It's no secret that as soon as the COVID-19 pandemic began, everything changed. Unlike crises of the past, there's no clear sense of when we all get back to normal. And, indeed, what that "normal" even looks like.

But while marketers are rapidly adapting and evolving their approach to address the impact of the pandemic, what is clear is that the fundamentals and intentions of breakthrough experience design remain the same: It needs to engage. It needs to be powerful. It needs to inspire action.

Like the world-class brands that create them, the best experiences—live, digital, or hybrid—are designed and executed with a clear purpose. Maintaining laser focus on that purpose is key to a successful experience and influencing customer behavior.

A Core Framework

Of course, creating rich, on-brand and purposeful experiences that move people to action is no easy task. Applying a core framework allows for the most important elements to be addressed:

  • Agenda and content structure. Collaborate on a multitouch content strategy focused on agility, flexibility, and a capacity for growth—one that considers the long tail of the content lifecycle and has the capability to provide sessions on-demand for a more customized experience.
  • Quality production. In the fight for attention, production value is a critical consideration as we design and develop assorted content types, including "broadcast quality" livestreaming, fluid and vibrant motion graphics, and thoughtful and engaging interstitials.
  • Inclusive of interactive. Designing and delivering interactive elements is crucial to establishing a value exchange between the brand and audience: A robust feature set is necessary to allow for one-to-one expert meetings, peer learning, interactive demos, digital engagements, and moments of fun.

Once that framework is established, focus can shift to the content narrative for the experience.

A Content Narrative & Digital Design Principles

Much like traditional storytelling, the content approach can be broken into three parts:

  • Phase I includes big brand and "wow" entry moments with landing spaces that ensure personalized journeys are easily crafted.
  • Phase II is where the primary content is delivered. Brand-led messages from executive goal-setting to product-focused presentations mixed with conversations between external speakers and sponsors both live and simu-live. This content is serialized to drive engagement and relevance.
  • Phase III is a personalized call to action, sponsor and sales integration through serialized content tracks, qualified leads, data capture and CRM integration.

Applying the content narrative across our experience framework, we see some key digital design principles emerge:

  • Journey-planning. Digital and remote experiences are not bound by the usual constraints of in-person experiences. Accordingly, brands need to invest strategically to create clear and compelling journeys for their audiences throughout the audience experience. Brands that don't run the risk of short attention spans' causing audience abandonment, missed KPIs, and damage to brand reputation.
  • Moments of unity. The recent restrictions on communal gatherings and socializing have created more of a desire to connect with people and audiences than ever before. By creating multiple must-see moments of connection within the experience, these become shared gathering points amid fluid journeys.
  • Serialized stories. If the story and content are compelling enough, people will continue to return. Through "chapterized" content, we can create engaging story arcs that fit expectations, learning styles, and behaviors of unique visitors.
  • Tailored connections. Catering to individual members of the audience and their needs makes the experience that much more memorable and compelling. This can be supported via curated chat, as well as support and service at each touchpoint with fit-for-purpose content and technology.

While working through messaging, content, and experience, you simultaneously need to consider your platform.

Platform Considerations

One way to look at it is that it's a decision between "renting" or "owning." When renting, you have many off-the-shelf options that may meet your business needs. By owning, you are committing to a branded environment that is likely well integrated with your existing tech stack and strategically integrated into your marketing portfolio; it will also have the opportunity to continually evolve in accordance with your specific needs.

Each approach has its benefits and limitations, and those limitations can directly affect your ability to effectively engage your audience.

When designing and building a custom platform, considerations of cost, time, and usage must be accounted for: Is this an evergreen platform for an entire portfolio of experiences and engagements? Or should it be highly customized for a singular event?

Those questions require input from the entire organization, particularly Sales, which often leans on these events to generate leads, drive pipeline, and ultimately make and finalize deals and relationships.

Finally, how will your platform function in a hybrid world? With 80% of recent survey respondents saying they would attend a live, in-person event, and with large industry shows like CES announcing their intention to go "live" in 2021, decisions on "if" and "how" brands go back to business in these spaces is rapidly approaching.

Undoubtedly, smaller hybrid or satellite events with digital and virtual extensions will be the first to make their way back—especially as organizations desperately re-engage their customers and enable their sales force.

Top-of-Mind Considerations

Regardless of where you are in your planning or evaluation process, the following considerations should be kept top of mind:

  • The needs of audiences, businesses, and brands have fundamentally changed—and so too has the role of events and experiences in that relationship. Understanding and prioritizing how to come back to the market is an essential consideration.
  • The difference in physical engagement requires a change in format, delivery, and structure. It will also require more time for planning, coordinating, oversight, and collaboration than ever before.
  • Much of the content that was relevant just a few months ago is no longer applicable or appropriate moving forward. Maintaining relevance and context with your message and materials is critical.
  • The opportunity to strengthen experiential programs isn't about digital or physical, it's about being human. Designing and delivering our experiences with a sense of empathy and consideration is paramount.

* * *

Unusual times call for unusual thinking and strategic engagements. To fully grasp the goals and realize the objectives of events in the current environment, take the path mapped out in this article to ultimately deliver an event experience that exceeds even the most audacious goals.

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Business as Unusual: Shifting Live Events to Digital and Hybrid Experiences

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image of Chris Meyer

Chris Meyer is CEO of global experiential marketing agency George P Johnson, which activates on behalf of era-defining brands like IBM, Google, Cisco, and Salesforce, and provides guidance on making the switch to hybrid events in the coming future.

LinkedIn: Chris Meyer