Physical conferences, concerts, events, and exhibitions have been the home ground where marketers weave in their brand narrative and engage audiences in immersive storytelling about their products, design, benefits, or, simply, brand philosophy.
Of course, the pandemic has severely affected the opportunity to host in-person brand experiences. Through last year and continuing into the present year, marketers across the world have embraced virtual events.
The “virtualisation of events” is not a fad that will be corrected as and when the pandemic subsides. What we’ve learned from hosting virtual experiences will stay with most of us and give rise to many hybrid event structures in the future. It is extremely important for marketers to understand and appreciate the fundamental shifts of consumer expectations and, therefore, their behaviours when planning virtual events.
Having hosted and participated in some of these experiences, this is how I think the virtualisation of events will continue to create an impact in the near future on brand experiences. The physical narrative cannot be copied and pasted in totality to a digital framework that flows through screens. The audience expects a different experience from an online event, so let’s dig into some quick learnings.
Non-linear participation is not time-bound
Both attendees and organisers complain that attention is the biggest pain point in an online event. The fact that the audience has a wavering attention span is proven. And, remotely attending a concert or a conference can certainly be boring at times.
Therefore, a question arises: Is a continuous (linear) presence with an event critical for a brand engagement? Marketers should evaluate pros and cons of a livestream event versus on-demand content.
Digitalisation gives the audience the choice to watch their favourite parts of a conference, event, or content at time convenient to them. This is the aspect of the online environment marketers must harness the most when virtualising their event. Marketers need to decide whether their virtual event demands an appointment viewing by the audience and does it need to be time-bound? Could it be translated into an engaging on-demand content stream that their audience can tap into anytime and many times?
This brings us to an interesting question: Does this mean it’s still an event, or is it now just a digital destination with a collection of videos? The answer may not be that simple, but this is still a question every marketer must ask. Non-linearity of participation may be an efficient mode to connect with a larger universe of audiences in future.
Hyper-personalisation is a huge plus
Unlike large-scale physical events, a virtual event allows the host to personalise the audience journey during and after the event. The digital world allows attendees to share data about their expectations and preferences, which can possibly be collected pre-event or even during the event. This allows a marketer to curate customised content for each attendee based on specific preferences.
All attendees do not need to have the same “experience” path. They should be allowed to choose how and what they experience during the event.
Personalisation may be the biggest advantage of a virtual event or an online concert. It could otherwise be a Herculean task at large-scale, mass events. Marketers can provide personalisation in terms of audience engagement, learning, feedback, or even collaboration with their brands.
This is especially interesting when it comes to creating personalised learning modules or crafting unique creator opportunities. However, this does call for extreme caution as marketers need to handle data securely and ethically, and ensure it is not misused and the audience is not spammed.
Reimagine virtual as a social exchange
One of the key reasons to attend conferences and exhibitions is to connect with professional partners and build a strong personal brand through high-density networking. Live experiences like concerts and online festivals are as much focused on the performances as the ability to socialise with like-minded people.
Online events promise a lot of interactivity with the host, performers, and speakers, but peer-to-peer interactions are limited. Could this be an opportunity for brands to enable a productive exchange of ideas between attendees? Could virtual events facilitate networking and socialising opportunities by understanding and connecting the right sets of professionals or fans with each other?
In other words, marketers should think about how they can we make the virtual setting more sociable and collaborative so the experience is more inclusive while protecting the sanctity of data and privacy. Live voting, polls, opinion walls, idea sessions, co-working labs, break-out rooms, fan moments, and similar features help in understanding the preferences and mood of the audience, and the real-time data-mining could help in making networking connections.
Virtual Reality is also being explored to allow interpersonal interactivity at events so they aren’t just about listening to speakers or performers. Again, event hosts need to be acutely aware of the data privacy norms and secure the data.
Content is the king; technology is the crown
The virtual event is all about storytelling amplified and made immersive by technology. While the audience is attracted by the quality of the content, they are wowed by the user experience and interface of the journey. A simple and intuitive interface and interactivity makes the experience worth millions.
Glitches are a part of an event, and an audience is possibly more forgiving at a physical event. But in a digital universe, the same audience reincarnates as one that is extremely demanding and mostly unforgiving. This has been shaped by superlative customer services by e-commerce and apps. And any virtual event is always compared with the best in the digital universe.
The best technology provides the best experience while being almost invisible. It makes the audience feel smart and intelligent through the event’s journey. While most marketers spend a lot of time thinking through the content presentation and delivery, many forget the technology footprint of the audience journey.
The virtualisation of events is one of the key trends that has impacted the marketing fraternity and will continue to transform our planning for brand experiences in the future, too. It has accelerated our learning and adoption of technologies available to host virtual and hybrid events.
Talking from my own experience, I think this pandemic has forced us to learn, unlearn, and relearn many things about organising events. And, yes we learned that the creativity desired in organising and designing these virtual events are both a science and an art.