The State of Experiential Distancing and Virtual Social Events

By Safwan Al Roufai  |  Executive Vice President, Geometry MENA

As experiential agencies scramble to find a way to make sense of all of the current postponements and cancelations’ mayhem, we can only stop and think of how we found ourselves in the current predicament and if we could have been better prepared.

Prior to the global Covid-19 pandemic, the “events / experiential” industry was poised to grow at a CAGR of 10.3% to reach $2,330 billion by 2026 (https://www.alliedmarketresearch.com/events-industry-market), and zero forecast of it coming to a complete halt. The avalanche started with the cancelation of the Global World Mobile Congress that was taking place in Barcelona, in February 2020 as the situation started developing and concerns rising. Soon afterwards, other major events, festivals such as SXSW, congresses, sports championships, theatricals, amusement parks and even private parties followed suite, causing a colossal worldwide silence.

The importance of preparation 

The Coronavirus threat is not our first epidemiological nightmare. In 2002 and 2003, SARS, crippled Asia.

Then, in 2009, it happened again with H1N1, otherwise known as swine flu. This time the lesson was learnt, sparking public health system revisions across several countries and cities. One that stood out was Singapore.

When the Covid-19 outbreak began in Wuhan, China end of 2019, Singapore was ready. It instituted strict travel controls and protocols for identifying sick individuals – to provide them with the help they needed as well as to track the people they had been in contact with. In addition to putting in place many tools and plans, investing in their healthcare personnel, systems and infrastructure seems to have been the main reason why they managed to “flatten the curve” at the time.

How is this related to agencies that specialize in creating live experiences? If we are being realistic, this pandemic is not the first and it will not be the last. People, brands, culture and experiential agencies have to rise up to the challenges caused by Covid-19 and start thinking of alternative ways to operate during our current situation so that we are prepared for future pandemics and other potential coming waves. This is our new world order.

A shift in behavior

The current Covid-19 pandemic is massive.  This is not just an incident that will be forgotten a couple of months from now; as a biproduct, human behavior is changing and our mindsets with it. Walt Disney Co (DIS.N) said on March 19th, 2020 that the spread of the Coronavirus could lead to consumer behavior changes, further disrupting its business even past the physical threat of the pandemic. These ramifications are expected to manifest in lower attendance, more subscribers to streaming service, and fewer viewers of live TV.

The rise of digital experiences 

In the recent days and weeks, live streaming has jumped to the forefront of the digital communications, cementing its position as a reliable way to activate, communicate and share, but it is short of being an experience when the content is flat, unidirectional and not engaging enough. Facebook live streamed music parties, product launch streaming and empty stadia sports events are all good, but are they good enough? Audiences are ever seeking experiences that are unique and I dare to say “mind-blowing”

Every single engaging experience ever created had its own ingredients that made it resonate and deliver on most if not all purposes. In this blurry uncharted land of uncertainty, we question ourselves, what are the right ingredients to deliver the mother of all experiences, without falling short on targets? Well here’s what we need to move the needle:

1 – Touchpoints: Now it is the time to think big, think small and think in-between. Time for brands, people and culture marketers to think of every single touchpoint in the digital experience world. This is where surprising, delighting, engaging or converting will happen. Map map map.

2 – Content is key, but it is not the magic-key. Content quality, relevance, context and richness are what will define the success of experience or the lack of it. In the absence of physical interaction and physical ambience, content is the main vehicle that will engage, communicate and convert an audience. Think content or be ready to fail.

3 – Tech is important: but shall not be the first in mind. Many might jump on the AR/VR carousel, which is understandable since these are the most recent available tools, but what about the audience? Each person has a behavioral preference, how they prefer to be part of an experience. It may be tech heavy but must be tech agnostic! Think of multiple terminals for engagement, think Facebook 360, Vimeo 360, Twitter live, AR/VR, 2D screens and never forget mobile screens.

4 – The physical nostalgia: Physical behavior in the digital world is what an audience will want to experience. This is where we can surprise and delight. High-fiving friends, celebrating peers, toasting customers, even taking selfies can humanize this experience and make it worth being part of.

5 – Digital in the physical world: we are in the middle of the fourth industrial revolution, a fusion of the digital, biological, and physical worlds, with plethora of technological solutions that can bring any digital experience seamlessly into any physical space. B2B need to start thinking of solutions such as Digital twin” a digital replica of potential and actual physical assets that can create a twin copy or any product, service or even process and take to any client physical space as a stand-alone experience. Now that 5G is here, this means hyper fast streaming and connectivity, where brands can share real time dynamic AR / VR / 3D or 2D content in retail, outlets, outdoor and indoor environments, even geolocation tagged content.

6 – Bend it like “Neo”: In the digital world, “almost” everything is possible. This the time when bending the laws of physics is real, we need to think of an experience that teleports our audience to new worlds, where laws of physics don’t apply. Where people, brands and cultures can tell and experience stories that can never be possible in the physical world.

Here’s the golden two cents, in uncertain times, people, brands and cultures struggle to see the silver lining. They tend to run towards the tools they know without realizing it is exactly in times like these that we can and have to innovate. In a world where innovation is used as a buzz word, rather than a means to solve complex problems,  now is the right time and this is the right opportunity to embark on a purposeful innovation journey and find other ways to bring us all together in the face of impending social distancing.