Separate but Together: Redefining Experiential for a Pandemic Era

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By Vida Cornelious, Chief Creative Officer, Fake Love 

Blair Neal, Chief Creative Technologist, Fake Love 

“Six feet.” Two simple words, but a powerful combination in mounting new fears during a pandemic era. It is the measure by which we must now limit our connection; the acceptable distance to cushion oneself from all of humanity.

For those of us in the experiential marketing business, where “gathering” is the hallmark of what we do, society’s rapid and forced shift to “social distancing” and “sheltering in place” will mean we will feel these new norms more acutely. If six feet is to become the new mandate for what will keep us safely separate, we must also consider that it will thieve us of one of our most basic human needs – the desire to be together.

Rest assured, a post-COVID-19 world will come, but we must still prepare ourselves for the new social norms that will remain because of it. And as experiential marketing professionals, for the health of our business and the industry at large, we must find a creative way forward. Our goal is to assure our clients and audiences that we can responsibly return to creating experiences and gatherings while reclaiming our human need for physical touch and in-person interaction.

What we must do now is embrace our collective responsibility – creating actionable strategies for the world of experiential marketing today, tomorrow, and the near future.

Today: Responsible Pivots to Digital

The current COVID climate requires an immediate response and change of course as we pivot our experiential pursuits away from in-person, physical brand moments. Now is our time to creatively encourage brands to consider innovative and responsible uses of the digital space.

Our opportunity in the short term allows us to leverage digital mechanisms like virtual reality (VR) and live streaming alongside social storytelling. Audiences are already creating ways for themselves to stay connected via Instagram Live and Google Hangouts. Virtual happy hours, coffee meetups and even fashion shows are all happening in real-time. And the celebrity set is also using social platforms to stay engaged and create new connections with fans. Free IGLive concerts are popping up, with invites spreading through influencers and virtually gathering over 100K viewers in minutes. Artists are hosting concerts for crowds bigger than an arena audience, right from their living room couch. For a brand, this is a moment to take cues from what consumers are creating for themselves.

This is a moment that a brand can authentically show up and provide moments of uplift for their audiences. Offering a creative, branded experience, that when done generously, can be immersive and engaging for the viewer. And as a result, create a feeling of community and togetherness even though we are physically separated by our screens and devices.

Tomorrow: Responsible Uses of Technology 

Technology is already a key part of the experiential world. But now more than ever, we can plan for how we advance the use of technology in the post-pandemic future of experiential design. More human-centric forms of technology will be created–ones that allow people to engage with and explore created worlds, despite having learned to be hesitant to physically touch them.

Our human-centric tech opportunity is to be more proactive and practical in engaging all the senses. The belief has been embedded: COVID has made our hands the germ-infested enemy. But if we reframe how consumers engage with technology, and hands are no longer the control center, we have the opportunity to elevate the feet, eyes, voice, or even face to drive the technology within our experiences. Gigantic touchscreens, replaced by one’s personal device for shared interactions, but with personal control. Interactive high-resolution LED floors allowing one’s feet and steps to deliver a response. Cameras and computer vision can continue to enable the body and facial tracking but lean into their strengths like recognizing body position and emotions via physical cues. Voice control can be an innovative and empowering way for people to interact with installations without physically touching them. Experiential has always leaned toward the multisensory with impressive visual displays and immersive audio – but now more than ever pushing the limits of human-centric technology is how we reshape our industry’s future.

Near Future: Responsible and Safe Gatherings

We must accept, even as we slowly return to gathering in physical spaces, the new world of experiential will require us to commit to shouldering new responsibilities. Brands must show responsibility by sanctioning the creation of events that are specifically designed to make audiences feel safe. Consider experiences that occur outdoors and in a small footprint that can provide a more tailored and personal experience, similar to audio tours. Hand washing stations can become part of event decor, or hand sanitizers be distributed at the entry point as effortlessly as a wristband. Individual checkpoints, timed entry slots, or small group interactions can minimize mass crowds and control attendees. Creative brand pop-ups provide a new kind of surprise that doesn’t last days, but minutes. All of these strategies create an upside for brands – more intimate experiential moments that allow for a customized and personalized presence in the world.

This new normal of “six feet” will inevitably create considerations that will present as many opportunities as they do challenges to how we approach our work. It gives us a blank creative canvas to start again, delving deeply into the core of what will always be at the center of experiential design – humans. The human interactions we all crave include not just our desire to share and connect with one another, but a tangible understanding of and participation in the world around us.

As Experiential Marketers servicing the needs of brands, pandemic state or not, we are still in the business of connecting people, being champions of human interaction. In this new world order of separatism, our value to brands is in using our creative minds to redefine the meaning of “togetherness.” Only by reshaping the experience of “togetherness” can we provide new and intuitive strategies for brands to show up in more meaningful and purposeful ways than ever.

“Six feet” may keep us apart for now, but creative experiential thinking coupled with brave brand partners will have the power to bring us all back together.

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