Virtual Experiential Marketing is a marketing strategy that directly involves your customers to try and experience your brand firsthand digitally or virtually. Engaging the stakeholders through interactive experiences creates a lasting impression and emotional bond and attachment with your customers, hence allowing them to differentiate your brand, product, or service among any others in the market and influence future purchases.
With the increasing demand for innovation and change, experiential marketing has also evolved from its traditional face-to-face interaction and connection. Virtual Experiential Marketing, or Digital Experiential Marketing, as the name implies, allows the consumers to experience the brand virtually. With online experiential marketing, the stakeholders are now engaged wherever they are, even not face-to-face, for as long as they have their devices and internet connection.
With experiential marketing, brands can easily entice, engage, and educate their customers. No matter the platform, either traditional experiential marketing or digital experiential marketing, the experiences created from these form part of the stakeholders’ real and tangible experiences that make them more connected to the brand on a personal level.
While traditional marketing, or the use of advertising in different mediums, has proven to be effective at some point, experiential marketing has gone a long way to prove that it has more potential to reach customers nowadays. Consumers respond more to what they can experience firsthand, coupled with the lasting impact and greater influence it has on future purchases. While offline experiential marketing usually relies on the word of mouth to spread the efficacy of the branded experience, online experiential marketing does more than that. Once a virtual experiential marketing campaign goes viral on the internet, more people will have access to see it, feel it, and experience it, albeit virtually.
Consumers resonate more with the offline or digital experiential marketing efforts because they experience personal interactions that allow them to get to know the brand, its stance and advocacy, and the people behind it. Through these strategies, a personalized engagement (that is a real human connection, not just some ads seen on TV) between the brand and its consumers has been formed. This speaks volumes because 84% of customers want to be treated as a person, not just a number or statistic in their business.
Customers can also have that personalized engagement through the brand stories that resonate with them. The stories evoke positive emotions that will help the brand leave a lasting impression. According to a Limelight survey, digital content has a great influence on the consumers’ decision-making process. 62% consumer video content, 59% consumer blogs, 65% consumes case studies, and 63% consumers white papers (for B2B sector). The survey also shows that 65% of marketers see direct sales boost from experiential marketing, while 60% of them plan to increase their spending in event and experiential marketing. In a nutshell, effective experiential content marketing uses can stir optimistic values and emotions thus creating lasting memories and transforming consumers into loyal ambassadors.
Some of the most proven and tested examples of traditional experiential marketing – that is the one conducted face-to-face- are event tours, booths and pop-ups, workshops, brand activations, samplings or demos, festivals, and awards, among others. These happen in real-time and involve the participation of the target consumers. Popular online streaming platform Netflix has done a successful experiential marketing campaign for the long-awaited premiere of “Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life”. To create buzz and excitement among viewers, the Netflix team has created 200 pop-up Luke’s Diners within the United States to serve complimentary coffee to fans. It has received positive feedback, with long queues from excited fans at every location and high social engagement.
An effective experiential marketing campaign and activity engage the customer’s many senses as possible. It allows them to be immersed in a sensory experience that entails more than just one of their senses. Every detail must be considered – the color, look, and size of the booth, the music or sound to be used, an experience that will be ingrained in their memory. These are all vital to properly ‘set the tone for the relationship between the consumer and the brand’.
With the difficulties and challenges presented during this unprecedented period, the practice of traditional experiential marketing has evolved into different forms - virtual experiential marketing, VR (virtual reality), and AR (augmented reality) marketing, to name a few. In the era of social distancing and limited spaces, the most common experiential marketing activities like live events and gatherings have become close to non-existent.
Since the onset of the pandemic in early 2020, most companies who are largely dependent on in-person experiences to attract and engage consumers have found themselves pivoting and changing their course to keep their businesses afloat. The sudden and challenging shift to virtual experiences paved the way for brands to explore their creativity and realize the potential of digital experiential marketing and virtual event marketing.
While some brands and companies have already started exploring the definitive ways of attracting and engaging customers online, the persistence of the pandemic has accelerated this endeavor. In England, it has been estimated that 400,000 people in the event sector have been laid off during the Covid-19 crisis. The peak of the pandemic, especially in 2020, meant that all events and face-to-face interactions were canceled or postponed, with no definite date of resumption. Many businesses have found their space online and began to push their boundaries and tap the potential of different yet engaging digital formats. A recent report has also shown that the use of virtual events has increased by 1000% since the pandemic.
