8 Ways Brands Can Replicate In-Person Experiences In An Online-Only World

08.27.2020 Articles
By Jonathan Margolis, VP of Experiential and CEO of MAG

Human beings love to be social, and they also love to share their experiences with friends, family, and online followers. We feel most comfortable when we’re connected, which is partially why the younger generation – millennials in particular – is “prioritizing their cars and homes less and less, and assigning greater importance to personal experiences – and showing off pictures of them,” as CNBC so aptly explains it.

Modern brands are constantly fighting to keep up with changing consumer expectations, wants, and needs, which explains why “experiential marketing” has taken off in the past five years or so. According to Eventbrite, “experiential marketing is a strategy that engages consumers using branded experiences. Sometimes referred to as ‘live marketing’ or ‘event marketing experience,’ the idea is to create a memorable impact on the consumer.”

Rather than selling products directly to consumers, the goal of experiential marketing is to connect with and engage shoppers in a meaningful, memorable way. Most often, experiential marketing strategies take place in-person. However, with the current COVID-19 pandemic, many public places are shutting down, and consumers are being ordered to stay inside. Although it’s an uncertain time for brands of all shapes and sizes, it’s important to remember that in-person experiences can be replicated in an online-only world.

In this blog, we’re going to explore eight specific ways brands can embrace the current social situation, and quickly adapt course to take the party online:

1) Don’t Panic. Pivot!

Events are being cancelled or postponed all over the country; SXSW in Austin, Cannes Film Festival in France, and even The Met Gala in New York City. To top it off, the White House has recommended that no more than 10 people gather in one place, and many states have issued “stay at home” orders, making it impossible – and also unsafe – to plan a successful in-person event. However, do NOT panic. Instead, pivot your approach and look on the bright side. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the use of video conferencing apps like Zoom, Google Hangouts, and Skype has skyrocketed. In fact, according to Inc.com, Zoom is currently worth more than the major airlines! From work-related conference calls to virtual happy hours with best friends, consumers are still seeking out engaging experiences with each other, albeit in a different way. As the saying goes, “those who do not change, do not grow.” So, come on. Let’s grow together.

2) Choose Your Audience – Invite-Only Or Open Attendance?

When planning an event, whether it’s in-person or online, it’s always important to choose your audience wisely. Will your event be invite-only or open attendance? There are pros and cons to each approach. If you decide to go the invite-only route, your attendees will feel more exclusive, like they’re part of a special club. But if you allow for open attendance, you’ll have an opportunity to reach more people than ever before. Regardless of which option makes the most sense for your brand, you need to think about how you will invite your audience to join the fun. Does your brand have a VIP group like “Sephora Insiders” or “IKEA Family”? If so, you already have the perfect segment – contact information and all – that you can reach out to with an email invite. If you’d rather go all in with open attendance, consider setting up a pay-per-click campaign to direct traffic to a branded campaign microsite with a sign-up form. Anyone who lands there is welcome to attend!

3) Find Your Format – General Session Vs. Virtual Breakouts?

What do you think will be most effective with your core audience? Planning a major one-and-done virtual event, or promoting a series of smaller events to build momentum and generate impact over time? Both styles have their perks. With a major one-and-done virtual event like an online conference, you can focus all your efforts on finding exciting presenters, and you can put more budget behind an elaborate event hub microsite, paid social media ads, a well-designed email marketing campaign, and even mail order event swag. However, a small series of events might be a better way to ease into the virtual event space if you’re in totally new territory. Consider hosing a weekly Twitter Q&A with your followers or plan a monthly Instagram #hashtag contest in which participants can enter to win a $100 gift card or year-long supply of your brand’s best-selling product. It can be easy to feel overwhelmed when it comes to virtual event planning, but don’t overcomplicate it!

4) Create Your Content – Repurpose Existing Or Start From Scratch?

If you’re lucky, your brand might already have a backlog of content and resources geared up and ready to go. If that’s the case, now’s the perfect time to repurpose it! For example, Salesforce was recently required to transform its “World Tour Sydney” into a fully virtual event in just 10 days, which required a lot of repurposing: “digital content developed to project onto the back wall of an exhibition hall was used as engaging backdrops for online sessions. The builders for the exhibition stands shifted their work to constructing studios where the content team could film sessions.” That approach made perfect sense for Salesforce since the in-person event had already been planned. However, you can just as easily start from scratch. If you need inspiration, why not turn directly to the people who will eventually be attending? Ask questions on social media and listen to the feedback – what content would be most entertaining while they’re stuck at home?

