If there’s anything that changes after the coronavirus pandemic passes I hope it's that people stop using the most overused words of the era such as “unprecedented”, “pivot” and “new normal”. Surely the use of these words post-corona is going to make us feel like we’re back in lockdown by association.
Pivot appears to be the favourite as far as the events industry is concerned—“we’re pivoting to virtual events”. But have we actually ‘pivoted’, or are we just responding to the brief with the same necessity to deliver the right experience for the right audience in the right place? For now this means using considerably more focus to deliver these experiences remotely. After all, the rules of experience design still apply—or don’t they?
All of a sudden there are numerous new virtual products on offer, many a simple reskin of an old virtual platform. And then there are the virtual seminars on offer you can join from the comfort of your own dining table. We absolutely need to find short-term solutions to see us through the pandemic months, for sure.
For brands, events aren’t just a crucial part of the marketing mix but, importantly, they rely on them as an imperative driver of the sales pipeline.
As agencies we’re in survival mode, seeking any way we can sustain our work family and businesses.
Without being disrespectful or complacent to the immediate needs of brands, agencies, venues and suppliers and most importantly the people behind them, we do have the opportunity to pause for thought: Will events ever be the same again? Will people want to fly and congregate again? Will we lose our great talent to other industries? Will this 'unprecedented' period mean this 'pivot' to virtual events will become the 'new normal'? Arghhh!
The truth is that nobody really knows the future. But if humans behave like humans, the likelihood is that we return to business as usual (or very similar), and coronavirus will be seen as a bump in the history of the events industry in much the same way the global financial crisis (GFC) of 2007/2008 was.
Whilst I may sound cynical, it doesn’t mean I don’t see it as an opportunity for us to learn and change. Here are some thoughts in the context of three theatres:
- Before corona (BC)
- During corona (DC)
- After corona (AC)
Before corona (BC)
Events as a medium have grown consistently every year I can remember—by double digits in each of the last three years. By 2017 it had grown to become a US$1 trillion industry globally. The diversity of skills employed in the business is something we should all be proud of: Aside from the traditional logistical, design and production talents, strategists and creatives have come to the party as well as content, film, digital and coding specialists. More recently we’re seeing campaign planners, creative technologists and data analysts joining our ranks. It’s been a whirlwind of innovation, development and growth—but at what cost?
As an industry we cannot claim to be the most sustainable of practices. Guests fly in, we’re hardly paperless and in Asia we love to “build n’ burn”. The excuses range from “isn’t available” to “too expensive” to “no one else does”.
Attempts at creating virtual or online events have historically either been a bolt-on translation of the live experience or a complete failure. I remember hearing about a virtual event back in 2009 for a large automotive company as a method of launching a new car to a media audience still in the travel lockdown of the GFC and not wanting to be seen flaunting bailout funds on an ‘extravagant event’. The virtual experience imitated the event as a walkthrough of an actual convention centre, registering in the lobby and 'sitting down' in a gamelike environment to watch a holographic CEO present the new car. That would have been fine if the servers hadn’t crashed, leaving a bewildered audience waiting for eternity. It was a complete failure, mainly because the technology was untested with a large online audience and bandwidth at the time was sketchy to say the least—a noble attempt but one that would lose more jobs in an already hostile employment environment.
Of course that was a long time ago, and technology has evolved significantly, as have the skills employed in the industry. We now have the skill sets to create the amazing.
The challenges are the same for all of us. No matter the execution, human connections are the driver behind it all—live and virtual. There have also been some great examples of hybrid and virtual events. You just have to look at the success that is TEDx. I can also name a few brands that have successfully merged live with virtual, for example one of our clients has been able to extend the reach of its live audience tenfold (simultaneously) and generated significant income through embedded ecommerce in the virtual experience.
During corona (DC)
So, here we are in the midst of a global pandemic with social distancing and stay-at-home initiatives preventing us from meeting up. The event world has gone virtual, in most cases using existing platforms reskinned with a client’s logo and colour scheme to offer the basics of an event (presenter, content, interaction/chat). However, some of the bigger agencies are now building their own solutions to answer the needs of the larger enterprise-level events.
GPJ has created a great solution taking its knowledge of physical experiences but reimagining (rather than directly translating) to the online world. And that is important. As event agencies, we are the most qualified to understand the experience intricacies and interactions required to make an event great. However, we also need to be able to understand that virtual or digital events are different. We need to ensure we learn from and embrace digital experience rules.