Most companies are at the forefront of an experiential marketing revolution where they design, enhance, and execute a wide variety of virtual experiences. Online platforms are widely utilized and avenues with great potential are tapped to continue generating meaningful connections with the customers. Reimaging new ways of conducting physical events and connecting with people in new, safe, and meaningful ways have brought us several curated engaging community conversations on various platforms, interactive digital adventures using QR codes, VR and AR marketing, custom microsites, among others. A Businesswire report shows that the AR market growth is driven by the increasing demand for AR devices and applications in healthcare, rising investments in the AR market, and growing demand for AR in retail and e-commerce sectors due to COVID-19, while the VR market growth is pushed by the availability of VR devices, advancement of technologies and growing digitization, and high investments in the VR market.
Just like in traditional experiential marketing where you interact with people personally, virtual experiential marketing also requires brands to design experiences that resonate with the values that people uphold, only that it is done digitally and has the capacity to reach a much wider audience. Consumer behavior is also a great factor in reinventing brand experiences. Their thoughts, emotions, and attitude towards the environment they thrive in play a major role in realigning the experiential marketing strategies in the new normal.
The offline and online experiential marketing experiences are also connected in some ways. A study has shown that 98% of people who attended a well-executed live event generate more digital content. Their experiences are shared online, thereby unofficially making them ambassadors for the brand. Finding the brand’s space from offline to online requires the utilization of various technological offerings. Existing online platforms and live broadcast solutions, like that of Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, and even TikTok, offer avenues for greater reach and a plethora of possibilities of targeting other segmented publics.
Instead of having face-to-face interaction or spending more time in front of a screen, some brands also choose a doorstep experience, which is also a highly targeted way to have your brand interact with your consumers. During this pandemic, some brands have partnered with home delivery services to send out custom packs for a more fulsome brand experience. These include some sample products and other elements of the brand that they can enjoy and experience at home.
Some of the brands and companies have also overlaid CSR components to this experience by targeting a select group of people to deliver donations or gifts. They send out thank-you kits and gifts and sample packs to frontline health care workers, making sure that they also include hashtags and encourage social sharing to further amplify their campaigns and support their brand cause.
Since most of the experiential marketing activities these days are inspired to be conducted virtually, some brands take advantage of the available resources to shift customer experience digitally. A real-life future retail concept store in Central London, The Drum’s CornerShop pioneers the simplification of customers’ shopping experience and makes it more of an intuitive process. Their virtual changing room allows consumers to virtually try on items they can purchase through artificial intelligence (AI) and augmented reality technology. It allows the customers to do the fitting on their own personal space, taking into consideration the limited changing room spaces in retail stores these days.
The following are some of the digital experiential marketing examples:
As previously mentioned, the Drum Lab’s CornerShop in Central London has showcased the future of retail by marrying the concept of having physical and virtual stores, with the great utilization of technological solutions to address the consumers’ growing demands and requirements.
An experimental retail space in London, the CornerShop has been designed and built to champion the value of personalized and purposeful in-store experience all while showcasing the latest in smart and touchless retail technology. One of the highlights of the omnichannel approach is the ability to try on fashion products virtually. Entering the physical store requires your mobile phones to act as the remote control, syncing them up via the instore app so they can have their experiences tailored to their interests and preferences.
Another approach a brand can utilize is creating an AR game to engage more of their targeted consumers. Inditex, the owner of retail brand Pull & Bear has launched the Pacific Game. Designed in collaboration with Facebook’s Creative Shop, the game involves a virtual trip from California to Tokyo while moving their heads to dodge obstacles and collect points along the way. The game is available to play through Instagram and Facebook, as well as the retailer’s website. While some luxury fashion retailers have also expanded into the gaming market, this is the first time a more affordable brand conducts it with an aim of a higher reach for the 90% of Generation Z who are also gamers.
Retailers have also invested heavily in augmented reality since the start of the pandemic. Wayfair, a furniture retailer, has also explored AR and VR digital marketing with the release of an enhanced version of its ‘View in Room’ app. It uses LiDAR technology to combine enhanced utility and heightened delight when shopping for products for the home. On top of the LiDAR, Wayfair has also added RealityKit to give users a more realistic and authentic view, allowing them to view products cast in an accurate lighting (based on real-time).
Qlik, a business analytics platform headquartered in Pennsylvania, United States, has pivoted to doing virtual conferences to continue engaging with their stakeholders. Their annual conference, Qlik World, has been reimagined as QlikWorld Online. This virtual conference allows people from all over the world to participate virtually by joining digital breakthrough sessions and keynote speeches. Using VR and AR marketing, stakeholders are also able to engage and interact with peers one by one or by group. The high turnout of attendees and social engagement indicate the success of virtual events like this.
Brands are now compelled more than ever to be creative with their online retailing. Aside from virtual stores or tours, most brands have also pivoted to incorporating video shopping to replicate the in-store customer experience. Luxury brands like Gucci, Valentino, and Prada have adapted both the personal shopping assistance and live shopping events billed as “Trunk Shows”. Vogue Business has earlier noted that this type of virtual retailing has a massive market ($4.4 billion) in China and live streaming eCommerce platforms have ultimately become necessary tools for brands to continue flourishing amidst the restrictions of in-person shopping.
