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Disruption in viral form

For the past year, the coronavirus has been turning our world on its head. Rules and practices have changed radically and this is making itself felt on all levels of communication, particularly personal interaction. Working from home and video conferencing are the “new normal”. This poses a dilemma for business meetings, but above all for sales events, trade fairs and product presentations that depend on large numbers of guests coming together.

How is it possible to communicate in a way that is still personal? How can events continue to be organised and staged in such a way that they are relevant and stimulating? How can products be presented to prospective customers if presentations are not permitted because of coronavirus restrictions? This is a situation in which digital standard marketing and the structures that have evolved around it are being severely tested.

“Say goodbye to handshakes and the old way of doing business.”

Charlie Fink, AR/VR evangelist and Forbes columnist, sums it up in a nutshell. Instead of analogue and personal, we are suddenly faced with digital and virtual. What still seemed like a long way off yesterday is now here with a vengeance. Digital video conference tools like Zoom, website videos and online collaborations are nothing new, but it is only now that they are being widely used and well on their way to becoming standard.

These tools can also be used to set up digital communication channels for product presentation and staging relatively easily. However, all companies step up to challenges differently and not all products lend themselves to being presented on a digital stage.

What exactly is a digital stage anyway? Here’s an example: Apple, better known for highly choreographed live events with presenters on a stage talking to press representatives and the fan community about new products, unveiled the new iPhone 12 accompanied by nothing more than a video on its website. However, the staging of this video was highly impressive: a number of different speakers took it in turns to have their say and the scenes were blended together seamlessly with tracking shots and zoom-ins, meaning that around two hours of information were turned into an experience in feature-film quality. Afterward, viewers had the opportunity to try out the showcased products for themselves in web-based augmented reality experiences on their own smartphones – all via the website.

Another form of digital stage event was the 2020 Emmy Awards and their virtual award ceremony. The nominees were filmed in their own homes and interacted with a live studio presentation in a mixture of pre-produced clips and live sequences. Although there were no great scenes of jubilation, it did prove that the show must go on. And it worked. Essentially, it was nothing more than cleverly combined variants of normal communication tools that people use on a daily basis when working from home.

Anyone following the 2020 NBA season restart and playoffs will have noticed that the games all took place with “virtual fans” instead of real spectators. Via Microsoft Teams and the new “Together Mode” function, lots were drawn for virtual seats that showed the spectators’ webcam images on large LED walls during play. This is yet another form of participation – with the added bonus that fans might even end up appearing next to live images of actual celebrities.

These tools can also be used on a smaller scale and in other contexts to help stage digital events successfully. Here, a brand or company needs to concentrate on what is important – after all, the real challenge lies not in transforming an analogue event or sales format into a digital one, but rather in selecting the right communication focus and the right mix of content and, of course, in how it is organised. Technology is just the tool used to make this happen.

Digital and analogue events are not the same

Benchmarks in the digital world don’t correspond to their real-life counterparts. This is true of both size and execution and also with regard to internal and external expectations. Video connections and virtual participation notwithstanding, participants are ultimately alone at their computers. The spatial context of an event location is missing and, in most cases, interaction with other participants as well. This means that mistakes are more glaringly and unforgivingly obvious. While AGM participants always had the buffet to look forward to in the intermission and audience members at shows could always chat with the people next to them during slow sections and technical snafus, the online format comes with a merciless exit rate. After all, why would you spend several hours concentrating on a boring stream when you feel you could be doing something more useful at the same time?

It is a cardinal error to assume that an offline event can be transferred one-to-one to a digital format. Rather, it is a question of getting to the heart of the most important aspects. Online participants behave differently than they would at real events. Rather than a carefully paced drama, they expect a snappily staged affair, a summary of which can be clicked together quickly if necessary.

