Knowing how to deal with a crisis is a prerequisite for success in any industry, but the COVID-19 crisis has thrown many sectors into brand new territory—especially experiential marketing.
Businesses that thrived creating experiences for large crowds and gatherings have had to shut their doors or scale down significantly in the interest of public health.
To survive, a majority have transitioned their sales, services, and customer relations into virtual events in the digital sphere.
Virtual Events are Different for Every Organization
In practice, this looks different for every organization.
There is no playbook for conducting business during a pandemic, much less for connecting and engaging with consumers while social distancing. Big events and brand activations can no longer be the grand, personal attractions they once were. As a result, brands are hosting virtual events to stay connected with consumers.
They’re putting empathy and connection at the heart of this digital approach, understanding that consumers are dealing with far more than the inability to attend massive in-person gatherings.
This approach has breathed new life into the legitimacy of virtual event engagement. Virtual events enable companies to stay connected with consumers when doing so is more challenging than ever.
But there is a catch: virtual events can’t fulfill the need for human interaction that has always existed—and will always exist. There are limits to what you can accomplish virtually, and digital-only marketing events just aren’t a long-term solution.
The Limits of Virtual Event Engagement
Before the COVID-19 crisis forced severe restrictions on travel and public gatherings, brand activations had reached a fever pitch of showmanship.
Brands promoted products and services through concerts, stand-up displays at the center of large crowds, and in some cases, entire attractions (such as HBO’s “Westworld” setup at South by Southwest in 2018).
One of the main appeals of these events is the camaraderie in the crowd.
Humans are social creatures, and the experience of attending live events together is something that can’t be replicated in a digital environment.
Like going to the theater versus watching the same movie at home. Most of us would choose to experience an event in the company of others, sharing our excitement and feeding off one another’s energy.
It’s similar for brand activations that similarly fed off that excitement. In a virtual event, interactions tend to be much more subdued.
Live vs. Virtual Events
In virtual event engagement, you can show a consumer what a product looks like and how it works, but they can’t try it out for themselves or observe the product live. Interaction is limited to what they can do on a screen—click a link, view a video, type a message.
Attendees’ participation is limited, their attention spans are shorter, and there’s no shared excitement or sense of community to keep them enthralled.
This is especially challenging because virtual events require more direct engagement on behalf of the attendees.
With live events, consumers see the brand’s exhibit from a distance, stumble across it, or are drawn in by brand ambassadors and larger-than-life visuals. In the digital space, catching and keeping consumers’ attention isn’t as straightforward.
Without in-person interactions, conversations, and relationship-building between brands and consumers aren’t as natural.
Capitalizing on the Advantages of Virtual Events
To maintain the sense of community they’ve strived to create, brands should focus on harnessing the advantages of virtual events rather than adopting a digital-only marketing model.
The key is to sharpen virtual event engagement skills now so you can incorporate them into a balanced digital and live experiential marketing strategy for the future.
These four tips can help you strike that balance.
Scale Down the Extravagance
Just before COVID-19 struck, brands competed by making product and brand activations ridiculously extravagant.
Now, the focus is on being socially responsible and launching products in a way that protects consumer health and safety. Brand activations are simpler out of necessity, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
When an event is too complex, there are more opportunities to miss the mark. Focus on cutting out the fat and ensuring consumers can easily tie everything back to your brand. Virtual events require more direct interaction from attendees than live ones, so simplify attendance and participation as much as possible.
Save the Large-Scale Events for Later
For brands that want to or have already planned large-scale brand activations, there are two options:
- transform the entire event into a digital one; or
- delay the event until you can conduct it safely.
Given the limitations of virtual event engagement, it might make more sense to save your event for a time when consumers can enjoy it in person.
Some live experiences don’t translate well into virtual events.
For example, indoor activities like trade shows or events that involve a lot of physical interaction with products and people won’t generate the attendance or level of engagement necessary to make them successful in a digital format.
If social distancing and safety guidelines inhibit the goal of the event, then it’s best to wait.
Focus Instead on Large Digital Audiences
Saving large live events for later doesn’t mean you have to keep every audience small.
You should seek to grow your digital audience as much as possible, creating content that appeals to the fear of missing out (FOMO) on a larger scale.
Find ways to translate the showmanship of live events into the digital space.
For instance, use striking visuals and environments in your videos.
Appeal to influencers to attend and share their experiences through livestreaming virtual events.
When you do livestream an activation, host it on every social media platform you can, including Facebook, YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram.
Use Granular Data to Get Personal
Digital marketing generates a wealth of granular data about your audiences.
Use this and the data you already have to create highly personalized content that you can direct toward niche audiences.
After segmenting your online audience, you can create messages and design virtual events that speak specifically to their concerns and pain points.
You can also use that data to provide your sales team with valuable insights into prospects.
Give your sales team the kind of information it needs to approach and engage those prospects on a more personal level. When the need for human interaction is greatest, this level of personalization is incredibly valuable.
A New Norm
As brands adjust to the new normal of social distancing, limited live events, and the rapid growth of virtual engagement, everything we thought we knew about brand activations is changing.
When the crisis eventually subsides, the ability to blend live events with more precise virtual event engagement will be the next step in the transformation and evolution of experiential marketing. Stay ahead of the curve by getting started now.