Do you think things will go back to normal in 2021? Dozens of clients have asked this question as we’ve moved into Q4. 

My answer: I hope not. 

This probably comes as a surprise from someone who has spent the last 20 years producing in-person events. 

Don’t misunderstand me: I deeply believe there is nothing that can replace the power of an in-person experience–hearing an artist live, being in a room full of industry colleagues, walking the streets of a major festival. Like many of you, I cannot wait for those moments to become realities again. 

But if you know where to look, you’ll find there are some really amazing things happening right now. This is an incredible opportunity to pause, press the reset button and reevaluate what your organization is doing to engage key stakeholders. I believe the outcome will be a more nuanced and versatile experiential mix, leading to more scalable, cost effective programs, helping to build longer lasting, more impactful relationships. 

Events as we know them are unlikely to return in 2021…and that may be a good thing. We can do better. If the challenge of 2020 was how to continue to engage stakeholders in the first place, the quandary of 2021 will be how to take the baton and create the kind of remote experiences that go beyond the surface level to strategically and creatively build the meaningful relationships we’ve long relied upon live events to foster. 

Many of the same clients asking what I think will happen in 2021 are simultaneously sharing some very interesting updates of their own.

  1. Engagement is way up. For many, attendance is way up. One client told me their virtual events are garnering 25x the attendees that their in-person events used to, bringing in a whole new audience and increased attention to their organization. As organizers have prioritized producing accessible virtual content, the barriers to engaging—namely time and expense—have greatly decreased. Lo and behold, many organizations are gaining followers and loyalists faster than ever before.
  2. The “we do it every year” excuse is dead. A client who partnered with ADVOC8 to survey attendees about the efficacy of their annual event, to their surprise, found that a majority of attendees believed the event had lost its value, but kept attending because it felt compulsory. Organizations and audiences settle into routines, but now that “what we did last year” is temporarily impossible, many are finding they have the buy-in they need to reinvent for the better. One of our core values at ADVOC8 is to “level up.” It requires us to constantly be evaluating what is and isn’t working for our clients and ourselves, then having the fortitude to push hard in order to improve. This is a level-up moment for our entire industry.
  3. As experiences scale, ROI can increase exponentially. Though in-person experiences can often reach deeper, some of the thoughtful and more frequent programming happening now is reaching much further and wider. Many of our clients are finding that they’re able to create very meaningful touch points for a fraction of the expense of building multi-day experiences that cost seven figures and end up in the recycling bin a week later. It turns out that half the budget doesn’t mean half the impact. This is not to say that these alternative experiences are necessarily half the budget; as I’ll address below, a lot goes into producing moments that effectively build meaningful relationships, sans the ability to gather. I have been surprised how much bang organizations have gotten for their bucks with live events no longer arrows in their quivers.

My point is not that live events are not an essential part of building deep relationships. The reason we continue to produce day-long events that take months to plan and enormous budgets is because they’re the most impactful way to build relationships, despite their inherent inefficiencies. For all their impact, they’re equally difficult to scale. Almost all in-person brand experiences are one-offs, you have to be there to truly participate. And because they’re also incredibly demanding to execute, often they can happen only at several select times and locations throughout the course of a year. This is a truth we have always accepted as necessary.

A future that leverages and prioritizes the experiential scalability we’ve learned to achieve during this time combined with the power of in-person experiences when they return, will usher in a whole new level of engagement. These are just some of the high points we’ve heard over the past few months.

Despite the many success stories from brands navigating the last nine months, one unavoidable and inevitable fact seems to span everyone with audience/stakeholder engagement goals: Organizations are finding that deep relationships are harder to build, foster, and grow.

As this year comes to an end, smart organizations planning for 2021 are taking the best practices from 2020 and asking, “how can we build deeper and more meaningful relationships next year?” Long before event venues closed and gatherings were prohibited, ADVOC8’s mission was to build better relationships through meaningful experiences. We’ve always believed that the most impactful way to build relationships with key stakeholders is through shared experiences. 

