What to do about Hybrid

Adding to these useful insights, we are trying to figure out what we have learned from our two hybrid Researcher to Reader Conferences in 2023 and 2022 (and online in 2021). Of course R2R is not a ‘scholarly society conference’ itself but it is in a sense a meta variant, being about scholarly communications.

The February 2022 event, taking place as the pandemic was subsiding, was intended to be a fully-live and highly interactive hybrid meeting, rather than just physical lectures that were visible to online viewers. Registration and participation was 50:50 online and physical, for both delegates and speakers, and felt like a real hybrid meeting, with good levels of interaction between the online and physical people, facilitated by the careful event design and appropriate interactive technology. This was very expensive to deliver, due to the high preparation workload, the technology costs and the need for a skilled AV team, but it felt like it was working and worthwhile.

For 2023, we offered the same fully-live and highly interactive hybrid meeting, but online delegates were more like 20% of the registrations and 10% of the active participants, as many more people opted to come to the physical venue (in record numbers for R2R). Active participation by online delegates was negligible (with a few heroic exceptions), despite a similar investment in capability. We think this was mainly due to two factors. One was just a problem of a lack of ‘critical mass’ of online people. I’m sure many of us have been in a meeting where most people are physically in the room, and the one or two online attendees just can’t get traction (and attention) as full participants in the conversation. The other problem, we think, is that so many of the people who love to interact – asking questions and expressing opinions – who had been obliged to be online in 2022 were now attending physically in 2023. Our 2023 online cadre seemed to be mostly made up of people who were content to take a more passive role.

Our policy of charging one price for a hybrid ticket may have been a factor in our online numbers, as many people have an expectation that online will be cheaper, but the costs of delivering a real online/hybrid experience are high, and we were aiming to provide the same amount of value to both cohorts. Our survey feedback was that 91% of physical attendees rated R2R as good value for money, compared with 78% of online attendees.

Other feedback from our delegate survey (with an over 30% response rate) was generally very supportive of the principle of hybrid, but there was quite a lot of criticism of how it works in reality. Some was fair criticism of our implementation, but mostly it was numerous people telling us that full hybrid just isn’t viable in practice.

We now have some challenges as we plan for 2024, having spent around an additional £45,000 and 250 days over the past three years learning about hybrid and online.

With our current live hybrid format, I don’t think we can expect to attract a lot more online attendance, even if we were to reduce the relative cost of this very significantly, which seems unfair to physical participants, who would be subsidising the preparation, technology and AV costs. I’m also concerned that even with more online registrations, we would not get the level of interaction that makes R2R an interactive meeting, rather than a bunch of lectures.

I’m somewhat inspired by some of the innovation that is taking place, including Paul’s ideas in his post. Somehow uncoupling the content from the conversation, making the former more passive (available online) and the latter more active (and potentially still hybrid), might be an option, but it does not seem very consistent with the R2R ethos. We will have to explore this further as we plan for February 2024. But at the moment I am thinking that we may have to accept that the majority of our online delegates will not really want to be, or feel able to be, an active part of the conversation (and not at full price), so we may need, with considerable regret, to move back to a primarily physical format, albeit perhaps while retaining the ability to have some online speakers and panellists. This despite the obvious impact on the promise that hybrid gave us of improved accessibility and lower environmental impact.

I would love to hear from people who wanted to contribute to our thinking over the next couple of months, either by contacting me (or our Advisory Board members) directly, or by commenting on the R2R Community Forum.