What experiential marketing should look like in our new normal

61 percent think in-person experiences will be more important moving forward. But they will be different.

The events of recent months—from lockdowns, to protests, to massive unemployment, and continuously rising COVID-19 cases in the United States —have inspired people to reflect on what really matters, sparking a spiritual awakening of sorts. They’re placing more importance on spending quality time with the loved ones who matter most, exploring and expressing their creativity in thoughtful ways, and standing up for the causes and issues they believe in.

Common immersive or sensory tactics like brightly colored ball pits, shared props, and touchscreen photobooths that once passed as experiential marketing are likely to be seen as unsafe and unsanitary. And, charging large-ticket prices for any kind of experience in which the main payoff is Instagram likes will play as frivolous, at best.

There is still, however, a role for real experience-first marketing if done right. The beginning of summer has proven that people are anxious to get out of the house and socialize in person again. In fact, our research found that 61 percent think in-person experiences will be more important moving forward. But they will be different.

Here are some new normals for marketers to keep in mind as we look to the back half of the year and the desire for people to find new experiences.

  • Virtual is the New Starting Point

With their daily lives still disrupted, consumers continue to seek solutions for creating new routines. They’re hungry for human connection and a sense of normalcy, and virtual experiences are helping to fill that void. Research from Pew reveals that roughly a third of U.S. adults (32 percent), including 48 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds, have had a virtual party or social gathering with friends or family while social distancing, and one-fifth have watched a concert or play that was live streamed.

The virtual boom is notable because, until now, few experiential marketers prioritized such offerings. Livestreaming an event, conference, or class was generally done as an afterthought—something to accommodate those who couldn’t attend in person, or, in recent months, something that a brand would pivot to instead of being forced to cancel an event completely.

But the success of such offerings during social distancing has showcased how virtual experiences can amass audiences that were once only believed to exist in stadiums and at festivals. Moving forward, companies will need to approach the execution of virtual events with the same care and attention to detail as they would a physical experience. 

  • Local is the New Focal Point

Throughout the pandemic, consumers have regarded shopping and eating locally as an altruistic act that can help local businesses struggling in the fallout of the pandemic. One recent survey found that nearly nine in 10 shoppers say it’s important to shop locally.

People are also sticking closer to home for health and financial reasons. Many are still fearful of the health risks of air travel, or simply can’t afford it. Instead of planning international or cross-country trips, they are looking at day trips, drive-through experiences, and Airbnb rentals within driving distance

It’s time to rethink sponsorship of international events and festivals that are heavily reliant on air travel and need high numbers of attendees for success. Instead, experiential marketers should support people in their efforts to help their local communities bounce back. Hyper-local geo-targeting will take on new relevance as businesses prioritize specific consumers in their immediate area.  

  • ‘Meaningful’ is the New ‘Shareable’

Social distancing has inspired people to reflect on what they truly care about. Connecting with friends and family and exploring their own creativity rise to the top of that list. And, Millennials and Generation Z, in particular, are gravitating toward sharing more meaningful content that reflects their values and vision. Hence the rise of TikTok—with its playful videos and participatory challenges—over other social media platforms.

Instead of the Instagram Museums of days past, marketers should focus on micro-events, intimate gatherings, or social clubs designed to help people connect on a deeper level. Experiential marketers will also need to adapt to a world in which creativity-driven shares are more common, and "likes" aren’t the main metric of success.

  • Personal Transformation is the New Aspiration

While many consumers are struggling to survive the pandemic with their most basic needs intact, others are using the opportunity to emerge from their social distancing cocoons as butterflies. They’re seeking opportunities for growth and personal transformation.

Some brands, like Nike, have been tapping the transformation economy for years, staging transformative personal experiences that forge communities around the brand. Now is the time for others to consider a similar approach by offering powerful, personalized experiences that foster individual growth. 

Whether this period in human history is remembered as the Great Pause, the Great Realization, or by some other yet-to-be-defined catchy term, one thing seems certain:

This pandemic is causing people to evolve as the months go by, and they will emerge from it psychologically different than they were when it began. As businesses reopen, our public conversations have largely (and understandably) focused on how physical health concerns will affect the public’s return to work, commerce, travel, and more. For marketers, however, these emotional and spiritual resets may be even more important, and should be seen as the new North Star.

Jessica Reznick Martin is President of We’re Magnetic and Rachel Saunders is Global Director of Consumer Research and Insights, Magnetic North.

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