In a post-Covid-19 world, brands are quickly learning that in order to keep fans engaged they need to bring more next-level experiences to consumers’ screens. From Travis Scott’s record breaking virtual concert in Epic Games’ Fortnite, in which over 12.3 million concurrent players participated live, to Bella Thorne making over $1 million in 24-hours on OnlyFans, digital events and experiences provided a temporary stand-in to in-person interactions. Although necessity drove invention, it also presented a post-pandemic silver lining-a virtual vehicle for forward-thinking brands to expand their reach and complement IRL events. Still, skeptics and critics of “second-screen experiences” question if these record-breaking experiences can be recreated in the post-Covid-19 world.
The answer is relatively simple: continuing to think outside the box with existing—and emerging—technologies can and will yield important results when brands authentically connect with their fans.
As writer Saeed Elnaj observed in January 2021, “a lot has happened in technology and technology adoption in an incredibly compressed time and at a fast pace” (Forbes). Technology adapted at hyper-speed and fast-forwarded five years in less than 15 months. As a result, progress advanced by the pandemic is not going away anytime soon—evident as startups continue to raise millions in funds for emerging social-first event and communication platforms. Innovation tends to run with the bulls, especially when the profits are high.
Marked by intuition, a keen ability to leverage technologies, and a market that is ripe for innovation, future-focused brands have a unique opportunity to better engage with their fans, as well as build and monetize sustainable, immersive, and scalable experiences in a post-Covid-19 environment.
Here’s how to be at the forefront—and why it’s important.
Social Tech: how it started
Before there was Facebook or TikTok, Twitch or Discord, Slack or Zoom, society experienced a digital zeitgeist similar to the present day, from the 1990’s to early 2000’s. Millennials and Gen Xers will remember (and wax nostalgic over) the digital technology of yesteryear—most notably AIM, Myspace and Napster—which has been recently been resurrected along with the popular social networking alternative BlackPlanet. Globally, we turned to these new platforms well before the pandemic moved us almost entirely online.
Early brands saw how disruptive this new wave of social connection could be—and quickly began ideating ways to monetize these experiences. “Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation bought Myspace in 2005 for $580m. In 2006, Google signed a $900m deal to sell ads on Myspace; by 2007 it had 300m registered users and was being valued at $12bn” Guardian..
Parallel and complimentary to these digital social experiences, video game developers have long been at the forefront of the digital gospel—seeing explosive adoption rates among audiences. “It was the rise of the internet and mobile, however, that grew the gaming industry from tens of billions to hundreds of billions in revenue. A primer was the viability of subscription and freemium services. In 2001, Microsoft launched the Xbox Live online gaming platform for a monthly subscription fee, giving players access to multiplayer matchmaking and voice chat services, quickly becoming a must-have for consumers. Meanwhile on PCs, Blizzard was tapping into the Massive Multiplayer Online (MMO) subscription market with the 2004 release of World of Warcraft, which saw a peak of more than 14 million monthly paying subscribers” Visual Capitalist.
Created by Tim Sweeney and released through Epic Games in July 2017, Fortnite’s free-to-play model was a game changer. “This free-to-play business model set Fortnite apart from its peers and has proven to be one of the reasons for its success. In its first 10 months, it amassed an audience of 125 million players and netted $1.2 billion in revenue. When the Fortnite App launched on iPhone on April 1, 2018, it reportedly made $2 million a day from players on Apple Inc.’s (AAPL) iOS. While other games have netted $1 billion in the first year after their launch, Fortnite was the first game to generate such a massive amount of revenue as a game that is offered for free by its developer” (Investopedia).
The innovators behind the earliest platforms and video games saw—and continue to see—the potential for human connection using advanced technology, and the varied ways in which they can profit from these ideas. “Freemium” became the default model to monetize technology platforms—seen in gaming, especially this with the now ubiquitous, “in game purchase.”
But it’s not just gaming that builds upon the free-to-play and “freemium” models for user acquisition and monetization systems, as seen with free-to-use, advertising-driven social media to video and content subscription platforms. Yet the cascading effect is the same: if you build it—and let people enter free-of-charge—they will come.