Similarly, it is rarely a good idea to transfer an event architecture one-to-one on a visual level. At the end of the day, even an expertly staged virtual reproduction – a 3D trade fair hall, for instance – is still just a copy and there will always be limits to how it is perceived. However, a small number of virtually recreated architectural elements can be used to wonderful effect – as long as they are staged with a specific objective in mind. For example, a smart alternative can be to use a deliberately exaggerated virtual representation of a fictional architecture. And while we’re at it, why not stage the kind of (brand) worlds that would be unthinkable in a real event context? When all is said and done, it’s all about keeping viewers and users entertained.

The costs and work involved don’t have the same proportions either. With digital events, costs for catering, stage-building and logistics are not likely to amount to much. At the same time, however, it would be a mistake to think that only website costs will be incurred. Depending on the type of event and how it is staged, it is necessary to factor in budgets for production and, in some cases, video feed scripting and 3D design for virtual spaces. And then there is streaming infrastructure for guaranteeing a smooth, immediate experience and, of course, conceptual design.

Self-recognition and self-examination

When raising their digital profile, companies need to ask themselves the following questions: who exactly are we? What is our essence? What is our brand message? With digital events, anyone who wants to be authentic cannot simply hide behind show interludes or celebrity presenters. And for the most part, digital events are not designed to take up the whole evening – they are significantly shortened online brand shows that very much cut to the chase. The kind of bells and whistles that are par for the course at gala dinners are not found here. And users are a tough crowd. If the broadcast is long-winded or a product presentation fails to capture their interest, their attention wanes and their staying power is tested. This means that companies and brands need to examine themselves and their structures.

Are we the brand? Are we the product?

Experience has shown that the best ambassadors for a brand or product come from the ranks of the company’s own workforce. After all, who better to extol the virtues of a product than the people who design, produce and market it, day in day out? Yes, we have seen this before with analogue events. But in times of digital perma-availability with communication and collaboration tools, production and participation is being retained more and more in-house. Which brings us to the next challenge: how digital-savvy are your employees and how flexible are your company structures? With digital events, it is immediately recognisable if, for example, the company behind the event is making heavy weather of the presentation technology.

Is live really live?

When there is no onstage programme, there is no pressure to keep to a schedule in real time either. The main advantage of an online event format is that anyone can call it up at any time. And since it is not strictly necessary for presentations to adhere to a specific timing, it is a good idea to pre-produce some or even all event sequences. Live elements can then be mixed and matched with pre-produced content. Avoiding elaborate live transmissions also helps to reduce errors and keep down production costs.

An exception to this rule are formats that call for direct and close communication. Webinars might be a good choice for digital events with a manageable number of users. This is conducive to a more personal exchange, including between the event participants themselves. Another possibility would be to start with a pre-produced main event, followed by a direct live exchange with smaller groups.

Digital event and virtual showroom

A digital event can have an additional, explorative aspect. Combining a digital event and product staging with a well-balanced mix of short video messages and interactive content helps to keep things interesting while ensuring that viewers remember what they saw.

Virtual showrooms are another possible addition that has the added advantage of fluid boundaries: once an event has taken place, users can try out the products in question. Here, the “digital” factor opens up a virtually endless volume of staging possibilities, which can also be interactive (and which can hold their own without the event part). Differentiators can include technical features that offer a whole new kind of product experience.

Thanks to advancements on the augmented reality front, users anywhere can dive into brand worlds at any time without having to wait in line or hang around in crowded spaces. Products are no longer touched by countless people before being purchased but can be discovered by prospective buyers in holographic form at their leisure and in the comfort of their own homes. And best of all: it all already works via the web, which theoretically means that anyone can access it without difficulty.

Here, one event part can transition seamlessly into the next. For instance, mobile microsite URLs can be inserted into the current stream via a QR code so users can visit them that way. While a moderator is presenting a product, users can try it out on their smartphones virtually and in 3D – in a kind of parallel AR showroom. And the holographic avatars of sales assistants could be on hand to help them. Another conceivable idea for fashion brands would be to allow users to try on clothes virtually using AR via a selfie camera on their smartphones – perhaps even with links to the online shop. Tourism locations could use AR to “teleport” users away to other destinations – without them ever having to leave their own living room.