5) Pick Your Platform – VOD vs. Live Stream… OR BOTH?

Although the vast majority of us are at home right now, that doesn’t mean we’re totally free. Between work and family obligations, plus the daily demands of running a household, it can be difficult to spare an hour to tune in to a live stream. That’s why video on demand, or VOD, can be helpful. With VOD, you can also have more control over the content you create in the way of re-takes and editing, and the content will remain online indefinitely, easy for your audience to access on their own terms. A brand that did VOD well long before COVID-19 is Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, an ice cream shop based in Columbus, Ohio. On Jeni’s YouTube channel, there are videos such as “Build Your Own Ice Cream Sandwich” and “Homemade Ice Cream,” which lends well to the current social situation, keeping Jeni’s top-of-mind even while its actual stores are closed. On the other hand, live stream events allow for an immediate two-way conversation with your core audience, and they feel much more like their in-person counterparts. To find your sweet spot, consider doing both – VOD and live stream – to figure out what works best for your brand.

6) Build Your Event – Upload Content, Design Interface, Enable Features, Etc.

Now comes the fun stuff… and the hard work. Just like you would design the physical space for an in-person event, it’s time to build the digital atmosphere that will entice participants to join. A boring black and white landing page won’t cut it here – the goal is to generate excitement! And remember – this is a party, not a performance. Have some fun with it! Host a virtual happy hour, install a Q&A chat feature on your microsite, plan some interactive games that will keep your participants engaged, set up an augmented reality photo booth, and even conduct a mid-stream meditation tutorial. It’s also essential to make sure your RSVP process is seamless, so visitors don’t shy away from signing up. According to Eventbrite, “it takes people 50 milliseconds to form an opinion about a website and decide whether they want to stay or leave,” so aim to leave an awesome impression within that tiny timeframe! And – of course – enable event attendees to share their virtual event plans on social media to get even more exposure.

7) Make Some Noise – Send Mailers, Post On Social, Offer Sneak Peaks

After you choose your audience, find your format, create your content, pick your platform, and build your event, it’s time to MAKE SOME NOISE! A party’s not a party unless people show up, so the #1 priority is to promote, promote, promote. Send out mailers, post on social media, and offer virtual event sneak peaks to get your audience excited for the big day. If possible, it’s a good idea to share details about your digital event a month or so before it actually takes place. Then, continue to post reminders as the event approaches. According to Vimeo, it helps if your promotion tactics are visually compelling because “social media posts with videos and images achieve 40% more engagement.” Now’s the ideal time to enlist the assistance of professional designers and a team of virtual event specialists who can do the heavy lifting for you.

8) Now… Let’s Have A Virtual Party!

In today’s socially distance world, we’re all feeling a little uneasy, and we’re all looking for a sense of community. A virtual party provides just that, and there’s no signs of them slowing down – even after the COVID-19 crisis is behind us. According to Salesforce, online gatherings are not a passing trend, and Cisco predicts that by 2022, 82% of all internet traffic will be video. While the crowd excitement and tangible energy of in-person events is difficult to fully replicate in the digital space, it’s important to be agile in your marketing plans, and be able to take the in-person party online. Not only are virtual events a necessity in today’s climate, but they will also help your brand become more omnipresent moving forward. If you focus your efforts on going digital today, you can interweave tried and true digital components into your future in-person events to extend the impact on your target audience.

Don’t End The Conversation, Or Even Pause It For A Little. Let’s Start A New One Together!

With every challenge comes an opportunity; with every setback comes a chance to excel. Let’s not end the conversation, or even pause it for a little. Instead, let’s start a new one altogether. Regardless of the craziness going on all around us, experiential marketing still has an important place in today’s experience-driven economy. Just because we can’t be physically with each other right now, doesn’t mean we can’t emotionally connect via virtual, brand-driven events. As we stand on the brink of a major societal shift, it can be challenging to anticipate what’s ahead. However, humans will always be human, and we’ll always crave personal interactions and sharable experiences.

If you need help developing your own virtual event, MAG can help. We specialize in bringing brands to life through a variety of engaging experiences… whether they be virtual, live, or a savvy combination of both. We offer all clients tiered commitment planning cycles, scalable contingency plans, new hygiene protocols, pre-event virtual engagement, web and live hosting capabilities, content creation, livestreaming and VOD support, home viewing kits, custom virtual event environments, gamification, app development, and pre- and post-engagement strategies. If you’re ready to get started, contact us at [email protected] or 212-563-7656.