As 2020 comes to an end, we have gained some distance from the initial shock of the pandemic. We are no longer being battered by a tsunami of disruption, instead, we are finally beginning to see and understand the second-order effects of Covid-19. It’s not just the economy, healthcare, government, education or industries that are changing, humanity is being transformed. The pandemic is much more than the portent for a digitally transformed world, it is the beginning of a new age.
Virtual events are just one part of a second-order change that is impacting human behaviour and consumption. In a time of forced isolation and social distancing, the virtual world became the logical and in many instances the only space to safely engage and interact. What started as a reaction to the limitations imposed by the pandemic has fast evolved into a practice that is constantly keeping pace with rapidly changing human behaviour.
The continued relevance of virtual experiences and their evolution will be greatly influenced by this changing consumer behaviour. How we choose to engage and the nature of experiences has already seen a dramatic transformation this past year. Many of these changes are transitionary, but many are here to stay.
Jagdish N. Sheth, professor of Business at the Goizueta Business School at Emory University makes some great observations in his paper on Covid-19 and consumer behaviour. In his paper, Sheth discusses the impacts of modified habits and new habits in relation to the pandemic.
According to Sheth modified habits are more likely to be seen in the services industries especially in personal services such as beauty parlours, physical therapies, and fitness. Live experiences like visiting museums, parks, recreation centres, concerts and social events will also see the emergence of modified habits because of health and safety concerns.
On the other hand, new habits will be formed in areas where there is a distinct change in public policy. Air travel for instance has seen new health and safety protocols being enforced, these significantly alter the experience as we have known it. Technology is also a major driver of new habits. The pandemic has seen the mass adoption of technology across geographies and sectors resulting in new habits. Consumer behaviour in areas as diverse as education, entertainment, communication and finance have seen seismic shifts in the past nine months.
As consumer behaviour and habits change, so will the way we engage with them. The virtual experience finds itself at the crossroads of modified habits and new habits. In the months to come, as normalcy slowly returns we will see a revival of live experiences, however, these will be tempered with caution and will have to be mindful of the modified consumer behaviour. This will create the evolved experience which will be hybrid, phygital or omnichannel in nature. Experiences will leverage the power of technology to be accessible across touchpoints. These hybrid events will allow brands and experiential marketers to create safe live engagements that follow health and safety protocols and at the same time also have the scale to reach a larger number of people. More importantly, hybrid events will also give the consumer the choice to engage in the real world or the virtual world. In doing so these experiences will create a more engaged relationship between brands and consumers.
The pure play virtual experience will continue to grow in 2021 and beyond. They will no longer be a substitute for live experiences, instead, they will create incremental opportunities in experiential marketing. The digital transformation of brands and consumers has opened the floodgates of possibility and we will see virtual experiences unite omnichannel commerce. With 5G just around the corners the digital transformation is far from over. We will finally begin to see the adoption of AR, VR and MR at scale and this will have a profound impact on virtual experiences and their ability to influence conversion and drive commerce.
Virtual experiences as we know them are just getting real.