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Hybrid events in higher ed: how to ensure they deliver on student experience

You can’t put the proverbial genie back in the bottle, and that’s particularly true when it comes to the virtualisation of higher education events.

It’s probably fair to say that before 2020 there was a degree of reticence about virtual events in higher ed, with the general view that you simply couldn’t give prospective students the same experience virtually as you could in-person, on campus.

As Inside Higher Ed puts it, “A campus is indeed a physical space, but it also embodies a host of aspirations that lie at the very heart of higher education.” True that.

The digitalisation of in-person events

However, last year changed everything. Overnight, institutions around the world had to flip their extensive calendar of in-person events to virtual. Open days became virtual open days, and everything that had been completely in-person to this point was digitized.

What was surprising, to some, was that instead of being a lesser experience, virtual events actually showed that they could add real value to the world of higher education.

Now that the world is opening back up, where does that leave us? Should institutions simply go back to how it was before or are virtual events here to stay? Well, the short answer is yes.

What is a hybrid event?

You may be wondering: what actually is a hybrid event? It’s a great question.

A hybrid event combines an in-person event with a virtual component. However, hybrid events aren’t simply an add-on or a live stream of an in-person event – or an on-demand version tagged on as an afterthought. A hybrid event is an event that’s been designed specifically to engage both online and in-person audiences, and engage is the operative word here.

As Gecko CEO and founder, Matt Lanham says, “The thing with hybrid events is that it can’t simply be about opening a Zoom link and thinking that’s enough. It has to be about recreating what students feel when they’re on your campus. The winners in this space are the ones that really go out of their way to deliver something different online. For hybrid events to work well in higher ed, it has to be about delivering value to students.”

What a bad hybrid event looks like

  • Is an add-on to an in-person event
  • Values the live audience more than the online audience
  • Doesn’t enable online audiences to engage with the event
  • Has no dedicated staff to monitor the online component
  • Feels like a poor experience in comparison to in-person

What a good hybrid event looks like

  • Is purpose-designed for virtual and in-person
  • Values the online audience the same as the live audience
  • Uses technology to allow engagement and real-time interaction
  • Has dedicated staff to manage the online component
  • Feels like a personalised experience on par with in-person
Gecko
“The thing with hybrid events is that it can’t simply be about opening a Zoom link and thinking that’s enough. It has to be about recreating what students feel when they’re on your campus. It has to be about delivering value to students.”
Gecko
Matt Lanham
Gecko CEO and founder

How do you create an engaging hybrid event?

The interesting thing about virtual or hybrid events is that only you can decide how they look for your institution. And so the first thing you have to do is really engage with the needs of your client base – prospective students – and design an event that serves those needs.

Gecko works with a number of community colleges in the US and, for them, a campus visit is less about the destination and more about the human connections students make. Kayce O’Brien, Director of Admissions at Arapahoe Community College told us more:

“We have some international and out-of-state students, but the majority of our students are residents of the state of Colorado, where our campus is based.

“Prospective students are coming to us because we have a great faculty and a great student-to-faculty ratio. We’re not a destination college, so for us it’s not about ‘come and look at this quad’, it’s about ‘come and look at these great classrooms and workshop spaces’. What’s also really important is the people – it’s that connection to our staff that sells our campus.”

How can technology support hybrid events?

You might know you need great tech to support your events, but you also might not know exactly how that looks. Right? Well, the good news is that if you get the right technology solution in place you can improve engagement before, during, and after your event.

Before

  • Set up a bot to answer repetitive questions
  • Send important reminders via text – not just email
  • Segment communications where relevant

During

  • Hands-free check-in at face-to-face events using QR codes
  • Communicate updates to students on the day using live chat
  • Video streaming functionality – complete with reaction emojis

Did you know?

We’ve just added a streaming functionality to Gecko which means you can now live stream on the platform. No more having to download different software – students can experience your virtual event directly from your RSVP page.

Find out more here.

After

  • Share your events data with your internal teams asap
  • Send follow-up comms out without having to manually input data
  • Create even better events in the future by using your data insights

Watch our video on how to increase student engagement below! Michelle is one of Gecko’s brilliant customer success executives and she’s got some great actionable tips that you can start using today…

What are the benefits of hybrid events in HE?

