Experiential marketing during the coronavirus pandemic

Paige Murphy
By Paige Murphy | 23 March 2020

Experiential marketers are taking some of the hardest hits in the advertising and marketing industry when it comes to the effects of coronavirus on their businesses.

As the Australian government continues to make restrictions on international visitors, limitations to the size of non-essential gatherings and social distancing recommendations, it has become harder for events of all sizes to take place.

Many event organisers like SXSW and Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity have opted to either cancel or postpone their events to later in the year.

Others like Salesforce and Samsung have developed alternative formats or complementary formats which have proved a success when done right.

Salesforce held its first online World Tour Sydney Reimagined event recently with more than 80,000 viewers tuning into the live-streamed event and over 1.2 million total video viewers across Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and LinkedIn.

The Company We Keep (TCWK), the experiential agency behind Salesforce’s World Tour conference in Sydney, was given just ten days to transform the large-scale event.

“There was no template for this. So, we had to essentially fast-track a completely new way to delivering an interactive brand experience simulcast out to the world,” TCWK founder Nigel Ruffell told AdNews.

As with any event, it is essential to think about the setting in which it will be viewed.

However, Ruffell says when delivering a live streamed event, event marketers should also remember that the same elements of producing a TV program apply.

“The key is to think about how your brand comes across on-screen. There is a huge difference between talking to camera in a web stream and delivering a curated brand experience,” he says.

“How you relay your content, you need to keep it relevant and punctual and you need to deliver it as if you were talking to a friend or associate. Make it an interesting conversation. Also think of ways your audience can talk back live [with] real time questions.”

At last month’s Samsung Unpacked 1H launch, experiential agency INVNT partnered with the global electronics brand and its dedicated agency Cheil Worldwide.

Together they developed a custom solution which enabled the livestream experience to shift from one that utilised studio cameras to mobile devices – the new Galaxy S20 – to reflect millennials’ dynamic lifestyle.

While this decision was not driven by the coronavirus at the time – the event also attracted a few thousand live attendees – the move highlights the value of creative virtual solutions.

“Live streaming is achieved most effectively when we develop the right technology solutions and weave them throughout the event in meaningful ways,” INVNT managing director APAC Laura Roberts says.

“More than ever, we need to be storytellers.”

Samsung’s unique approach saw the live stream secure 55 million views.

Media exposure hit 9.8 thousand between February 11 and 12 with a potential reach of 18.8 million, while social reach over the same period was 2.6 million.

As Vinny Panchal, SVP, general manager at Jack Morton Worldwide, notes: “Streaming is not alien to us”.

In a recent study, 49% of Australians reported to live stream TV and 18% even streamed concerts.

He says the world is already in the age of streaming with the likes of Netflix, Stan and Disney+ so doing so with events is nothing out of the ordinary.

Panchal says there are “plenty” of solutions available for experiential marketers; it’s all about being creative.

“From talk show formats to structured reality using part live content and part scripted to create drama, there are many ways content can be delivered virtually when physical events are not possible,” he says.

“Recently, our global teams have helped transition a 6,000 person face-to-face corporate event delivering hundreds of hours of content into a virtual experience.

“We created a new and exciting format with a mix of live and on-demand broadcast content and interactive tools to keep the audience engaged.”

Digital solutions have been paving the way for alternatives to physical events.

Whatever way these solutions are executed, Roberts says they must be “both creatively and strategically led”.

Like Panchal, she also lists interactive studio-style broadcasts as a popular format, as well as leveraging social media to encourage audiences to create user-generated content.

“From curated one-on-one experiences that are live streamed to an audience of millions, to interactive broadcasts and social amplification strategies, remember that there are many alternatives out there, but you need to be creative,” Roberts says.

“Aim to use this unfortunate situation as an opportunity to flex your creative muscles and challenge the ways events are typically designed, produced and marketed.”

Bastion EBA creative strategist Georgia Patch agrees that the time is now for experiential marketers to enlist their “creative stopgaps” to find solutions for clients and audiences.

Digital avatars, interactive content and gamification are just some of the other alternatives she says her team are using in addition to live streaming.

“For those in experiential, our very business is the art of drawing crowds, we can’t sugarcoat the fact that COVID-19 is a headache of unprecedented nature,” Patch says.

“But, being in advertising we are accustomed to chaos; unplanned strikes, pivoting briefs and shrinking lead times. In experiential we always have contingency plans A, B and even C.

“So, rather than wallow in despair, we’re seeing COVID-19 as a brief; an opportunity to rethink experiential beyond mass gatherings, recalibrate and remind ourselves that experiential is a tactic, not a channel.”

Tinder is one example that Patch shares where a brand has presented a successful interactive content experience - something she coins a “remote adventure”.

The dating app rolled out a content series in the US - and soon to be shared internationally - called ‘Swipe Night’.

Instead of swiping left or right on a person, the app asked users to make decisions to advance a narrative that followed a group of friends in an “apocalyptic adventure”.

“The decisions you made are then shown on your profile as a conversation starter,” Patch says.

“The content is short and pithy and a very creative and clever way to engage and sustain engagement.”

Matches on Tinder jumped 26% and messages increased 12%.

For brands with bricks-and-mortar spaces, Patch says it may be difficult in the age of self-isolation but there are plenty of examples where social distancing can be maintained or digital elements can be introduced.

Last year, Lego held a pop-up activation with no products. Instead, customers were invited to scan a QR code and activate an immersive Snapchat lens to experience the latest products.

“While physical pop-ups might be put on hold, there’s no shortage of how Snapchat’s lenses and filters can be used to not only build an immersive experience from the comfort of home, but also close out the path to purchase,” she says.

As the situation with coronavirus continues to escalate, there is uncertainty for how far into the future this will impact events and activations.

At Jack Morton, Panchal says the team is prepared to continue delivering experiences no matter what happens over the coming months.

“From a business perspective, we're comfortable delivering engaging experiences no matter what the channel or circumstance,” he says.

“At Jack Morton, we offer a diverse portfolio of capabilities – from broadcast design, virtual experiences, creative and strategic content to our innovation practice group, Genuine X.”

Ultimately, he says every experiential marketer is a content creator and whether it be live or virtual, the goal still remains the same: to engage with the audience.

Patch, too, is optimistic about the change.

“In February 2014, strikes by staff on London’s underground network forced commuters to experiment and find alternative routes to work,” she says.

“Economists, as economists do, saw a ripe opportunity to run an experiment and found that once tube work had ceased, one in 20 stuck with their new routes after the strike was over. The point being that without disruption new, better paths may not be found.”

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