Has a year of living virtually changed experiential marketing forever?

—The extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic have sparked new thinking and exciting experimentation across the industry, says Innocean’s Jeff Perrin—

When the pandemic hit in March 2020, I suddenly found myself, like so many others, surrounded by uncertainty about all of the things I’ve worked so hard at to create stability in my life: my career, my colleagues, my family, my health.

I work in experiential marketing (XM) at Innocean Worldwide Canada, with a focus on auto clients. We create memorable brand experiences that give people the ability to touch and experience vehicles and the environment we create around them.

Like so many others during COVID-19, I saw my entire year of business wiped out and was thrust into an adapt-to-survive reality.

But in many ways, this shock to the system has actually been good news for the industry. The pandemic has accelerated an important shift that had already begun in experiential marketing.

I am not talking about going from in-person to virtual events, but fundamentally changing the way we think about experiential as part of the overall customer journey. Traditionally seen as more of a one-off moment in time, experiential has slowly evolved to become an integral piece of a brand’s marketing strategy.

In our experience working with clients like Kia Canada Inc., we have seen a strong correlation between successfully executed experiences and sales performance for the year. What this tells us is that there’s opportunity within XM to marry it with other traditional marketing methods, such as shopper marketing, to generate leads and drive conversion right from the show floor.

The virtual space grants us even more opportunity to do this.

For example, with auto shows cancelled across the country this year, many brands moved to a virtual platform.

Within fully immersive virtual environments, automotive brands could invite automotive enthusiasts and those looking to buy a new vehicle to interact with their vehicle line-ups in new and innovative ways. Virtual events also afford brands the opportunity to create activities such as games and contests with built-in data capture to feed back into their lead generation efforts.

This isn’t to say that virtual events can fully replace in-person. Humans are inherently tactical—we like to see, touch, smell etc. But there are benefits to both.

Virtual experiences offer marketers more opportunity to change people’s opinion of a brand through storytelling. Specifically, they present a conquest opportunity to reach those consumers who may not have considered a certain brand in the first place. This means that when we go back to IRL, we will have a new audience to consider us for that tactical experience.

I think the future is hybrid, and this unique time has shown to clients that investment in virtual supports IRL and ultimately sales.

By leaning into the changing landscape and using more experimental methods than we have in past, experiential marketers, myself included, have been able to go beyond creating a brand experience that simply acts as a tool for raising awareness and familiarity. Instead, we are capitalizing on this opportunity to move consumers along in the customer journey in a tangible way.

We now have an opportunity to engage in big thinking and new approaches in a segment of the industry that had grown comfortable with the status quo. But it’s a lot to ask a brand to make bold decisions during such a time of uncertainty. To help with the transition to more experimental and hybrid methods of managing brand experiences, there are a few things experiential marketers can do now to better ensure success:

  1. Focus on one market: In the hybrid future of event marketing, where IRL and virtual events coincide, marketers will need to find a balance that works for their brand. At this point, it is imperative that marketers take the time to fine-tune their marketing approach and keep events small and impactful, rather than jumping straight into making everything national and as far reaching as possible. One approach to consider is to focus on one market where you can make a big impact. Consumers are starved for programming and events, so what better time than now to provide a transformative, fun and entertaining brand experience. You can later use this execution as a proof of concept and benchmark for future business planning.
  2. Use this time to review how you set your KPIs: In experiential marketing, KPIs are often related to guest throughput—how many people interact with the product during the experience, for example. In a touchless XM world with digital and virtual experiences taking the front seat, data capture and CRM play an integral role in measuring the success of your brand experience and demonstrating return on investment.
  3. Don’t forget about the little details that hook your audience: Experiential marketers are storytellers first. We design brand experiences like we’re telling a story in that they have an introduction, different characters, a peak exciting moment (or two or three!) and we know how to keep consumers following the story we’re telling with different hooks or incentives throughout. These same skills can be applied to designing a brand experience in the virtual space. My advice is to remember the hooks that get people to go a little further at the end of each page. For example, by using incentives to drive consumers further down the customer journey, marketers can use chances to win prizing as an incentive for data capture where the further you move through an experience, the better your chances of winning. We’re not talking about buying leads, we’re talking about incentivizing customers to travel through your experience from beginning to end, allowing you to tell your full brand story.

While the above concepts are based on my experience with clients and the agency and people I work with, they can be applied to other industries. Just remember, everyone’s experience right now is unique and changing day-by-day. One thing I’ve come to appreciate during this challenging time is that clients and business leaders all carry the same burden of uncertainty on all levels, and have used that uncertainty to encourage new thinking and change.

We may never experience another moment like this in our careers and the small progress we’re making now is entirely re-shaping the future of experiential marketing. This is the opportunity we’ve all been waiting for.

Jeff Perrin is the group account director, brand experiences, at Innocean Worldwide Canada.