Paul Soseman is the founder and CEO of Department Zero, an experiential marketing agency based in Kansas City, Missouri.
Experiential marketing events are slowly making their way back into our lives. This is a good thing, provided that the events are well-planned and adhere to local health and safety guidelines. The best experiential marketing activations are the safest ones. Although it might seem difficult, there are ways to ensure your COVID-19 brand activations and experiential marketing provide a healthy balance of safe and fun.
Of course, not all events can balance safety with celebration. Over the summer, when people were tired of staying at home and missing out, the Chainsmokers decided to attempt to host a live concert, complete with health and safety precautions to keep the risk of COVID-19 transmission low. That didn’t exactly happen, though — and it’s not entirely the fault of the event coordinators.
The drive-in concert fundraiser, dubbed “Safe & Sound,” took place on a 100-acre plot of land. Attendees were instructed to park their cars and remain within their own 20-by-20-foot sections, only leaving the space to use the restroom. The Chainsmokers are known for popular dance music, and many attendees decided to leave their designated areas and move closer to the stage, where social distancing was not enforced — and mask-wearers were in the minority. Whoops.
Unfortunately, quite a few events during the pandemic have ended up being superspreaders. Weddings, rallies and political gatherings have all caused widespread infections in recent months.
One group taking the right approach to events, though? Brands. South by Southwest, a festival hosting major tech companies and artists, was quickly called off in early 2020 as officials in Austin, Texas, declared a local disaster and said it would be impossible to host the gathering safely. Without time to put safety plans in place and completely reimagine the way the festival would be held, it wasn’t possible to let people from all over gather. Later in the year, Samsung had to adapt its Halloween campaign and pivot from a live event to one that worked only with select families.
Both of these brands were smart in heeding COVID restrictions to guarantee the safety of everyone involved — and to ensure their creations didn’t end up being super-spreader events.
Needless to say, if you plan to have an event in the coming months, even the best safety guidance isn’t enough. Humans are human and will sometimes break the rules. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to host an event, it just has to be done right!
In the middle of a pandemic, a few essential lessons from these struggles can save your brand activations and experiential marketing efforts from becoming the center of attention in less-than-positive ways. Here are three things to keep in mind as we await widespread vaccine distribution and slowly, smartly start to bring events back to life:
1. It’s difficult to plan for the human element.
Events can’t just convert to a virtual format and call it a day, which means you have to develop creative experiential marketing ideas. Keep this in mind when planning your event, and consider every possible outcome for your activation. Then go back and think about it some more. Having a plan in your back pocket for how you’ll handle every crisis will prove invaluable when a problem arises.
2. Make your experiential marketing activation guidelines airtight.
Like the Chainsmokers concert, anyone hosting a drive-in concert should consider whether attendees might easily be able to leave their designated areas without being stopped by event staff. Are the guidelines clearly stated? Are there courses of action you can take when individuals choose to ignore them?
Once an event gets out of hand, it’s hard to get it back on track. Make sure that every aspect of your activation is airtight. This means creating guidelines and setting up your physical event space in a way that keeps your audience enjoying the experience without jeopardizing anyone’s health.
3. Theory is not the same as practice.
While it might seem safe to assume that everyone knows there is a pandemic, that’s not an assumption you can make when planning your event. Some attendees might be incredibly careful about the surfaces they touch, while others might refuse to wear a mask. It’s important to plan your activation according to local health and safety regulations, going above and beyond to ensure that attendees don’t push your event past the point of no return.
For in-person brand activations and experiential marketing to return as they once were, organizers must plan and coordinate completely safe experiences for everyone involved. While it might be difficult, putting on the best experiential marketing activations means planning for the human element. This is the best way to protect and bolster the future of experiential marketing.
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