The new normal, and the virtualisation of events

This post is sponsored by Clearwater Communications.

Clearwater Communications (CwC) is an award-winning boutique, event marketing and management agency. Based out of Hong Kong and Singapore, Clearwater Communications works with world-class clients on their internal and external brand activations, campaigns and events – online to offline – in Hong Kong, Singapore, throughout Asia, and in the virtual space.  

With expertise in marketing, Clearwater Communications and its passionate team of event experts reimagine events and brand experiences – offline to online – to increase impact, influence, accelerate conversions and deliver measurable and effective results for their long-term global clients.  

Like for most event management agencies, COVID-19 and the global pandemic has forced Clearwater Communications to pivot, evolve, reinvent, adapt and reimagine live events into virtual experiences.

In a Q&A with MARKETING-INTERACTIVE, Lesley Renton (pictured), director of sales and marketing at Clearwater Communications, shares some observations and insights on the virtualisation of events; viewpoints on how to create unforgettable, engaging, more experiential and effective virtual events and experiences; and envisions some exciting future changes in the event industry.

How is CwC different from other event companies and how has CwC evolved in light of COVID?

We work with our world-class clients to create, plan and execute their activations, campaigns and events – online to offline. While we are small and boutique, our projects are large scale, like our ambition. Clearwater Communications is proud to be Marketing Events Awards’ X3 winners, recognised for our work with William Reed Business Media for The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, and DHL Express for DHL: AsiaCup.

We are differentiated by our hyper client-centric approach and our quality focus. With every brief, our approach is to reimagine events, activations and campaigns to make them more effective and impactful. This approach delivers 90% client retention. The passion, dedication and trust of our team also sets us apart in the eyes of our clients. These differentiators help us co-create brand experiences with our clients to engage our audiences and achieve extraordinary business impact and results.

2020 has been a challenging and disrupted year for the live event industry and ourselves. We saw our high growth pipeline of won pitches get cancelled or postponed due to COVID. The Clearwater Communications team has pivoted from live to virtual and hybrid events to support the business needs of our clients.

We have formed new vendor and platform partnerships, learned new virtual event tools and the new rules for virtual success. We have upskilled and found new ways to reimagine virtual events to make them more effective and experiential. We have also expanded to a full-service offer which includes marketing services solutions to strengthen our resilience.

How has COVID changed the face of live events?

COVID-19 has forced a lot of change and innovation on the slow-to-evolve live event industry. Event professionals have embraced change like never before, pivoting literally overnight from live, to a digital-first event world. COVID-19 has disrupted us, and forced us to innovate and adapt, pushing event professionals to new levels of creativity, upskilling and problem solving to deliver unforgettable virtual experiences, with high interaction and engagement.

The rapid digital transformation of our industry has introduced new engagement techniques, new brand touch-points and new virtual and hybrid experience formats.  

Virtual events have made event programming 100% trackable, so we can see every delegate’s digital body language. These data insights gauge event engagement, successes, failures, and allow event organisers to improve future event programming and content creation.

Virtual has shifted event marketing from a venue-led, limited audience capacity of in-person participants to an amplified, global audience of virtual attendees who experience events through live-stream or on-demand multi-media, evergreen content, long after the event has ended. This has changed our mindset as event organisers and content creators.

Is it possible for any event to be virtualised?

COVID-19 has taught us that the show must go on … line, and showed us that any event can be virtualised.  

If the iconic, counter-culture and deeply experiential “Burning Man”, USA - an ultimate virtual challenge event case- can be successfully virtualised, with the most participants ever (albeit virtual versus in person) attending globally, we think it’s possible to virtualise any event.  

What’s the secret of transforming an established live event such as Burning Man into a virtual event? The answer is brand and experience authenticity.  

When Burning Man, the world’s largest off-grid event, moved into the virtual grid, it retained the authentic spirit and experience essence Burning Man evokes, with its camps, art installations, 70 sound stages, real-time workshops and the energy, connection and style of its live event.  

“Virtual burners” appeared as 3D avatars exploring the virtual experience with their phones and laptops, or enhancing their immersive virtual Burning Man experience with VR headsets.

How can we make virtual events more engaging, immersive and experiential?

In the “new normal”, because virtual events will remain a permanent part of an event strategy, we must continue to transform virtual events into unforgettable virtual experiences, which participants look forward to and find value within.  

If we improve virtual event quality, we can overcome the virtual event pain points of shorter audience attention and retention, and lower emotional engagement.  Virtual events also need to be less passive to earn audience engagement, attention, connection, conversion and action.  

As virtual events grow in current client preference, size and budget we need to reimagine virtual to be more experiential and effective using:

  • Pre-event multi-channel marketing to raise delegates’ anticipation to ensure attendance.
    (Post-event marketing (often neglected) should use data insights and relevant content to drive value, relationship and conversion long term).
  • Structured programming and shorter programme slots – each with a clear purpose and a CTA.
  • Multiple charismatic speakers and global contributors versus a few keynote speakers.
  • Quality brand narrative and storytelling through multisensory, multimedia content.
  • Personalised content curated for each delegate based on pre-captured preferences.
  • Better brand aesthetics and multisensory virtual event design to create an experiential mood.  
  • Experiential kits sent to delegates in advance containing event tech such as VR headsets, and compelling event materials.
  • Locally curated and event-themed F&B delivered to every delegate.
  • Make virtual more sociable with virtual receptions, happy hours, networking intervals, social walls, virtual photo and video booths.
  • Instant, digital, lucky draw prizes redeemable locally to hold attention.
  • Maximise audience engagement activities with Q&A, virtual live chats, gamification and branded games, surveys, social stories, social integration, CRM, and polls to gauge buying intention and for lead generation.
  • Improved business matchmaking and virtual networking to create long-term connected digital communities.
  • Advance delegate onboarding, support and tutorials with help-desk support.
  • Network stability, reliability and data security.

What will be the changes for events in 2021 and beyond?

When live events return, delegates will need to be convinced of the relative value-add of the live event experience which they need to travel to versus a more convenient, time-optimised virtual event. This will be the key challenge for event organisers to overcome in 2021.

Live events will need to be reimagined to a brand new medium and will be one key component of an integrated marketing campaign. Events’ integration with digital-led marketing will allow interactions across multiple platforms, at different times, in different ways and in global geographies.

Live events can win back attendees lost to the virtual event utopia through next-generation, event-tech innovation such as 5G, AI, chatbots, quantum, personalised content and strategic partnerships which enhance live experiences.

While the show had to go on… line in 2020, the Clearwater Communications team believes there is no substitute for the energy, creativity, excitement and human connection achieved through large-scale, live event experiences which ignite all five senses and create an unforgettable, collective and shared experience. 

Click here for more information on Clearwater Communications.