Conferences, concerts, and sporting events are about to get a whole lot better

BTS is beloved by fans who come to the shows—and by those who watch from home.
BTS is beloved by fans who come to the shows—and by those who watch from home.
Image: REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
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In adapting to the realities of the covid-19 pandemic, live event organizers across the world have not just adjusted to the risks inherent with physical gatherings by implementing new safety protocols for their in-person audiences. They’ve also come to see how providing digital access to their events can reach new audiences that might never have had the chance to attend a live event.

Participation is no longer dependent on geography or limited by the number of seats in a venue. This creates tremendous new market opportunities for event organizers

At Kiswe, the interactive video company where I’m CEO, we’ve been experimenting with new features to help remote audiences feel like they are part of and contributing to the event. That said, we are just scratching the surface of creating live experiences that include remote audiences in the event. We see plenty of room for these experiences to improve. We are most excited about “hybrid events,” where the audience isn’t just in-person, or just virtual, or just watching on TV, or just in a theater, but all of the above and at the same time. Getting hybrid right, though, means creating a new kind of experience that satisfies the needs of all audiences and allows everyone to participate as a live community irrespective of where they are participating from.

Begin by changing the mindset to one where everyone matters

Whether we’re talking about a sporting event, a political rally, a business conference, or a concert, there’s an implicit hierarchy to physical events that places the highest value on the relatively few people who are fortunate enough to attend in-person—and undervalues everyone else. There’s no justice in this. Fans at home scream, cheer, and clap just as intensely as in-person fans, even though nobody at the event hears them. To move forward, we need to shelve the mindset that one type of audience is more valuable than the other, and replace it with a more inclusive perspective. This not only transforms the experience for everyone when you know just how big the audience really is, but it drives new thinking about how every audience member can be monetized.

This might seem like a heavy lift requiring a sea-change in event production and workflow. But there are precedents from which to draw. For decades, event organizers have strived to improve physical events by making sure there’s “not a bad seat in the house.” To that end, physical venues have benefited from advances in architecture, investments in wifi to power in-person second screen experiences, and innovations in audio-visual systems. Our industry needs to put the same type of thinking into making hybrid events successful.

Recognize the technological and design challenges that lie ahead

Great hybrid experiences will require advances in both technology and design to deliver an exceptional live-streaming experience for at-home participants.

On the technology front, we need better solutions for low-latency and high-capacity cloud distribution networks, as well as last-mile internet networks that can support worldwide video delivery without buffering. Anyone who has worked remotely or attended a virtual event knows that the predictable technology hiccups aren’t mere frustrations; they’re barriers to participation. Fortunately, we as an industry have made a lot of progress in the past year, and that progress will continue with 5G, 6G, edge cloud, and cloud processing providers, however, building inherently resilient and redundant networks remains challenging when operating at the threshold of network performance across the world.

On the user experience front, we need to accelerate the discovery of meaningful audience engagement and participation. Design innovations are challenging because success is subjective. You don’t know if it works until you try, and it usually takes big investments just to try. But our north star should be the goal of creating experiences that bring the emotion of the physical event to virtual audiences, and in turn bring the energy of the virtual audience back to the venue. Here, event organizers need to commit to playing the long game and embracing experiments, especially with how the at-home audience is represented in the event and redefining what is meant by “fan cameras” and “crowd shots.”

To illustrate one example, in certain events, we allow all fans to contribute short selfie videos which we then assemble into huge virtual fan panels that are shown both at the live event venues and in the broadcast. Allowing for user-generated content while barring inappropriate content, in real time, were key to showing just how big the actual audience, and allowing at-home fans to be “seen” as part of the audience.

What we learned from BTS’s Pay Per View concert

One recent event that taught us a lot was “BTS 2021 Muster Sowoozoo.” We worked with BTS, a K-pop band that recently set a world attendance record for streaming events by engaging 1.33 million fans to their Pay Per View concert. By introducing a chat feature that allowed the band to send pinned messages directly to fans in chat rooms, we saw chat activity increase dramatically. And fan passion spiked when the audience realized that the band was actually in the chat with them. Sometimes a feature as simple as “chat” can be extremely effective when the band is the one chatting.

Of course, passion is a two-way street. We also deployed new features like digital light sticks and virtual fan maps so that the artists could feel the energy of the crowd, even though the crowd was spread out across 195 countries. Finally, we helped make it possible for BTS to bring its fan community together through a video tool called “Multiview,” which lets viewers toggle between different camera angles and live local-language closed captioning that allows fans around the world to follow the event.

As measured with data and fan feedback, the BTS show was a successful experiment. The at-home fans felt like they mattered—because they did. Equally valuable, the BTS concert raised the bar in terms of audience expectations. That’s very good news for the future of hybrid events because everyone in the space will work harder to push the envelope, and in turn, deliver better and better hybrid experiences.

Hybrid events offer revenue potential—but also specific demands

The most important, sustainable, and scalable innovations are always driven by business needs. But while the revenue potential for hybrid is enticing because remote fans typically outnumber their physical counterparts many times over, it’s important to remember that the needs of remote audiences vary by event and across sectors.

Bringing the energy of a virtual audience into a concert arena, for example, isn’t the same thing as expanding inclusivity for a conference or political event. Likewise, integrating selfie videos for a hybrid entertainment event probably doesn’t translate to a business conference, where we need better tools for facilitating networking opportunities and knowledge exchanges inside breakout sessions. But regardless of the sector or event, we can think about the general business cases for the hybrid model and adapt them to a specific vertical.

Here are a few of the business cases that we see for prioritizing hybrid events over solely in-person or solely digital events:

  • Audience growth. Not only does a virtual option mean potential for reaching a larger audience, it also means reaching new audiences. But if they aren’t included in the event in a way that recognizes them, the business case will be short-lived.
  • New revenue streams. Everything you can purchase at a physical event should have a digital equivalent, especially if the merchandise is exclusive to the event (e.g. a unique clothing item).
  • Adaptability and resilience. Physical events are vulnerable to conditions at the site, but hybrid events allow for greater adaptability and resilience—an important capability in an uncertain world where extreme climate or public health issues can impact when and where the live event takes place.
  • Sustainability. As more organizations consider their carbon footprint, hybrid models represent an attractive way to hold large-scale events with a smaller comparable environmental impact.
  • Building meaningful relationships between brands and fans. Interactive live streams offer remote fans a way to engage and shape events; they also offer a powerful tool for brands to learn more about their fans and deliver on fan expectations. Arguably, first-party data gathered online makes hybrid audiences more valuable, whether to the event organizers or to companies they line up as event sponsors.

These are just a few potential business cases worth exploring. But as you think about what hybrid events should look like in your space, it’s a good idea to stick close to the needs of the business. While it’s fun to dream up a wish list of ideas, it’s the concrete results—measured ultimately by the total attendee count and each person’s experience—that will shape the hybrid future.