Back in January 2020, few marketers would have said they felt confident about shifting from physical events and experiences to virtual ones.
Not only was the technical infrastructure missing for most, but brands have always relied on the power of in-person connections to build awareness, engage customers, launch products, and generate sales. Even beyond the commercial space, human nature has always driven us to actively seek out social connections. Yet, almost overnight, COVID-19 put a stop to that, and we all had to quickly adapt.
From virtual conferences, meetings, comedy gigs, product demos, and even festivals, many of us took to our devices for both personal and professional interactions. The pandemic forced us to go even deeper into the digital cosmos, exploring new ways of connecting virtually and at a staggering pace. Take Travis Scott’s virtual Fortnite concert as an example, a surreal digital masterpiece that pushed the metaverse into the limelight, attracting over 12 million live viewers.
As the world starts to open up, it’s clear that brands and customers are eager to return to live experiences. Still, this temporary shift to virtual has created a buzz around the opportunities to reach far wider audiences than before, but should we expect them to become a significant part of marketing strategies moving forward?
A steady yet welcome return to in-person experiences
Many industries are breathing a sigh of relief as pubs, restaurants, event spaces, and everything else begins to return to normal. And this is clearly being reflected with brands leaping back into planning in-person experiences, as Elevate’s UK Managing Director, Joe Sheppard, explains: “What we’re seeing really quickly is everything going back to ‘normal’. We’re getting lots of briefs that involve physical, really creative, immersive experiences. For example, we recently showcased some of the work we’ve been doing to the rest of the business, and I would say 99% of it involved physical, face-to-face experiences.”
Still, even though the UK’s lockdown restrictions were lifted a while ago, it’s taken time for brands to confidently start engaging with customers in-person again.
“There was a moment where no big brands wanted to be the first and were erring on the side of caution. Much of the work we were doing on the ground was with smaller brands that were willing to be bolder. It’s only now that the big names are engaging again. They can be bolder, and are being bolder while remaining considerate of COVID, and people are loving that”, says Joe.
The bar has been raised for digital experiences
While we saw some amazing examples of digital and virtual experiences pre-pandemic, most marketers would have seen running a virtual event to be a webinar. Audiences would sit and listen to speakers and watch slides, but it was a relatively passive experience. That, however, has changed.
Elevate swiftly repositioned itself during the pandemic to support clients with virtual events with a lot of success.
“I feel like the industry was so hungry to find a way out of the problem we were in, and it was our duty to find a solution for our clients, to still create experiences for people when we weren’t allowed”, says Joe.
“In this phase, we didn’t have another option, so we had to get creative. We had the infrastructure to supply the right people to help deliver, and our technical products meant we could offer support in that area as well”, he adds.
Take Arm’s Annual Partner Conference, for example. The event needed to be delivered virtually, so Elevate stepped in alongside Smyle Agency to bring it to life using virtual event staff and Oculus VR.
Audiences have been exposed to some incredible digital experiences during lockdowns, and brands will need to bear that in mind if they want to keep interest levels high when planning virtual events and experiences in the future.
The opportunities for virtual and hybrid go beyond the pandemic
With the technical infrastructure now firmly in place, virtual has shown us its potential to reach audiences on an unprecedented scale, and there’s plenty of research that suggests both virtual and hybrid events are something marketers are considering in their future planning. For example, LinkedIn’s State of Virtual Events report reported that 75% of event marketers worldwide said that they were planning to continue running virtual events over the long term, while the 2021 Virtual Event Tech Guide suggested that around 67% of planners are confident that moving to a hybrid format is the right thing to do.
While the excitement that in-person events deliver can’t be replaced, going hybrid seems to be a logical step that brands are keen to continue exploring.
“I think that this energy for hybrid makes sense, and in certain circumstances it will continue because you can make it a global experience, where you can reach out to anyone.
“We’ve recently worked on an event that spread across New York, London, Tokyo, and Berlin all at the same time. It was a physical album launch for a big band, but we also had people watching it live online, so that’s a really good example of how it can amplify the experience. It’s a relatively small and low-cost activation, but it suddenly had a huge footfall”, explains Joe.
The scalability and accessibility of hybrid events are appealing, allowing those unable to travel to participate. They also offer an extended lifespan for content that can provide lasting value. However, a successful hybrid event requires careful consideration of both audiences right from the start.
Many things can’t be replicated virtually, such as the organic social interactions, the focus and engagement from live audiences, and, of course, the excitement that naturally arises from being present at an event. Therefore, careful planning is needed to facilitate an engaging journey for both.
Hybrid events will hold their value, but it’s unlikely they’ll be a default option for marketers
Hybrid events that stream content from a live location to a larger, virtual audience seems like an obvious way to generate the most ROI. Yet, it’s unlikely that many marketers will be able to make them a default option going forward.
Not only will they require substantial budgets to ensure the right technology and strategies are in place to warrant the attention and engagement of online audiences, but they will also need meticulous organisation and plenty of production time. For this reason, their value should be carefully considered when planning future marketing activations and events.
Still, with the right technology, support, audiences, and content, they can act as a powerful driver for future campaigns, and we can expect to see many exciting opportunities ahead.