As we settle into yet another lockdown, brands are facing two unfamiliar scenarios that are running concurrently and each providing their own challenges. Firstly they are fighting for the attention of an audience that is a combination of fatigued, dispirited, bored and stressed, and they are doing so in the face of an increasingly shallow pool of opportunity as people are once again getting to grips with stay at home orders and all the changes this brings to their normal lives.
However, the fact remains that marketers cannot afford to take their foot off the pedal in the quest to raise awareness of the brand and build meaningful relationships with new and existing customers - now more than ever - and so they must seek out new opportunities. Which, in many cases, requires an element of bravery as they invest in areas they may never have previously considered.
Virtual events have taken a real foothold over the past six months as brands became wise to the opportunities that are available online, be it exclusive live-streamed performances, online theatre, interactive launch events or fashion shows.
Online immersive events
Many of the live experience businesses who have been forced through circumstance to move online have created a new, permanent revenue stream that will long outlive lockdowns and stay at home orders. By opening up a new world to people not restricted by geography, or budget, brands have the opportunity to cast their net wider and spread their message unencumbered by trivialities such as location or audience capacity.
We pivoted to an entirely digital offering in 2020. Online immersive events - imagine a story-driven online escape room - are proving hugely popular not only with consumers keen to seek thrills and entertainment beyond their Netflix subscription, but with brands who recognize the concept as the perfect opportunity to speak to a captive audience in a more impactful way than virtually any other advertising format.
It is widely accepted that brands who continue to advertise through a recession come out the other side stronger. Consider, then, the effect for a brand that has not only carried on investing in advertising but one who has positioned itself as a source of social entertainment and offered shared experiences for you and your friends. Something that is acutely missed by many at the moment.
Word of mouth
Whilst live IRL is off the cards, we’ve been exploring the potential that brand experience has in a new, digital environment. Where experiential has historically been spectacle-driven - something we watch or experience, but are rarely controlling - re-designing an experience for the internet allows you to create social experiences that can be driven by multiple audience members at once. The more agency you give the audience, arguably more thrilling and memorable, leading to the most coveted aspect of marketing: word of mouth.
This is not conventional advertising, this is a hybrid approach combining marketing, promotion, brand experience and storytelling. An opportunity to draw audiences in, not to leap out from their screen and accost them in the wrong frame of mind. There is no demand to stop and pay attention, no unwelcome messaging interrupting their train of thought, just a conscious decision to hang out with a brand and experience a story in an artistic, engaging and, crucially, contextual way, leaving a lasting memento.
Adapting tech for the audience
Since lockdown (the first one..) we have never been busier, helping brands tell their stories this way. We transported our experiences from real life to virtual using existing, every day tech, such as Zoom, introducing plot devices via a handful of interaction points, from rudimentary tools like video and QR codes to more involved methods such as text messages and phone calls to create something that is powerful without being unduly complex to operate. Furthermore, central to our success is giving audiences authenticity, and using established technology enables them to suspend disbelief as we add layers of reality to a fictional world, making the whole experience feel as real as possible.
Rather than having a permanent home, Swamp Motel has historically always been about working with different locations for every experience, playing to a venues’ strengths. Moving online is the same: we work imaginatively with the tech that the audience has rather than expecting it to adapt to our limitations.
New technologies for new experiences
Looking ahead, we’re exploring a wider range of technologies to enhance the experiences we’re creating for brands. Deep fake technology for example, used in the right way, has huge potential to challenge perceptions - look, for example, at the nation’s polarized, but passionate, response to Channel 4’s alternative Queen’s speech over Christmas. Another area we’re exploring through our own original programming work is with mixed reality technologies that allow you to offer shared online experiences that are grounded in reality. Digital experience that affects actions in the real world, to further blur boundaries between the virtual and the real.
We also anticipate that the continued adoption of 5G will open up more and more opportunities for immersive and live experiences to be delivered virtually. The big change that 5G brings is live social interaction, on any device. The ability to share experiences in virtual spaces in real-time and the opportunity for brands to enable live, social experiences for their customers and fans at scale, without geographical boundaries. It will really level the playing field for brand and entertainment experiences at a global level, as people all over the world will be able to attend events and experiences together, without leaving their home. Time zones really then become the only barrier.
Adopting these new technologies, though, will not be the thing that brings brands the most cut through. The single element that will guarantee an event is not resigned to being a spectacle-driven encounter is brilliant storytelling, delivered through stunning experience design, which together will drive memorability and depth of engagement. Though much has changed since the first lockdown, as always it will be the quality of the creativity that will deliver the most impact in immersive entertainment this year.
- Daniel Hemsley, Managing Director at Swamp Motel.
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Daniel Hemsley, Managing Director at Swamp Motel. As a trained theatre producer turned management consultant, Daniel helps companies to solve business problems using immersive entertainment.