Events aren’t happening right now, but experiences still are. We just have to think about them a little bit differently, and at ADVOC8, we’re partnering closely with many major brands, trade associations and nonprofits to do just that.

So how do we bridge this gap? How do we capitalize on this moment of reckoning to create more meaningful and valuable experiences, and to build deeper relationships in 2021 and beyond?

  1. Start with why. Now is the time to do it. This is an amazing opportunity to pause and reevaluate the strategy behind what you’re doing to engage your target audiences, and whether it’s actually working. Don’t spend your days wondering when events will come back, instead ask why you are engaging people the way you are in the first place. Don’t focus on the tactic (an event for instance), focus on the problem (perhaps how to build your brand’s reputation within a community, when you can’t meet in person). Is what you’re doing really working? Is it cost effective? Is it valuable to your audience? Is there a smarter way to achieve the same goals? Could your outcome be far greater if you forever shifted the way you used to do things? This is an incredible time to reframe your offerings and approach. Your audience will not only give you the latitude you need to do it, they expect you’re using this time to do it.
  2. Events and experiences are no longer online OR offline. Just as we used to think of online news as different from newspapers and broadcast TV, in the years following the financial collapse they became one and the same. Until now there have been physical events with digital extensions and digital events with physical extensions, but rarely do experiences cater to both mediums equally. The future has to be about creating a way for people attending events virtually to truly experience that which is happening in person for others. An experience has to be both online and offline, and equally useful, immersive and memorable in both places.
  3. Program, platform, production. We all have formulas we use to produce events and experiences. You cannot just take the in-person approach to an online format and expect the same results. There are so many examples of incredible relationship-building happening this year, even in the absence of in-person experiences. We need to rethink how we are using people’s time, the makeup of the platforms we’re meeting on, and the production value we’re bringing to virtual meetings. One needs not to travel across the country to sit in a giant ballroom to hear a presentation, unless the speaker is a huge draw. There are plenty of ways people can demo products without necessarily “going there.” If it feels like virtual meetings aren’t leading to valuable relationship development, it’s almost certainly because we’re trying to do it the same old way. Real and meaningful relationships are absolutely possible without in-person events, for the event’s program, the design and capabilities of its platform, as well as its production value, need to be reconfigured to achieve this outcome.
  4. Frequency is your friend. In-person events can get away with popping up sporadically, since they can pack so much deep value into one unique experience, creating deep relationships with attendees in one fell swoop. Unlike in-person events, remote experiences reach audiences where they are, lowering the barriers to participation and often resulting in increased attendance. The problem? They’re often not as impactful nor potent. That just means you need more of them to achieve the same result. This next era will be defined not by the power of one unforgettable experience, but rather a consistent cadence of many smaller moments coming together in an immersive orchestral symphony in the form of a kit sent to a home, a virtual event series, a small and socially distanced activation.

As we’ve navigated this moment of transition in 2020, we’ve seen that fewer big moments have existed for people to build truly lasting relationships with one another, with brands and with big ideas. 

Shared experiences are the solution, but it takes a different toolkit to create them now. The answers lie in refocusing on strategy, leveraging untraditional creative tactics, and rethinking your approach—from frequency, innovative platforms and multi-pronged creative executions.

This time has been extremely challenging for so many. I believe the outcome on the other side will lead to events and experiences that are more impactful, memorable and useful. I believe there will be a new normal that is more flexible, personalized, nimble and focused on user experience that leads to off-the-charts experiential engagement and results in deeper connections. 

As a founder of an experiential agency, standing in front of the TV the day SXSW was cancelled was a little like standing on the beach watching a tsunami approach; however, I have been incredibly encouraged and energized by what I’ve seen in the months to follow. 

If we open our minds to the possibilities of the new normal, rather than wondering when the status quo is coming back, we will be rewarded with a larger, more engaged audience, and more loyalty to our brands and organizations.

The question should not be when normal will come back, but how as creative communicators we can reinvent what normal looks like in the first place.