A new opportunity for brand and event communication

Bearing all this in mind, the coronavirus crisis can therefore also be seen as an opportunity: all of the aforementioned technologies have been around for years but are only just gaining widespread acceptance now – and, in turn, demonstrating their true value for society. Digital events and virtual showrooms are a welcome addition to traditional brand and event communication. For one, they help to ensure ongoing customer proximity in the age of social distancing and unanticipated coronavirus restrictions. As well as this, the best practices that are now taking shape will, even in a post-coronavirus world, establish themselves as an equally valid part of the communication and service mix – one that is expected by users.

On closer inspection, it’s not really all that complicated. Companies will need to muster up a little courage but will find that it is well worth the effort to establish new ways of thinking and new production approaches. Those who are busy investing in digital staging now will not only be seen as innovators but will also be able to continue honing their digital edge once the coronavirus has passed.

This article first appeared in TWELVE, the Serviceplan Group’s magazine for brands, media and communication. In the seventh issue, you will find further inspiring articles, essays and interviews by and with prominent guest authors and renowned experts centred around the magazine’s theme “Rethink!”.  The e-paper is available here.

The Coronavirus crisis currently poses challenges to many areas of business, but also creates new opportunities. In the Serviceplan Group’s first live session of the webinar titled “Acting Successfully in the Corona Crisis”, Verena Letzner, Managing Director of Plan.Net NEO, presented her analysis of the effects of the crisis on social media. In her expert article, she looks at the current situation in Germany and explains what questions brands should ask themselves now, and why it is worthwhile to take a look at the situation in China.

The use of social media platforms, from Messenger and video platforms to classic social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook and others, has risen significantly. Due to the lockdown and social contact restrictions in Germany and the resulting social distancing, people increasingly use the Social Web to inform themselves, discuss and get in touch with others – including brands. This creates opportunities for brands to strengthen their market position sustainably during the crisis, however the procedure brands follow in order to do so is important. Only those brands that make a helpful contribution now will become part of the conversation and have the ability to emerge from the crisis stronger.

1. Improve people’s situation

Brands should create an offering on the Social Web that adds value to the many people who currently must stay at home. Brands can support important areas of life such as sports, health and education through their offerings, or create alternatives for activities that are restricted or completely forbidden during the lockdown phase, such as eating out together, shopping and maintaining physical social contacts.

2. Have a purpose and radiate optimism

Currently, the “Time with brands” is in a peak phase, which means that users engage more with brands on the Social Web than usual. For brands, it is important to use this time to authentically place values such as solidarity, community, care, trust and optimism at the centre of their communication, thereby increasing their brand capital in the long term.

3. Benefit from changes in media usage

Due to the withdrawal of many advertisers from the paid social sector, the advertising pressure and the competition for placements is currently decreasing. Therefore, it can be especially useful for brands to buy cheap advertising space or to get more reach for the same budget.

Five questions that brands should ask themselves now

In order to exploit the potential of social media during the Coronavirus crisis, brands now have to urgently address the question of a strong and relevant social media strategy. The following five questions provide a guideline:

  1. What role can social media play for my brand in the communication mix during the Coronavirus crisis?
  2. How do I deal with my community in times of crises?
  3. Which channels are the right ones for me?
  4. How can I establish a performance-oriented social media approach and invest my budget effectively?
  5. How do I measure my success ­– during and after the crisis?

A look towards China – Looking ahead

An interesting question is certainly what happens as soon as the lockdown in Germany eases. It is worth looking at China, where the crisis and its effects are ahead of European countries. In China, too, the social media use of various services and platforms increased significantly during the lockdown, and the personal exchange that usually takes place in shops, such as product or purchasing advice, shifted to the Social Web.

And after the lockdown phase? Social media use in China has remained high, only the daily usage time has decreased slightly again. In a survey of Chinese marketers on how they would invest budgets in the future or which fields they would use more after the crisis, most of the respondents cited the social media sector.  This shows that long-term business opportunities are seen here.