With use-cases ranging from product launches and corporate trainings, to virtual conferences and classroom environments, major players in the communication technology spaces are noticing the impact of the virtual revolution. Microsoft experienced a 70% increase in MS Teams daily active users from March to April 2020 to more than 70 million daily active users (The Verge). Likewise, according to Google CEO Sundar Pichai on the company’s earnings call on April 28, 2020, “we are now adding roughly 3 million new users each day and have seen a thirty-fold increase in usage since January. There are now over 100 million daily Meet meeting participants” (Alphabet Investor Relations); and according to Zoom’s First Quarter Results for Fiscal Year 2021, the platform’s first quarter total revenue was $328.2 million—up 169% year-over-year (Zoom).
Similar to digital communication platforms, the video game industry has also experienced a surge in usage, with “COVID-19 lockdowns expected to help global gaming sales rise 20% to nearly $180 billion in 2020, and experts don’t see growth taking a hit in 2021 after release of next-gen PlayStation, Xbox” (MarketWatch).
When most of the world spent the majority of their time at home, it’s not hard to understand why there’s been an increase in digital adoption rates during the pandemic. “In the past, [virtual events] were generally viewed as a cost-effective way to hold an event, especially by organizations that doubted whether they could convince enough people to fly in from all over the country to attend an in-person event. Then came Covid-19, and suddenly virtual events look a whole lot more attractive, even to the big players” (Forbes). Yet, as the world begins to open up, we are all left wondering: is this digital boom a fad or a new fact of life?
“Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff told CNBC on Monday (June 7, 2020) 50% to 60% of employees to continue working from home. Nadella told Microsoft employees in October that the company will allow for more flexible work schedules. In a LinkedIn post in March, titled ‘The hybrid work paradox,’ Satya Nadella said employees want options to work remotely while also having more in-person collaboration” (CNBC).
As more companies adopt a hybrid model for working in a post-pandemic world, brands and investors are taking note at the potential in continued adoption of these technologies. Mass user adoption of digital technology on a global scale has led to a meteoric rise in investment capital—as leaders in the virtual and digital communication spaces are gaining interest from corporations to entrepreneurs, venture capital firms to family offices, private equity to angel investors.
For instance, Hopin has raised $565 million since February of 2020 (TechCrunch). Built by GitHub alums to combat “Zoom fatigue,” “Rewatch, which has built a set of tools for organizations to create a ‘system of record’ for their internal video archives—not just a place to ‘re-watch’ all of their older live video calls, but to search and organize information arising from those calls—has closed a $20 million round of funding” (TechCrunch). Berlin’s Wonder—a startup that “has built a platform for people to come together in video-based groups to meet up, network and collaborate, while also having a bird’s-eye view of a larger space where they can more serendipitously, or more intentionally, interact with others—not unlike in an office or other business venue—is today announcing that it has raised $11 million (€9 million) in a substantial seed round” (TechCrunch). Loom, a workplace video messaging startup, received $130 million investment and is now valued at $1.53 billion, more than quadrupling its valuation from a year ago (Bloomberg), On April 13, 2021, Epic Games “announced that it completed a $1 billion round of funding, which will allow the company to support future growth opportunities. Epic's equity valuation is now $28.7 billion.” (Epic Games). And the list goes on.
Within the past year alone, virtual events and communication platforms have amassed billions in rounds of funding, and this trend shows no signs of stopping.
According to a report by KPMG, “in the immediate wake of COVID-19, Global 2000 companies moved to slash funding for emerging technologies, such as automation, artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain, and 5G. However, many executives are optimistic emerging technology spending will likely increase in the next 12 months, as enterprises recognize COVID-19 creates a burning platform to accelerate digital transformation and stimulate long-term growth” (KPMG).
Evolve or dissolve: moving your digital strategy from 2D to 3D
After a year and a half into the pandemic, people aren’t just suffering from Zoom fatigue and digital concert overload, they are seeking experiences that provide less unilateral engagement in favor of more meaningful connection. It becomes imperative, then, to invest in the technological infrastructure for out-of-the-box digital experiences to bring value to your audience—and turn that added engagement into opportunities to monetize.
“We don’t need this crazy technology to do this, we have everything we need right now. The metaverse becoming a reality is not just gadgets it’s more about the adoption of these games by people and developers learning what elements make for really awesome online social experiences,” Tim Sweeney, CEO Epic Games (VentureBeat).
Brands can capitalize on this global phenomenon by investing in the resources and technology to provide consumers, employees, and other stakeholders with an elevated digital experience.
Here’s how to get started:
· Create a comprehensive digital strategy.
