Online events with offline elements to boost interactivity

I’m not a very big fan of offline events anymore.

Back in my client-side and agency-side communications days at Edelman (as head of digital strategy), at Flipkart (as corporate communications head) and at Ogilvy (as head of social media), I used to get invited to assorted events, either to speak or to attend as a participant.

After the initial enthusiasm, I consciously decided that I won’t spend time on more than 2-3 events every year, and pick those events carefully with the primary consideration being what I gain from the event.

I do realize that events are big business. They sustain so many different kinds of employment, right from the venue, to support vendors for so many things, to travel, to stay and so many other things. This is particularly true for large-scale trade fairs.

But, in 2020, when the world has morphed into something unimaginably different, one of the biggest hits was for the events industry.

While I don’t have anything prescriptive to comment on how the primarily-offline events industry could transform into an online medium, two recent events I attended gave me a reason to pause and ponder about the possibilities.

The first was less of an event online – it could have been an event offline, but online, it was more an intimate experiment.

Bengaluru-based mentalist, mind reader, and psychic entertainer (in layman terms – magician; he is worried about using that term else he may be called for kids’ birthday parties) Nakul Shenoy invited me back in June 2020 for an interesting experiment. Ideally, he may have invited me over to his show, offline, but he was wanting to try how to do a hybrid show.

Usually, ‘hybrid events’ are understood to be something where people could attend offline or online, based on their preference. But Nakul’s hybrid attempt was very different – the hybrid element was to be in a way that he delivers the show via video conferencing tools, but there are some physical elements that are contextually used during the show.

So Nakul sent a mystery box (I picked it up using Dunzo) that was carefully assembled to include items that we are supposed to use as he is performing on video. That box was the physical element to what was actually an online show.

And Nakul had thought through the format really well – every item in the box had a perfect meaning and context that becomes clear to the participants as he started performing, asking us to pick a specific item from the box!

He had also sealed the box and specifically instructed us to not to open it before the show – hat added intrigue to the whole event.

The second hybrid event was/is Reputation Today’s SPECTRA. The reason for was/is is because it is a 3 days event and unlike an offline 3-day event that is usually conducted for 3 consecutive days, this event is conducted on 3 different days – November 28, December 12 and January 9, 2021!

SPECTRA is the digital version of Reputation Today’s PRAXIS (Public Relations And Corporate Communications India Summit), the world’s largest event for communications professionals.

When Amith (the founder of the team behind Reputation Today, PRAXIS and SPECTRA, among others) found that his previously planned 2020 version of PRAXIS (scheduled to be held in Kolkata this year) was not going to be possible, he decided to shift the event online.

While it would have been considerably easier to simply make it yet another webinar event by getting all speakers to speak from home and all participants to join via video conferencing from their respective homes, the team planned the hybrid element meticulously!

The two specific offline elements are something previous participants of PRAXIS are already familiar with – the famous goodies bag and the standard event fixture of lunch/dinner.

The goodies bag arrived a couple of days before the first day of the event and it was filled with that PRAXIS participants already know – tons of interesting and carefully assembled items from multiple sponsors. Getting the goodies bag in your hand, physically, is a great sign that the event is not just video.

Pic via Shreya Krishnan

The second physical element was the clincher! Amith had delivered lunch for the first day, through a tie-up with Taj Hotel’s new service Qmin! So, participants in those cities where Taj home delivers food were greeted with a text message on the morning of the first day, and the food, immaculately packed and assembled, arrived shortly after.

Pic via Shreya Krishnan
Pic via Shraiyash Uniyal

These 2 physical elements herald the fact that SPECTRA is simply not a video-only event, and a physical artefact at the participants’ home is a testimony to that!

Also, both artefacts’ arrival at home gives specific opportunities for the participants to share them on social media, helping the event gain online prominence!

Unlike Nakul’s offline artefact that was so closely tied to what the video delivery was going to be, SPECTRA did not have a specific context to the video-based event delivery (besides the event schedule sheet, perhaps – which was also available online, and is something the offline PRAXIS used to ask participants to download the event app for!), SPECTRA’s offline elements are more towards setting the mood and ambience for what was only a video-based event. And it worked very well towards that objective.

I feel Nakul’s model is quite scalable for larger events too if event managers and planners think very carefully and deeply. For speakers, if they plan their sessions well in advance, specific elements could be shared as physical artefacts that can be opened and experienced offline too.

The physical artefacts could anything, limited only by the imagination of the event planners who need to think through the whole thing like an interactive script. They need to think through the multiple speakers’ or presenters’ content (who need to prepare it in advance, unlike last-minute changes possible in offline-only events), see where a physical element could be included, at what cost and sequence it.

Even if the speaker intends to showcase just a YouTube video in support of a point she is trying to make, adding the QR code of the video (along with many other elements) in a sheet (marked as Day 1, session 3, for example) and that sheet along with many others being delivered to participants could add to the level of interactivity of the event. The speaker could ask logged in participants to pick the event pack, go to sheet 3 and scan the 4th QR code with their phones during her session – and that opens the video on the participants’ phones – the speaker could watch it along with the participants in her own phone and make points she had in mind as it plays. This does need more planning and coordination than simply playing that video at the speakers’ end while the participants simply watch as mute spectators, but the planning and coordination are probably worth the minute effort because of the unparalleled amount of interactivity it offers.

Events have always had a huge role for logistics – but in offline, it was largely for transport and event venue-related. Now, with a physical artefact that could reach individual participants in their homes, the role of logistics gets more complex and interesting, though not impossible.

We are merely scratching the surface in terms of hybrid events. In a way, event organizers are forced to scramble for solutions to continue creating and charging for events because of the pandemic and some of this experience of online events will likely stick even after the world’s population has been vaccinated fully/largely. So, using our creativity and ingenuity in planning and coordinating hybrid events could be a long way in making them worth the fee being charged and a worthy and interactive experience for the participants.



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