The world has changed a lot in the last few weeks as COVID-19 has swept through nations. Here in the U.S., we're at the beginning of our pandemic and confusion is the only constant. Last week, we were told to keep up with life as usual and wash our hands a lot. This week, it became clear that we need to do a whole lot more.
We're being told to practice social distancing. It's unclear whether we will need to go as far as completely shutting down and staying home all the time, but people are avoiding large crowds. Conferences, concerts, sporting events and trade shows are being canceled all over the world. It's the biggest disruption to life and business that we will, hopefully, see in our lifetimes. And it's unclear how long it will last. At this point, we don't know when we will get back to normal, or if there will be a new normal moving forward.
For event marketers like me, who make our living bringing people together to have shared experiences, there are tons of unanswered questions. Clients are asking when and if canceled events should be rescheduled. Whether they should bother planning Q3 and Q4 events, or if they should shift their strategy entirely and focus purely on digital for the foreseeable future.
I don't think any of us can answer these questions—especially the timing questions—with much confidence right now. Everything is changing by the day, if not the hour. As we look for our path forward, I think we must focus on the core values behind experiential marketing. Our methods will have to change (at least for now), but our values do not.
Traditionally, we think about the experiential journey as having four main pillars: Educate, Inspire, Connect, Community. Within each of these pillars, there are questions each brand needs to ask itself as we adjust to our new reality.
How do we best share information about our brand or new product launch in this new environment? With everything that is going on, is there a new benefit for our brand or product that we could promote? What are simple ways we can communicate our brand offering?
With so much competing for their attention, how do we make space for consumers to shift, reframe their thinking, and consider our products? Is there still a way to get them excited about our brand or product? The anxiety of the moment is real, but consumers are likely craving both distraction and inspiration. Is there something we can do as brand partners to fill these needs?
Authentic connections with our consumers, partners and each other are even more meaningful now as we are all going through this together. How can we let our consumers know that we understand this new reality, we are living it too, and we are still right there next to them? Is there a way that we can add value, make things simpler, or add a pleasant surprise to their now even more stressful days?
If the early days of this pandemic have taught us anything, it's that we are all in this together. How does our brand authentically build community during this time? How do we create a space with and for other people who are going through the same thing? Could we create a project where there is a shared vision and participation from all over the globe?
Of course, our methods will have to change for the time being. For the immediate future, we cannot create face-to-face, shared experiences, but that does not mean we should stop focusing on experiential marketing. Obviously, we will rely heavily on our digital capabilities. Now is the time to be creating digital panels, group hangouts, and AR and VR community gatherings. These things are already associated with many of our experiences and will be essential moving forward.
The beauty of experiential marketing is that we have always been focused on meaningful connection between brands and consumers. As such, we have been forced to understand exactly who our consumer is, where they are, how they feel, and what they need. And this is a great place from which to pivot. Now, we have to figure out what new tension points our brands can solve for clients and what new delivery systems we can create. Perhaps we send survival kits to the home or deliver blue-blocking glasses to accommodate over-use of screen. Remember that experiences can be physical, digital or sensorial. Get creative.
This is certainly an uneasy time for all of us right now. The upside is a shared level of compassion and empathy. I believe new opportunities are born out of adversity. We honestly cannot know what the future is or when we'll hold our next in-person event, but there is still a lot of work we can, and should, do.