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Breaking the digital experience dichotomy

30 April 2020
Chris Martin and Cold play wearing cgi suits while filming Adventure of a Lifetime music video

This article first appeared on Creative Brief.

From streamed concerts by Chris Martin and live sets from Berlin’s top DJ through to virtual museum tours and theatre streaming platforms, the events of 2020 are causing a seismic shift in the experience economy. Our Head of Technology and Innovation, Russel Hall, discusses.

Until the coronavirus pandemic forced an unexpected and drastic rethink of our everyday lives, digital was still often referred to as something that could be tacked on to a campaign. “Can we have more digital,” people might ask, or “where’s the digital?”

The point is to focus on more than ‘digital’; it’s about being story and experience first, creating experiences that are enabled by technology.

Although the delivery of events has changed, experience design has not. Whether digital, virtual, hybrid or physical, we must design for the simple, unchanging truths that underpin human behaviour: the desire for stories that resonate, experienced in an engaging way, that create action.

Even before this current crisis, digital experiences have evolved into so much more than 2D websites and apps through virtual and mixed media worlds. The next generation of social hubs and 5G-powered immersive worlds have arrived, and we will only see the current situation accelerate creativity and innovation and develop these platforms further.

The most important element in earning your audience's attention is in the craft of your storytelling.

Looking beyond the misconceptions

Many brands were already challenging this dichotomy before the world faced this current situation, however, misconceptions on how to blend digital experience with real-life events persist.

Learnings gleaned from building experiences at live events shows us that experiential is an active form of marketing that consumers chose to engage with for far longer than other channels. For example, the average dwell time at brand activations is 40 minutes, far longer than the typical dwell time for a brand website. Meanwhile, we also know a third of consumers have paid for a branded experience or event.

Brands can track so many aspects of their online marketing, but with live brand experiences, it is harder to track success. It can be done but requires more planning and interconnected technologies to create a system that can be measured. This will then give the numbers to prove return on investment.

Once you have a system like this in place it does not just count the number of people at the event; it learns from existing interactions in order to optimise future ones. This could indeed be called “Intelligent Customer Experience”.

This customer-centred approach simultaneously demonstrates the numbers needed to justify spend, while focusing on providing the best possible customer experience, particularly in terms of personalisation, efficiency and simplicity.

Translating events online

Does every brand event need to translate online? In a word: no. Every brand event won’t translate online, nor should it. Digital experiences sometimes miss the random factor, those magic moments that spontaneously occur in real life.

Some experiences need people to be there to touch or taste something, and there will always be Big Reveal moments when people will just want to be in the room where it happens.

Instead of trying to recreate that, digital experiences should add an additional layer of interaction or a new dimension. What would excite, surprise or engage consumers? Where can a brand take them that they haven’t been before? Is that an intimate moment or a dramatic global event?

Immersive experiences are the new frontier in brand experience; they require a more thoughtful and engaging approach but ultimately can achieve better results. Multi-faceted campaigns that combine virtual and augmented reality with real-life opportunities help bring consumers close to brands and, ultimately, products.

The launch of the new Land Rover Defender last September culminated in a dramatic reveal at the Frankfurt Motor Show. This multifaceted campaign combined a global film launch, a cutting-edge VR experience and an augmented reality app that enabled customers to visualise the interior and exterior of the vehicle.

This event created multiple opportunities for consumers to interact with a new product. If we believe that experiences change how people feel, think and act, then we must understand that technology has the power to enable new types of experience.

Experiential is an active form of marketing that consumers chose to engage with for far longer than other channels.

The changing role of bespoke content and tech platforms

Social media has long blurred the lines between real and virtual experiences. Now that some also feature a broadcast mechanic, such as Facebook Live, brands are to reach more people with both real and virtual experiences.

Nowhere is this demonstrated better than in China, where Tencent’s WeChat has driven widespread adoption through QR codes that offer incentives in return for data. Combined with data from WeChat pay, it can collect more data on who people are, what they are buying and their other online behaviours.

This data is being used to create physical brand experiences and services. It is fuelling pop-up ‘moments’ that people use to develop personalised user-generated content designed to be shared, via QR code, of course. It is informing retail theatre and inspiring some Chinese luxury brands to even go fully offline to create ultra-exclusive events for customers.

While there has been an insatiable demand for authentic, offline experiences, the current coronavirus epidemic is now forcing a complete shift in what it means to be social. All generations are poised to become better acquainted with all the features available.

Brands can take on the role of broadcasters, with content platforms enabling them to broadcast their own stories and decide for themselves what is newsworthy. We would expect Facebook Portal to continue to have a huge take up given the current world status.

There is vast potential in this space, although it is still developing with lots of experimentation going on. The future will see more virtual events broadcasting to a broad audience, many of whom would or could not have attended a live experience.

Shifting consumer attitudes

Big live moments have the ability to cut through a fragmented media landscape. It’s easier to control the story, and cascade back across multiple channels from social to mainstream media.

There is an ever-increasing demand for live events that are immersive, tech-enabled, intimate and exclusive. Brands seeking to connect with consumers this way must be led by data as we have seen in China.

It is human nature to want to be tactile; it is why we still like to visit physical stores to touch before we buy, but we also love to take part. Events that can offer a fully immersive experience, for example, giving people a role to play, cannot be achieved online.

Imaginarium Studios, founded by Lord of the Rings actor Andy Serkis, is set to revolutionise theatre by using tech to recreate performances in people’s own home. The 3D avatars of actors, which can be viewed from different angles, can be life-size or shrunk down to a few inches.

We will be able to create an intimate and exclusive performance in our own home, downloaded in the same way we currently buy films. It is the equivalent of the exclusive gigs by musicians, singers and comedians, many of whom tour regularly and distribute content widely online, are so coveted.

A compelling brand ecosystem will always involve real-life experiences, but it should have an armoury of digital tools to create blended events that take audiences to the next level.

‘Digital experience’

While physical experiences are very human, very emotional, digital is simply a tool. Irrespective of how you engage with audiences, the most important element in earning your audience's attention is in the craft of your storytelling. With a great story as a foundation, technology is then a brilliant enabler to engage and reach people on a personal, relevant level, at scale. It builds on our human capability. It’s a superpower if you will.

Working with Vodafone Business, we created a 5G-enabled mixed reality experience for VIP guests at the Wasps Vs London Irish Gallagher Premiership rugby game. Guests received exclusive content from 360-degree cameras located in the tunnel, dugout and South Stand, which is closed to fans.

Accessed via an app on the Samsung Note 10+, the footage was streamed to seats in real-time, and fans could switch between three cameras. The seats were located beneath the Director’s Box, guests could access a home screen or order food and drinks, update social media and check live games stats.

The brands that are leading the way on digital experiences are those that understand both digital mechanics and human experience. Think Netflix, which has an excellent core entertainment service and personalised communications and extends into “analogue” experiences for big shows such as Black Mirror.

These experiences tap into how people behave, offering them the tools they need to enhance that experience. EE achieved this with the launch of 5G, which used an intimate Bastille gig, albeit in a train station. They not only used AR glasses to augment and visually enhance the live performance for people at the gig, but they also extended the audience by livestreaming to train stations around the country.

Any experience should delight its audience, deepen a brand’s relationship with them and deliver returns. A compelling brand ecosystem will always involve real-life experiences, but it should have an armoury of digital tools to create blended events that take audiences to the next level.