The Future of Experiential Events

The Future Of Experiential Events
Yasmin Daguilh

The question I get asked the most by young professionals interested in the experiential field is “How did you get started in events?” The truth is, it’s an industry that’s built immensely on the faith of someone else letting you trial and error your way until you can produce your own moment.

The question they should be asking is, “Why did you stay in events?”

More on that later.

The world of experiential has been halted, almost entirely with COVID-19. A disease that has cost lives and livelihoods, and when it comes to physical events, labeled them extremely discouraged, if not outright banned. As the world evolves and adapts to life with coronavirus, looking at how experiential events have changed and will continue to change remains relevant for the future of the marketing industry as a whole. Over the last month, brands have transitioned quickly to host events on existing digital platforms to help foster connectivity while other platforms modify their services to adapt to the new desires and needs of brands.

Within days of social distancing restrictions hitting key states, a variety of brands began leveraging their social channels with Instagram Live events. “Mentions of IG Live on Instagram and Twitter skyrocketed by 526% between March 8 and March 15, according to Jeannette Ornelas, a senior digital marketing analyst at Mintel intelligence group Comperemedia.” Fitness brands, in particular, like Rumble, amassed audiences in the thousands during their first streams; and over the weeks, what started as a casual extension of their class structure turned into scheduled events with branding and targeted workouts.

Beauty brands like Bobbi Brown have followed similar programming on IG Live with their Always On Artistry series, while Levi’s launched a daily concert series called 501 Live in mid-March, and Loewe has begun an artist series called Loewe En La Casa, one of the earlier luxury brands to engage this tactic.

Almost as quickly as IG Live exploded, so did Zoom. “In the last month, there was a 535% rise in daily traffic to the download page, according to an analysis from the analytics firm SimilarWeb.” Brands like Chipotle (#client) were quick to the trend with lunchtime series #ChipotleTogether that integrated both games and guest hosts, Conde Nast’s Vogue used the platform to host a week-long series of panels with some of the industry’s elite in their first-ever Global Conversations, and Create & Cultivate hosted their first virtual all-day summit Money Moves with keynote speakers, workouts, and workshops.

However, it wasn’t until LVMH brand Fenty, with Rihanna’s blessing, hosted the Fenty Social Club on IG Live that the virtual event space felt like it tapped into the true atmosphere of an IRL event. This shared experience leveraged a multi-person line-up, AR backgrounds, and unique content (from BFA, nonetheless) to help establish a similar energy (and eventual FOMO) virtual event-goers would feel within a four-walled space. As brands continue to turn to IG Live, Zoom, and similar video chat and livestream platforms to engage with their communities and host events, it’s the brands that think beyond the expected nature of the platform that will continue to make these experiential moments worth tuning into. What Fenty did right was create a vibe.

Vibe, atmosphere, energy — whatever people want to call it — is essential to events.

It’s a je ne sais quoi that involves tactics that are often tangible, sometimes measurable, and always unique. Right now, but likely also for many months ahead, events need to be largely digital first. How can brands find their own vibe and draw on the components of IRL to create a successful IVL (In Virtual Life) event?

When looking at successful events, it’s not just what you see, but also what you don’t see that makes them special. Elements like lighting and sound working seamlessly with custom builds that hide all the cords that make the function function. Creatives play with guests’ senses to set a tone to properly tell a brand story and challenge their expectations and surroundings. With no walkie-talkie wearing producers in the viewers’ house to carefully dim the lights, adjust the DJ’s mix, and cue the aerialists, event creators need to challenge new techniques to help event-goers still feel transported. Maybe the next virtual event comes with a proper invite and a set of suggested steps to take to create the best ambiance for the experience. Or for a more intimate affair, brands send curated tool kits with scents and snacks to the attendees. And, for events that have a longer lead time, AR and VR may become a thing of the norm.

Brands have been playing with technology for years, from Louis Vuitton stepping into the gaming world with their limited collection for League of Legends to Patron building an iPhone app to flip the e-commerce experience with AR. Yet, when looking at events, in particular, technology has often been an amplification tool rather than the focus; from projections to motion sensors, these applications have relied on a venue and other tangible elements to tell a full event story.

With the physical world on pause and IRL events flashing a continuous “proceed with caution” warning sign, the market is ripe for technology that plays with perception to become a focus

Figuring out how to do more than a typical webinar or livestream is key, explained Yadira Harrison, co-founder, Verb, an experiential marketing agency; and a variety of platforms are recognizing that*. They’re creating ways for brands to integrate the video chat and livestream capabilities that already live in IG Live, Zoom, Hangouts, Twitch, etc. seamlessly while adding chat functions and other elements. That being said, there’s still room to think through the guest journey and ensure elements of discovery to make virtual events feel truly experiential

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One of the areas that this could be challenged first is with the concept of space. The same way that brands seek a perfect venue in real life, they’re in need of a virtual whitebox that lets brands put their own spin on experiences while seamlessly supporting elements that are key to driving engagement and intrigue for guests. Discovery is essential for guests at events. They need to be able to click a landing page and still feel transported somewhere new. They want areas to explore, products to engage with, something exciting to take with them when they go. Guests also want human connection. The enchantment of a DJ set or a performance piece is what happens in the crowd. The shared dance, the moment of wonder, and being able to reference it later is what lingers in a guests’ mind when they hail that car home, and what needs to be manifested in the virtual world. As event producers, we are actively exploring what technology is out there (or on its way) that can capture the essence of an event, in a way that makes you feel like you were somewhere, with someone, for a moment in a time, and maybe comes with a photo booth, too. Everyone loves a memento.

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That’s another thing that’s key with events: longevity.

Whether the event itself lasts one day or one minute doesn’t matter, but the extension of that experience after the fact is what keeps the brand story alive.

With virtual events at the moment, there’s very little shareable content that bombards your feed, few connections formed, nothing that says “we went to this thing together” — which feels even stranger at a time when we’re all going through something together. Guests enjoy something to look back on, as they look forward. It’s the same notion behind why #ThrowbackThursday is still a thing or the #ImJustAKid challenge is trending. The extension of an event can be (and should) something other than a photo. As brands continue to settle into the digital event space, there is a need to foster community after the link expires. Share the DJ set from the event, create a chat room for attendees to opt into to discuss the conversation, make an AR filter that evokes the setting — make a world that extends not only the lifeline of the event, but also the story of the brand. If the restrictions are lifted slightly, brands could employ a DTC extension for the most engaged event goers to have a more intimate experience with a specific product or exclusive 1:1 events as a way to bring some IRL back to IVL.

While the full future of the experiential world is uncertain, what is certain is that events are still integral. They help foster community, tell a story, and create a moment of magic, even if you’re trapped inside or have to stay 6 feet apart.

In this difficult time, with an uncertain future, the question of “Why did you stay in events?” is even more significant.

Working in events is not for everyone. As a producer you’re the first one in, the last to leave, typically with a 5 a.m. call time and 2 a.m. wrap. Even when you plan everything perfectly, and have back up plans for your back up plans, you still end up putting out fires — sometimes literally.

But we stay because working in events is incredible. Experiential events are a way to say something unique, because they’re based on hearing, seeing, tasting, smelling, feeling something for the first, and often only, time with other people. Witnessing that moment as a producer is what makes it all worth it, and the success of those moments is what encourages brands to keep funding experiential marketing and encourages agencies and individuals to challenge ourselves to take them further.

*There are host platforms like Splash and Eventtia that provide a white-labeled way for brands to host events and integrate ticketing, livestreams, and chats while collecting relevant data, and Event Farm has a virtual campus where guests can experience a webinar and private chats in a few ways.