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When the pandemic struck, many brands and experiential marketers went into damage control mode to combat the existential crisis we were facing. As businesses sought new ways to recapture the consumer engagement, networking, and lead-generation opportunities offered by large in-person events, many looked to digital alternatives like virtual solutions. Scalable, cost-effective, and safe, virtual events seemed like a sensible choice in such challenging times—but they could never replace the sense of community and exhilaration of real-life gatherings.
“We have to think about human nature,” says Terry Foster, CEO of Limelight. It is human nature to want to be with other people. So, while there’s obviously going to be some initial nervousness about being in a massive room surrounded by others, there will also be excitement, passion, and camaraderie. “What people are really itching to do is just get back to normal. So whatever technology can do to aid them to get to that point is valid.” With 97% of event marketers believing we will see more hybrid events in 2021 than ever before, the task at hand is to define how live and virtual events can work together to include the elements that make an event worthwhile and memorable.
Acknowledge what virtual is—and what it isn’t
The first step to gaining the most value from virtual is to recognize its limitations. “The rush for investment in virtual may have been too early,” says Terry Foster, CEO of Limelight. “People saw it as the future of events, but purely virtual experiences have left consumers wanting the real thing.” Limelight’s VP of Strategic Partnerships, Ian Richardson, agrees. Discussing Limelight’s support of BRP, a manufacturer of watercraft and off-road/on-road vehicles, Richardson says, “[BRP] had record attendance on their live feed, streams, and hybrid events, but the consumers’ questions were, ‘When can I drive it? When can I sit on it? When can I go into the showroom?’ It’s a big jump between that wind-in-your-hair feeling and the virtual one. That live experience isn’t going away.”
Added to this is the ubiquity and exhaustion of videoconferencing, says Foster. With hundreds of millions of virtual meetings happening daily, videoconferencing fatigue is something we are all too familiar with at this point. “No one could have predicted a year ago that we would have Zoom fatigue. We’re already living our lives completely virtually—are we going to want to go to a purely virtual event?”
The same insights and information that can be drawn from virtual events—greater visibility into participants interests; time spent at sessions; real-time feedback, etc.—can be used to enhance and personalize consumers’ live experiences. Says Foster: “Adopting tech like beacons, for instance, allows you to measure the movement of human beings around the event to enhance the experience for next time.”
“There’ll be people who don’t want to have that face-to-face interaction—whether that’s pandemic-related or not,” says Richardson. “So, it’s important to have and measure as many touchpoints as possible.” He points to interactive displays, and apps and interfaces on consumers’ digital devices as examples. That data can inform how we conceive and execute live events going forward, as well as help drive sales. “If you can measure it, it should be measured,” emphasizes Foster.
“Where we really see the opportunity moving forward is creating experiential events that really use the technologies that are available to enhance the brand encounters,” says Theresa Myrill, Pop Up Mob. “Incorporating augmented reality, virtual interactions with brands, even holograms, will be forced to be included in experiences that not only enhance consumers' experiences, but also allow for new people to tap into events like never before.”
As an example, Foster discusses an event experience where attendees could get behind the wheel of an Indy race-car simulator and experience the rush for themselves. With a thousand people a day going through it, it was an obvious Covid concern for attendees and event organizers alike. “Normally, they’d just use waivers—just get in, get out, and be on your way.” But with Limelight’s digital solutions, clients can keep record, track, and contact participants, making similar experiences a safer one for all. “It’s a dynamic, ever-changing situation out in the field,” he says. “We help our clients fill in some of the gaps that they didn’t know they had.”
According to Geometry’s Katie Streten, “Future opportunities hinge around not going back to business as usual, but thinking always about bringing live moments and digital moments together.” This goes beyond simply including a virtual element alongside a physical event; it’s a matter of leveraging the technologies and solutions to deliver more interaction, more personalization and more unique flavours to live experiences than ever before.
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