Please, not another article praising digital marketing in the COVID-19 era. Cue collective groan. Thankfully, this is not.
With the first rumblings of the pandemic emerged, a persistent narrative emerged unchallenged: the ‘new normal’ in which people purportedly refuse to leave their homes, gather in crowds or come together for live experiences.
The proposition was therefore that we must take our messages directly onto their smartphones and we shall bring them unforgettable and emotional experiences as they commute, eat their dinners, and share us with their favorite game. Our industry response was the empty studio, green-screen dream-team of livestreaming, mini-Apps, AR/VR/MR/XR/KOL presentations awkwardly thrown together to form the new and innovative future of experiential marketing: the online digital event.
The ‘elephant in the room’ is that it is neither ‘new’ nor ‘innovative’. So, if these formats and their technologies existed long before the pandemic, the question logically follows – why was this not ‘the future’ in 2019?
Reach vs impact
This answer is relatively simple. If the commercial aim is to disseminate a simple surface-level message to the public at large, be that a sales discount or celebrity endorsement, then it works well as does the TVC and the roadside billboard.
But true experiential marketing has always been a quality over quantity affair. It is not and has never been about brief impressions over a mass populace – it is targeted, focused, and engaging. From its inception at the mid-19th Century World Fairs and through the groundbreaking theories of the late 20th century, including Dale’s ‘Cone of Experience’ and Kolb’s ‘Experiential Learning’, its consistent principle proved that for brand learning, loyalty and love, people needed to participate and not just spectate.
As an industry, we have always worked at the most impactful, emotional and physical end of the scale, bringing brands and consumers closer together through up-close and personal interactions and thereby creating real memories. In doing so, we deliver high-quality conversion and long-lasting brand fan advocates who in turn authentically share their experiences with their own tribes.
And this is where pure online events run into trouble. Think of a recent online event you have watched and ask yourself – ‘what did I experience’? Did a shoot in an empty studio with paid celebs talking about a new SUV make you feel you were witnessing an iconic moment? Did you feel like an active participant, pressing buttons on your phone to vote online? Was your FOMO satisfied, with the ‘I was there’ buzz that you would get from a live experience and will you tell your kids and grandkids about it in years to come? Did tele-sales style interactions and motion graphic gimmicks persuade you this was the real deal?
(Our own internal social listening research completed in partnership with 65dB, indicated that during one such event, the online discussion rounded entirely on the KOL involved, with the product struggling to get a mention).
Digital is a tool, not a format
The rush to react to the pandemic spawned a litany of one-size-fits-all, unemotional, unsharable, and unsustainable infomercials that prioritised maximum exposure but had minimal impact. With some evidence already emerging indicating consumer fatigue of the format, most will be remembered only by the agencies that produced them. As the crisis that induced that reaction subsides, the over-reliance on a band-aid solution risks distracting from what we should be doing—
developing our big creative ideas in an increasingly complex consumer-sphere.
So does digital have a place in experiential marketing? Of course it does, but we must honestly discuss its strengths and limitations and think critically on how we can use it to amplify the live event and not lose impact. We must make it work for the objectives we seek because, right now, it’s far from being the future of experiential marketing.
Now, I get it. These are extraordinary times with few hit harder than us in experiential marketing and the understandable pressure exists to do whatever is necessary to maintain cashflow.
But as Martin Luther King once famously said “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” It’s a maxim we should heed. We always have the choice; to hold true to what we know works, to be honest with our clients in telling them what works, and most of all, to go beyond and proactively make the case for real experiential.
Ask not what you can do for digital, but what digital can do for you.
Antoine Gouin is CEO of Auditoire Asia.