In some ways, it seems like virtual meetings popped up overnight. I’m not talking about content-driven webinars, which have become a wildly popular—and effective—way to disseminate information and education. Those have been around for a few years and are here to stay. But it’s hybrid—or blended meetings—that have come into their own in 2010 with video or audio streaming that extends a face-to-face conference, trade show, or event to hundreds or even thousands of people who can’t attend in person

It makes good sense. Hybrid events help associations serve members through education, networking, building community, connecting buyers with sellers—year-round. It was a perfect storm of technological advances and an ailing economy that drove hybrid events to the forefront. When many of your members couldn’t get to your live events, you brought the live event to them.

Sometimes it happened organically. The American Institute of Architects, profiled in our cover story, along with the American Society for Training and Development, were among the early adopters (er, guinea pigs) in 2009. In 2010, the number of hybrid events has skyrocketed, with most associations having to get up to speed fast just to keep up with the competition. According to an early draft of a Virtual Trade Show Report from tsnn.com, 36 percent of industry insiders surveyed see virtual trade shows as a potential revenue builder; and 75 percent view them as an add-on or extension to an existing physical event.

But who pays for the sophisticated technology, which can have up to six components: video, audio recording, live Webcasts, social networking, access to vendors, and archives or reuse of content, as well as the cost of the platform needed to push it out?

Christopher Gribbs, managing director of the AIA convention, told our senior editor Dave Kovaleski: “People want things on the Internet for free.” AIA’s 2010 virtual offerings didn’t even break even. With declining attendance at physical events, and members who balk at paying for electronic events, where will the money come from to be able to offer both?

I liken it to the conundrum in print publishing, which began years ago. We knew more readers were getting their information from the Internet, so we moved our content online, while still offering it in print. But print consumption is waning—witness the demise of so many daily newspapers—and the decline in print advertising revenue was sure to follow. Who will pay for the content that we know readers want, but that we must now deliver in both forms: print and online?

I think the answer for association virtual events is exactly what b-to-b publishers have discovered: offer such compelling and relevant content that members (or readers) will pay for it. Or figure out how your sponsors and exhibitors can connect online with their buyers as effectively as more traditional marketing channels.

My advice to you: Don’t wait out this era of experimentation on the sidelines. You can’t afford it.