It’s not hyperbole to say that the events of the past year and a half have permanently changed facets of everyday life. Even as more people receive COVID-19 vaccinations, the idea that things could go back to the way they were seems like wishful thinking.

This is especially true when it comes to human connection, something that people once took for granted. A recent Genesys report found that two in five people report feeling less connected to others because of the pandemic. Because of quarantine and social distancing restrictions, people either had to find new ways to make meaningful connections or simply go without.

Even the way people connect with companies has transformed. In 2020, McKinsey found that 73% of consumers had changed their brand preferences and shopping habits in response to current events. As people figured out what worked best for them at the moment, brand loyalty became a thing of the past.

Now, many companies are trying to figure out how to reconnect with consumers and strengthen the bonds between them. This is an especially difficult challenge for experiential brands; those in the event and experiential space. Human connection is an important aspect of events, but traditional connection points (e.g., in-person interactions) might no longer be the only option.

While connection looks different now than it did before COVID-19, it’s still feasible—and more necessary than ever. Research suggests that consumers are lonely, so brands need to build strong bonds with customers and help people connect with each other. To do this, companies must seek to understand where consumers are coming from and demonstrate empathy. As a marketer navigating the next normal for an experiential brand, that’s the key to moving forward.

Demonstrating Empathy as an Experiential Brand

The good news is that people are open to hearing from and interacting with brands after going so long without contact in 2020. As an experiential marketer, you might understand in-person connection points better, but that’s not the only way to do things. You just need to be willing to look at the problem from a different angle. When you do, you might discover a better way of forming connections with consumers.

The key to developing a new approach is to make your brand about the consumer. How can your product or service make their life better? Why should they care? Empathy enables you to answer these questions. When you have empathy for your customers, you not only comprehend how they feel but also better understand what they want and how they want it—sometimes before they know.

With empathy, you can take all the expertise you have in your field and use it to serve your customers in ways that might surprise them. This can help you form a bond that’s both intellectual and emotional.

How can experiential brands begin demonstrating empathy authentically and effectively? Here are a few strategies to help you hit the ground running:

Celebrate Diverse Consumer Experiences

When it comes to empathy, inclusivity is essential. Beyond being more aware of the diverse array of experiences consumers have, you should also find ways to actively celebrate them.

A good example of how a company can embrace diversity is Oxo’s wall of lost gloves. The wide variety of gloves on the wall is meant to remind employees of the different kinds of people who use the company’s products. There’s an increasing emphasis on empathy and inclusiveness across various industries, including at major firms such as Procter & Gamble.

When developing and marketing an event, consider how you want to make all of your customers feel. Marketers must consider how people from different backgrounds will experience an event, whether it’s virtual, in-person, or a hybrid of the two. Gender identities, sexualities, ethnicities, religious backgrounds, and other demographics should all be taken into account. Everyone wants to feel understood, heard, and included—it’s up to you to make sure they are.

Be a Better Listener

While you might already know that listening to consumers is important, there’s a difference between actively paying attention and passively waiting for customers to come to you. Instead of making assumptions until told otherwise, find ways to reach out online and in person to get a better idea of what consumers truly want.

One way to become a better listener is by holding focus groups. A focus group can be an excellent way to help you develop greater empathy and understanding for the people who support your brand. It can also give you an edge in the market. Twitter, for instance, came up with its streamlined, simple design partly in response to focus groups that claimed Facebook’s News Feed was too cluttered and hard to follow.

Focus groups are only one way to improve your listening. You could also take a page from Best Buy’s book and carefully evaluate online reviews. These can highlight what you’re doing well and where you’re falling short.

Embrace Hybrid Events

The pandemic has forced experiential marketers to look more holistically at what constitutes an event and how different event formats can create connections between brands and consumers. Think of how Apple livestreams its special events in a way that allows anyone to attend.

Virtual events have existed for a long time, but experiential marketers are now exploring the potential of hybrid events. Hybrid events can effectively form connections with digital and in-person consumers. This lets people choose how they’d like to attend, which is especially important when some individuals are uncomfortable gathering in the wake of the pandemic.

Hybrid experiences can take many different shapes. You could livestream a traditional presentation that allows people to watch from home, or you might create something more elaborate such as WEC Grapevine that layers an in-person conference with digital elements for virtual attendees.

Creating successful experiences for consumers moving forward will require a higher degree of sensitivity and empathy. People have realized the importance of connecting with others, and it’s the job of a successful event to foster that connection.

Just remember: when it comes to empathy, there’s no such thing as faking it until you make it. To create experiences that people will want to enjoy, you need to truly understand what people want in the first place and demonstrate empathy.