The Starbucks Holiyay Filter was launched in 2019 and it quickly drew the attention of avid fans and coffee drinkers of the popular store chain. Patrons were able to enjoy their four limited-edition cup designs and witness it come to life with its augmented reality (AR) filter on Instagram. The holiday-themed AR effects using Facebook’s Spark AR platform include new camera vision technology that lets the camera identify which of the four cups it is looking at to trigger the correct effect.
The McDonald’s Pick ‘n’ Play interactive billboard installed in Stockholm, Sweden has engaged and encouraged customers outdoors to grab a bite or two at McDonald’s. To do so, they installed a billboard that can connect with the users’ smartphones without any downloads. They are then prompted to pick their favorite McDonald’s snack, play a game of ping-pong using their phone as the controller, and get a coupon that’s automatically sent to their phone which allows them to get a snack for free if they win.
As with any other type of marketing strategy, virtual experiential marketing has some best practices that can guide marketers and brands to execute campaigns effectively.
The following are some of the best practices to consider in creating experiences that elevate the impact and increase the brand’s performance.
Before you design the strategies for your digital experiential marketing activity, it is vital to consider the factors that will make it successful. Identifying your goals keeps you on track throughout the planning process and helps you assess the overall success of your event or activity. The goals and outcomes for this are directly anchored to the overall business goals, like increasing traffic on your social platforms and website (20% increase in followers and social engagement after an event or activity), increasing sales leads from a particular segment of your market (30% sales conversion rate from the attendees of your virtual event), and driving awareness and brand recognition (product searches, mentions, and follows after an online activity).
To guarantee that you are targeting the right people, it is best to do audience research to help establish the size, composition, characteristics, physical, emotional, and social needs of the group of individuals who are, or could be, your potential customers. Your virtual experiential marketing activities are aimed to influence the buyers’ journey, so you need to know and connect with them and understand how they think, behave, and live their lives.
To gain insights on your target audience, you can use three approaches to gather data: (1) demographics are the hard facts about your audience, it helps you peel back the first layer of understanding your audience - their age, sex, location, civil status, profession, educational background, social class, etc. (2) The psychographics include your audience’s beliefs, life goals, opinions, interests, attitudes, values, and lifestyle. (3) The behavioral data discuss how people use your product, how they navigate your website, their product and content consumption, and other relevant buying habits and brand preferences.
When developing content in any platform, it is vital to pique their interest as well as effectively convey the essence of the message - the same goes for the overarching message in a virtual marketing event or activity. Consider the biggest takeaway of your audience out of the virtual event or activity- what do you want them to think, feel, and how would you like them to react based on it. Once you have defined the unifying message, then build an experience that supports that message.
Aside from creating a virtual experience relevant to your target audience’s needs and desires, making it memorable ensures that the brand remains at the forefront of your audiences’ minds. The virtual experience doesn’t have to be too elaborate, but it has to have a positive association between your brand and the consumers. It needs to deliver the needs of your target audience and allow them to connect with your brand in meaningful ways.
A virtual experiential marketing activity or event is a great avenue to drive even more social engagement, both for the attendees and their networks. Develop shareable content that amplifies the message and impact of your activation, much better if it reaches even beyond the intended target audience. You may include relevant and dedicated hashtags for the audience to share their experiences on their pages and have follow-up content that they can anticipate even after the virtual experience.
At the end of a virtual event or activity, track its success by using success parameters and indicators. The outcomes should be directly aligned to the goals you have outlined in the beginning. If you are hosting a webinar, measure your outcome by looking into the turnout of participants - how many is it and did it reach your goal, of say, 10% increase of the previous webinar? You may also gauge the outcome by the social engagement and lead conversions from your website – how many have you influenced to search the brand online, follow your page, visit your website, and make an inquiry or purchase a product or service? Is it tantamount to the expected number you have defined for your goals in the beginning? You can also conduct post-event surveys or calls to determine the behavior and feedback of your customers – were they satisfied with the quality of the webinar, and what were its strong and weak points?
As challenging as it may be, the new normal has become an opportune time for brands to explore and embrace the hybrid (both physical and virtual) experience to keep up with the ever-changing consumer demands. Technological advancements have been incorporated to create meaningful experiences, while still considering the many benefits of in-store experiences. New initiatives have accommodated the needs and workaround the current restrictions, and consumers are more willing to try these.
Virtual Experiential Marketing has come a long way since before the pandemic, but there is no doubt that its importance will continue to increase given the changing trend in the market and consumer demands. The digital age (with booming technological advances and new social media platforms) takes the marketing practice by storm, and they are here to stay to adapt to the consumers’ current (and future) needs and wants.
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