1) Increased reach into international markets

One of the really interesting things about leaning into the virtual events space in higher education is that institutions have been able to unlock new markets and reach prospective students they may not have been able to engage with before. Craig Cockburn, Head of International Recruitment at the University of St Andrews explains more:

“We wondered, by going online, would we get greater engagement from other parts of the world? The answer to that was a resounding yes. There have been three or four times as many international students coming to our events as they have previously.”

2) More accessible for students

Campus tours are great, but if your campus is tricky to get to then that can pose a challenge. You may end up with students choosing simply not to attend your open days because of logistical reasons. Virtual events are a cheaper, convenient, and much more accessible option for many. The fact that they also alleviate your institution’s carbon footprint is also a win, and can also score points with Generation Z for whom sustainability and the environment are critical issues.

However, it’s also important to ensure your virtual events comply with online accessibility guidelines. Do your website and the platform you’re using for your event align with current guidelines? Is the text large enough and is the check-in process easy to navigate? There are all really important questions to consider for your next hybrid event.

3) Meaningful data to inform decisions

With in-person events, gathering meaningful data can be a bit of a minefield. You probably know how many students attended your open day in total, but will you really know how many people actually showed up to each talk, tour, or session? Possibly not, right? On the flip side, a hybrid event allows you to extract meaningful data much more easily.

With a virtual session, you know how many prospective students signed up, how many actually showed up, how many dropped off halfway through – and you can use that data to shape and inform how your events look in future. What sessions were most popular? What had a high drop-off rate? What could you do more or less or in the future? It’s all there.

With more meaningful data, you can continually iterate, and custom design a programme for maximum input.

4) Increased flexibility and convenience

Up until last year, open days were pretty rigid in the sense that they took place at a certain time on a certain date. If that didn’t work for a particular student, they could attend at another time, but wouldn’t get the full experience of an open day. That’s not the case anymore.

With hybrid events, you can run multiple sessions to create an experience that is both engaging – and convenient. You can also deliver your events on demand so that if students are signing in from a particular time zone, it still works for them. In short, you have an opportunity to globalise your virtual events in a way you simply couldn’t before.

5) They keep your students safe

One of the great things about virtual events is that they’ve meant that institutions have been able to continue showcasing their campuses to students through the pandemic. They’ve effectively kept students safe, and now as we move to a more hybrid approach, they can still offer flexibility – even if you have to pivot your live events to virtual at the last minute.

Having the right processes in place – with the support of technology – means that doesn’t have to be as much of a headache as you may think. And, if you are holding in-person events, you can utilize technology to send important reminders regarding compliance with Covid regulations. In the times of mask mandates and social distancing, these communications really need to land – and that’s why it’s much better to communicate with students using the platforms that they actually use.

Hybrid events: your key takeaways

It’s clear that in-person and virtual events will form part of higher education’s recruitment strategies going forward. However, now is the time to take a more considered approach about how to make HE events work harder as custom-designed hybrid experiences.

Any event has to create a great customer experience at every touchpoint. If you can’t utilise a beautiful campus and the energy of an in-person experience to do that then you need a purpose-designed online programme that can replicate that buzz in the virtual space.

It’s also not just about the programme itself, it’s also about leveraging user-friendly tech and tools to enable that engagement. We all know what the expectations of Gen Z are when it comes to digital experiences, and so it’s up to institutions to make it slick.

Our takeaway tips

  • Dig into the specific needs of your institution’s client base
  • Design a programme with interaction and engagement front of mind
  • Don’t forget about how great tech can support the experience

A final word from our CEO

The events of last year may have accelerated a lot of changes in institutions that were, dare we say it, long overdue. Gecko CEO Matt has one final takeaway to ponder over…  

“Maybe the events of last year have been what I call a ‘Blockbuster moment’. Blockbuster wasn’t as agile as their competitors, like Netflix, and unfortunately they no longer exist. Higher education hasn’t always been an industry that’s adapted as quickly as others. I’m hoping that senior leaders at institutions are thinking: now is the time to act.”

Gecko
“The events of last year have been what I call a ‘Blockbuster moment’. Higher education hasn’t always been an industry that’s adapted as quickly as others. I’m hoping that senior leaders at institutions are thinking: now is the time to act.”
Gecko
Matt Lanham
Gecko CEO and founder