Turning visitors into registrants

For many higher-ed events, configuring multiple registration paths to ensure a personalized experience was already a challenge. From an event marketing perspective, the registration process is where the conversion happens, and ensuring customers, prospects, VIPs, exhibitors, and others were provided the appropriate registration experience, only showing the correct agenda, logistics, pricing, etc. was vital. Your hybrid event registration software must be powerful and flexible enough to handle the necessary configuration.

Creating personalized registration paths

Offering multiple, personalized registration paths will help your attendees find and register for the right experience and will help higher-ed event marketers and planners ensure that maximize hybrid event attendance. It will also help your internal teams manage the logistics needed to ensure both audience access and navigate the event.

Eliminating Barriers to Hybrid Success with Streamlined Technology.

A robust hybrid event model requires budget, staffing and time to plan, execute, and manage two different experiences for two different audiences—and not every institution has access to those resources. However, technology can greatly streamline your efforts. Opting for a platform that uses the same digital infrastructure for both in-person and virtual, for example, reduces the burden on your staff and helps create a seamless experience for all attendees.

The Hybrid Event Marketing Bottom Line for Higher-Ed

Marketing a hybrid event for your college or university is not dissimilar from marketing a virtual or in-person event. Many of the basics are the same. However, once you’ve decided to go hybrid, your audience complexity increases. Managing that complexity so that you get the right attendees into the right experience is key to hybrid event success.

  • Craft a hybrid event invitation strategy that leverages the deep engagement of in-person with the undeniable reach of virtual
  • Ensure your hybrid event’s value proposition, brand identity, and event website delivers on a “One Event, Two Experience” promise
  • Don’t underestimate the need for a highly configurable registration experience. Delivering a personalized registration in the face of Hybrid audience complexity will help you drive more attendance and engagement

To learn more about this subject, check out Cvent’s eBook: “Redefining Higher Ed Events in a Post-Pandemic World—Navigating Event Formats for Optimal Audience Engagement.”