The rapid spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus around the world has prompted brands to act fast
to protect both customers and employees. Business trips and large-scale events have by-and-large been canceled with economic impact estimates already in the billions and changing by the day.
In this exclusive excerpt from MediaMonks' global (Re)Activate Customer Obsession report, the firm lays out guidance for brands on how to reshape experiential marketing plans to reconnect with audiences digitally:
[Events and tradeshows have been] long regarded as the go-to strategy for building closer connections, but it’s not just the tentpole events or big names worried about such cancellations.
Brands of all sizes are wrestling with making difficult decisions for how they can retain a close connection or help their audience in a moment defined by two words: social distancing.
These are very real concerns, though the situation presents a positive, too. the “we’re all in this together” moment has reinvigorated brands with a sense of societal responsibility and has inspired them to think outside the box to support their employees and the public in new ways. Consider Delta’s CEO Ed Bastian who pledged to forego six months of his salary to avoid layoffs, CVS offering delivery of medications to customers for free, and utility companies suspending utility shutdowns for customers that are experiencing financial hardship.
We’ll look back on this moment as a time in which brands have realized the value in living up to their commitment to service, finding ways to build impact and provide comfort to their customers. This is the recipe for customer obsession—in which an organisation “focuses its strategy and its budget on the technologies, systems and processes that win, serve and retain customers,” as defined by Forrester.
Brands may be unable to meet their customers face-to-face in a situation like we’re experiencing now, but customer needs aren’t going anywhere. How can a brand coordinate to reach increasingly distant audiences precisely when connection matters most? The coronavirus pandemic is prompting brands to catch up to a trend that’s taken shape throughout the years: digital transformation, through experience-led solutions that serve to digitize in-person connections.
(Re)Define your strategy
Developing best in class, digital activations requires many brands to rethink the approach they’ve used in organizing more traditional events in the past. Because there’s no direct, one-to-one translation from an in-person activation to a digital one, the questions below should get your mind thinking about how working in a digital format might prompt you to reevaluate your goals or develop entirely new ones.
What is the purpose for your event, and why translate it to digital?
Before building any digital experience, you must have a clear vision of what you want to achieve—and the same goes for translating a traditional event or activation into a digital format. First, begin by zeroing in on a clear understanding of the event’s purpose, and how that ties into the brand’s overall goals. While any marketing directive should have KPIs and business goals in mind, don’t lose sight of the significant, measurable impact you want the event to make within your community. Such is the secret on the road to customer obsession.
On that note, understand that organizations might pivot to a digital-first event strategy for several possible reasons: They want to retain value when circumstances threaten an in-person event’s cancellation; they want to showcase their digital maturity and present innovative, new experiences to consumers; or they simply want to make themselves more accessible to their audience by fitting content within the context and micro moments of their daily lives.
What matters is that your digital brand activation is supportive, and not strictly commercial. Remember, connection is key. “The idea is to make the brand relationship really personal and
supportive,” says Anneke Schogt, CEO of IMA, MediaMonks' influencer activation team. She notes that partnering with influencers, who have already forged deep connections with their audience through shared values and purpose, serves as an easy way for brands to tap into that mindset.
Given the COVID-19 pandemic that has prompted brands to reallocate budgets and strategies in particular, brands might even consider how to inject an element of social good in the new experiences they aim to offer. Folding@home is a project that allows users to donate excess computing power to aid in the research of finding treatment to disease—including the COVID-19 coronavirus. Rather than simply donating money to a similar cause, brands might consider offering compelling content that, as consumers watch or interact, powers such an investment in social good. Pairing creative ideas and brand purpose with technical innovation like Folding@home is just one way a technologically mature mindset can help brands uniquely cater to audience needs––not just now, but while preparing for the future.
The sentiment fits within a whitespace identified by MediaMonks founder Wesley ter Haar. “For me, the real push of this decade is recognizing intent and understanding the personal journey we’re creating with individual users,” he told audiences at CES earlier this year. “Which is more about the age of assistance to me. Yes, there is data, but it will be used in a way that’s assistive to me, and that’s the empathy that’s been lacking from engineering.” Taking this holistic, assistive approach is necessary to meeting the needs of today’s increasingly digital consumers.
Redefining brand relationships to connect with at-home audiences
How do you inject emotion into the experience?
An engaging virtual experience should be more than just aseries of videos on a streaming platform. For an in-person event, simply being in a place surrounded by other people is a significant part of the experience; when it comes to a virtual one, brands must carefully consider how users discover and explore content, going from piece to piece.
“You must try to figure out the interactive component strategically, like you would have at an in-person event,” says Wehage. “You need to make sure it’s consistent and sends the right content, making sure delivery is on-point.”
Cowling mentions TED Talks as a great example (albeit built on a simple idea) of an organization bringing the in-person experience to those far away. While the TED platform comprises of video collections, their delivery is contextual and relevant to individuals’ unique interests, and are augmented with transcripts, references and reading lists.
“What TED did so ingeniously was package up the corporate event for people online,” says Cowling, noting how snackable content better fits the digital habits and consumption of today’s audiences. It shows how even a small tweak to contextualize content can make a big impact on the overall experience and usability to virtual attendees.
Still, other brands might consider how to really reimagine and reinvent what an event can look like or achieve when purely digital. Just like any customer experience strategy, the idea behind a virtual brand engagement must be backed by an effective and seamless experience. Remember, events are a strong manifestation of the brand’s purpose and thrive on interpersonal relationship building—which elicits memories, connections and entertainment that spark inspiration.
How do we anticipate disappointment, but take this as an opportunity to inspire something better?
On that note, it’s also worth mentioning that attempts to translate an in-person experience to a purely digital version may cause up-front disappointment to fans and attendees. This is especially true if the need to pivot were caused by a larger societal issue like the COVID-19 pandemic, prompting people around the world to stay at home and distance themselves from one another.
“Brands shouldn’t aim to think about virtual conferences as replacement of what they had previously scheduled. It’s impossible,” says Kate Richling, CMO at MediaMonks. “For many categories—take music festivals—there is no one-to-one translation. The emotional impact of listening to your favorite band at Coachella, standing in the desert amongst friends, simply can’t be replicated at home, even with VR and emerging tech.” Instead, she advises that brands look into how they can inject emotion into their delivery to build lasting impact.
While that might sound like a challenge, it’s well within brands’ means. The drive for connection remains strong. As the COVID-19 virus grew stronger in China, Chinese users who could no longer go out to see music shows began the “cloud clubbing” trend, in which DJs perform sets that are livestreamed to at-home audiences. Chinese platforms like Bilibili and Kuaishou have struck deals with these clubs, implementing virtual face masks that viewers can pay to gift the performers. It’s a playful, innovative response to a situation that has also caused much anxiety and stress, prompting people to come together through a native digital behavior. In fact, China’s Strawberry Music Festival took some of its scheduled performances to Bilibili.
“How do we not only keep working, but make things better?” Cowling asks, offering food for thought to brands. “How do we leverage these behaviors and meet customers where they are: at home and on mobile?” In developing digital activations, brands must take inspiration from their consumers and how they’re engaging with one another—an important part of being insights-driven and consumer-led in the customer obsession strategy. In developing digital activations, brands must take inspiration from consumers and how they’re engaging.