Slightly more than a year ago, most of us were regularly attending live events with no regard for how many people were present. In most cases, more people equated to better experiences.
In mid-February of 2020, events and conferences began getting canceled as the coronavirus spread across Asia and Europe and made its way to the United States. When numerous states implemented lockdown orders in March, experiential marketers found themselves having to pivot overnight and translate their traditionally physical, shared brand experiences into digital ones.
By November, some marketers and brands found ways to overcome the barriers to experiential marketing activities in a pandemic. Activities hosted on videoconferencing apps such as Zoom—including drive-in events, virtual cooking classes, and live-streamed launches—became the way to gather and promote brands’ products and services.
One year after the pandemic hit the U.S., it’s time to look at what the future might hold for the experiential marketing industry. Have virtual capabilities changed it forever, or will things go back to normal?
Rapid Change for a Slow-to-Evolve Industry
Experiential marketing has historically been slow to change.
In recent years, though, technologies like virtual reality and augmented reality have given marketers incredible new capabilities.
When the pandemic began, VR and AR allowed brands to combine live experiences with digital ones. Where experiences once relied on consumers showing up and participating in a branded event, brands are now reaching those same consumers (and others) in their own homes—making experiential marketing more accessible without detracting from the experience.
When large-scale live events suddenly stopped happening and experiential marketing touchpoints went digital, brands provided consumers with gift bags, care packages, or event materials to help create a consumer brand experience that was both meaningful and memorable. This upskilling, creative problem-solving, and innovation led to the creation of personalized virtual experiences that garnered high engagement and an even wider reach than before.
There are countless other examples of brilliant changes in the experiential world. A consumer can participate in a culinary experience in New York from a kitchen in Phoenix. With VR technology, a couple can test-drive a luxury sports car from the comfort of their couch. Experiential marketers have shifted from the traditional to the uncharted during the pandemic, but innovative tactics and technologies have enabled them to take that leap.
It’s easy to say that experiential marketers are eager to get “back to normal” as soon as they can, but the truth is that the “normal” that existed a year ago is no longer viable for consumer brand experiences. Some companies might find that in-person activities work best for them, while others may invest solely in virtual events. The majority, however, will likely begin to embrace a hybrid of the two approaches. The “new normal” is more about using technology for experiential marketing and creating an omnichannel consumer experience than replacing one tactic with another.
Experiential Marketing Lessons Learned
If the past year taught us anything, it’s to always expect the unexpected. After a long year of ups, downs, setbacks, and progress, here are a few key takeaways for the experiential marketing industry:
- Be agile, but don’t move too fast. The pandemic required marketers — especially experiential teams — to be endlessly agile. It also put pressure on them to learn something completely new in record time, as the country went from zero restrictions to government-mandated lockdowns in a matter of weeks. There’s a learning curve associated with any large-scale industry change, and it’s OK to proceed with caution when entering unknown territory. Marketers have to produce results for their businesses, and they have to remember consumers’ attitudes and feelings during this pandemic. There are real human beings on the other side of your virtual events; are you creating experiences that bring them joy and value, or are you designing events with only business goals in mind?
- See what others outside of your space are doing. It’s always good to look at what your competition is doing, but it can be valuable to broaden your view to other industries. If you work in tech, you could try looking at what nonprofits are doing (or vice versa). Brands and marketers from a number of industries took notice of Twitch and the world of esports, for example, and some mimicked the tactic by hosting livestreamed experiences of their own on the platform—all in a way that was relevant to their customer base.
- Make sure your plan is fluid. An airtight plan is great, but a fluid plan is better—especially in an uncertain environment. Things change on a daily or weekly basis, and any plan that isn’t able to change along with them is not going to work for your business. In a virtual world, it’s important to focus on omnichannel experiences for consumers; if one channel no longer exists (e.g., live events), you can still reach your audience in meaningful and engaging ways. Event teams have worked more closely with other parts of the business—including digital, social media, and public relations teams—to craft virtual experiences that resonate with consumers while keeping business goals in mind.
- Be open to reframing your goals. Setting goals for the year ahead is a unique challenge right now. Nobody predicted a global pandemic, and most business objectives for 2020 were no longer viable after COVID-19 hit. For experiential marketers, the first objective is to make your audience members feel like you’re investing in them, creating authentic experiences, and providing value. Setting strict goals and procedures might provide structure in uncertain times, but marketers need the freedom to get creative and test new channels.
2020 was one of the hardest years for experiential marketers to date, but a lot of good has come from those struggles. The industry has a newfound grasp on how to use technology to expand the reach and engagement of branded experiences, and that knowledge will help shape branded experiences well into the future.