For example, one feature of GPJ’s solution is the use of a second screen (say mobile phone) to use as an interactive device for polling, voting or questions whilst watching the presentations and content on a TV or laptop. This is built around the insight that people won’t just sit and watch a screen for 45 minutes (or more), you can instead serve them an ‘interaction’, nudging engagement.
Likewise, the team has reimagined the traditional event expo to be more akin to a Netflix, where you instinctively scroll easily through exhibitors to find and then interact with the ones that you find most interesting. This takes key learnings from experiences that were created to fix similar issues and delivers a digital experience that doesn’t require a training course just to find your way around.
These virtual events certainly serve the purpose during the corona pandemic, but will they live on post-corona or be largely forgotten in the same way they were as the world emerged from the GFC?
After corona (AC)
Going back to the post-GFC era, I remember digital being the buzzword in events. But generally speaking, agencies didn’t understand what it was then, or if they did, they didn’t understand how digital could best be applied to events beyond registration, event apps and maybe a website here or there.
Things have certainly changed since, and most event agencies have a good, if not advanced, digital capability. If there is anything to learn from the corona era it is that virtual events need to be a different experience to their live counterparts. Even if brands felt a virtual walkthrough experience was best for them, to take on building an interactive 3D space would be expensive and time consuming, even if they are called Activision Blizzard or Electronic Arts. And why would you even want to bring over the legacy of the building/physical space?
There are certainly some developments of deep interest that we’re keeping our eyes on. Facebook is due to launch its ‘Horizon’ platform this year (video below), so that may provide an interesting virtual space to build out a virtual 'walkabout' event solution. However, I sense that the look and feel and features will be too restrictive for most brands. And that’s ignoring the hardware costs and personal concerns around wearing headsets.
Meanwhile Google, Apple, and Microsoft will continue their focused push to bring deeper/smarter AR options to market. But this experience, for now, remains chained to mobile devices or bulky headsets. Ultimately, we all should have a resolute focus to deliver the very best experiences above and beyond just chasing the ‘shiny new’.
Will virtual events become the standard? Personally I don’t think they will. Humans are fundamentally social animals; we all yearn for each other’s company and interaction. These lockdowns have demonstrated that. Whilst I’m sure there will be an short intermediate stage (evolving corona - EC) where virtual still takes the lead based on necessity, long-term it's more than likely we experience a resurgence and dominance of live events with, I hope, additions of virtual elements that were discovered or honed during corona, and here is where the opportunity for our industry lies.
The DC era should provide agencies with the need and necessity to supercharge their digital and data/measurement capabilities and rethink how they create the very best experiences, online and offline. What the virtual experience can offer much more accurately is clarity of effectiveness against key business objectives. Using data to further provide richer and more relevant and effective experiences with empirical evidence—live and virtual alike.
With this in mind I’m hoping that brands and agencies will see the light and embrace data in an empathetic and non-intrusive manner in the future. This will also require our industry to embrace and invest in the people, processes and tools required to plan, activate and analyse data-enhanced experiences.
To my earlier lament around sustainability: To me, it’s been all talk and little or no action. Brands want it because it’s a strategic business priority, agencies add it to the back of the pitch document because it feels the right thing to do, but both brands and agencies frequently bail due to budget or the fact that the competition isn't doing it. For us to be socially responsible requires a wholesale embrace across geography and the industry. The industry needs to implement some form of governance relating to the environment—maybe an event points system audited by an independent body that judges events and the brands, agencies, venues, suppliers that create them on their contribution to protecting the environment.
People buy refrigerators that have an arrow pointing to the green band on their energy label. Perhaps one day the same will be true of events. Imagine that on an industry-wide basis. It could happen if there were environmental bonuses or penalties in the form of subsidies or a surcharge system implemented by governments or venues. This would of course require a Herculean effort and be driven by either a global industry association or a consortium of agencies both global and local. That would potentially lead to more hybrid events if events were penalized for long-distance attendee flights, for example. Maybe this thinking is too ambitious, but something has to change.
And remember, change is good, isn’t it?
Ben Taylor is APAC CEO of Project Worldwide, overseeing 16 offices in the region including leading brand experience agencies George P. Johnson as well as JUXT, Spinifex, Dark Horse and Raumtechnik.