Opinion piece from Mike Ford, Director at touch
Having spent over a third of the year affected by coronavirus and the restrictions it brings, it is still no easier to confront the inconvenient truth – that the world we eventually return to will not be the same as the one we left. Yes, we’ve started to see the easing of lockdown rules – but the normality we once knew hasn’t returned – and it’s likely it never completely will. Some changes may be hard to swallow, others will have impacted us long term in ways we could have never predicted pre-pandemic. And the events industry has felt this particularly acutely.
But rather than rushing back to the ‘old world’ as a matter of default, back to our comfort zones and previous norms, I’d rather evaluate what the lockdown period has taught us and, as businesses stare down the barrel of widespread economic strife, consider how best to move forward.
Coming into our own
During lockdown we’ve been forced to adapt to the circumstances, like most businesses in our industry, this has meant pivoting and creating a new way of working. Fortunately, with a legacy of working on award-winning virtual events that started long before the pandemic, that shift was in some ways a seamless one for us to make.
One example is a project we worked on with our pharmaceutical client, Santen. They had a physical event planned in Croatia for April, which was unsurprisingly cancelled due to the Coronavirus restrictions. In response to this, with our experience, platform and production know how we turned this event into a virtual one in just 20 days, hosted on the 22nd April 2020.
We engaged more than 750 people from across Europe and Japan in a manner consistent with the original brand and event narrative – Winning Together. This was achieved by creating an emotive narrative, a creative production experience and gamified the event to make it so much more than a “webinar.”
There are now numerous examples of companies, brands and events doing the same. So, is this the new normal?
Whilst this is an example of how to turn the physical into the digital, especially at a time when we’ve been restricted to virtual only, it isn’t a solution that we can use forever. Live events will return in some guise, at some point. Because the human spirit and need for face-to-face engagement cannot be replaced entirely.
But we do have to start thinking about what will happen when we can start to meet in bigger groups again, and live experiences begin to come back on the scene. That’s when using physical AND virtual to complement one another will come into its own.
Immersing yourself in a hybrid world
As we move forward in the events industry, it’s about discovering new possibilities and avoiding a pendulum swing back to the old status quo. It can’t just be about replacing face-to-face engagement with a virtual equivalent – it’s not enough. Create something compelling, something that cuts through, something with the power to ensure engagement to the point of immersion. It’s time we reimagined the rules of engagement.
The fatigue we are all feeling, from wall to wall, virtual, laptop locked conversations indicates that while technology may be the enabler, it’s not the complete answer. There’s not just a two-dimensional solution consisting of the platform and the content. Technology now affords us the opportunity to re-imagine the environment and make it 3-dimensional. Your stories need no longer be confined to conference rooms, boardrooms or indeed (as the last few months have determined) bedrooms.
Looking to the future
That’s why the future of events won’t be either physical or digital – instead it’s about creating a new hybrid. Live events will be less about formal presentations and more about conversation, networking and engagement. Content will be dynamic, not static or formulaic, and it will also be available on demand – making live content accessible when the attendee wants it.
Where virtual is used to replace or complement face-to-face interactions, imagination and flexibility will be critical. Instead of corporate didactic presentations, we may actually see the death of PowerPoint (well, let’s hope so!) and witness more organic content, where the audience sits at the heart. This will also give us more dynamic engagement and less structured, corporate presentations. At the centre of all this, will be storytelling. With this comes new skills that presenters will need to adopt in relation to how they are delivering an event. Hiding behind PowerPoint will no longer be an option.
There will always be a fundamental human need to engage in person, and while of course we can successfully replace face-to-face connections virtually to a certain extent, as we continue to navigate this new kind of normal, we’ll see new things introduced. Whether it’s different media, different tools, immersive technologies, different combinations of live, digital and film, they will all work in unison to bring global audiences together more often and will play a part in influencing our future.
We need to understand the essence, purpose and impact of engagement, not just how to execute a piece of communication or replicate a physical event in a virtual world. The potential is so much bigger than that.
While the immediate future is uncertain, I think it’s a future that offers opportunity and one to be optimistic about. I’d like to see us reframe ourselves as the engagement sector, not just the event sector. The future is bigger and bolder than we might have once imagined.