Nowadays, it’s not enough for brands to just have a digital presence. With chatbots enhancing a website experience, live broadcasts and interviews occurring on Instagram, and even dating apps like Hinge and Tinder integrating video chat into their platforms, the digital ecosystem is more elevated than years past. Think about your brand’s core strengths and why your audience continues to engage (use behavioral science and data analytics to quantify these assumptions) and then utilize members of your team—from digital marketing managers and creative directors, to interns and software engineers—to brainstorm ways to bring your brand into the future.
· Incorporate a hybrid model.
A traditional in-person event evolved to a digital conference on Zoom or Hangouts during the pandemic, yet findings suggest that a hybrid physical and digital model will become the ‘new normal’. Joanne Dennison, Boston University School of Hospitality Administration adjunct professor sums this up nicely, “A company might have had a national sales convention, and now do five regional meetings. They might have a hybrid component. That will probably be the rest of 2021. Then comes 2022, and it will open up for more national meetings, and I think almost everything will have a hybrid component. They may not have the 3,000- or 5,000-people event; maybe they’ll do East Coast and West Coast events. I foresee people being reluctant to go to meetings that involve that many people, even next year” (BU Today). Ensure that your event programming includes opportunities for digital engagement before, during, or even after an event—which can range from offering exclusive programming online-only during a conference, or incorporating second-screen experiences into an in-person or televised event.
· Think big. Really big.
While some companies are beginning to embrace a more thorough digital strategy, cutting-edge brands are zooming into the future. 60 years ago, when The Jetsons aired, it was preposterous to imagine a world with smart homes, video calls, holograms, or 3D printed food, yet it has quickly become reality in present day. Traditional multichannel experiences will soon evolve to multiversal experiences—and future-thinking brands are already at the forefront of this creation. “The future of social media may not be in traditional platforms, but in immersive gaming environments with their own economies, currencies, and culture. Fortnite, the popular battle royale shooter by Epic Games, is striving to become the first digital metaverse: a shared virtual space that goes beyond gaming to include an endless buffet of media experiences. CEO Tim Sweeney has been actively promoting the metaverse concept, and even if it’s years away, one can begin to discern the contours of his vision, with Fortnite hosting in-game concerts, movie trailer premieres, and other appointment viewing events over the past year” (Fast Company). Consider recreating a physical space in a digital, avatar-based platform—where avatars can travel from branded platform to platform—or having AR experiences at every in-person event you attend. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box—or watch sci-fi TV shows from the past to help predict this future.
· Invest in tech.
For the most part, there are open-source technology platforms that your brand can take advantage of. Once you have developed a digital strategy and made room for big ideas, look for the technology that can bring these ideas to life. Make room in your budget for the tools and resources to evolve your digital ecosystem.
· Take risks.
Fortune favors the bold, and with a well-thought-out strategy—complete with insights from data and big idea brainstorms—there’s no telling where your brand can go. If there is one thing we learned from Covid-19, it’s how important it is to take risks, swing for the fences, and invest in technology—not to merely avoid disruption, but to embrace it.
An evolved digital strategy is no longer nice-to-have, it’s crucial to business continuity, marketing success, and can also positively impact the bottom line. Approach monetizing digital experiences by adapting tried-and-true methods of monetization to your digital approach, researching how other industries monetize experiences, and explore how you can translate that for your own digital experiences.
Brands can monetize digital experiences through:
Tickets and Registration. Consider a tiered ticket approach for in-person events and their virtual counterparts—making the online and app-based event ticket price a cheaper rate than the physical event. If app adoption is part of your core KPI’s, consider hosting a free or freemium event held exclusively on your app.
Collectibles, Merchandise, and Digital Exclusives. Once you’ve found and engaged with an addressable—and interested—audience, use events and digital media as opportunities to upsell. Do this by giving users access to custom and exclusive merchandise, as Travis Scott did with his ‘Icon Series’ in Fortnite (NME) or providing access to exclusive, invite-only experiences via digital channels.
Collaborations, Sponsorships and Revenue Shares. Partnering with like-minded companies is not only a great way to grow both your audience and brand awareness, but also is a great monetization tactic. If you’re a tech brand, consider partnering with a media company for your next event; if you’re a developer, consider partnering with an influencer or creator to broaden reach. Your brand is only as strong as your network—use collaboration and sponsorships as a way to generate the traction—and funds—needed to successfully produce a digital experience. Be creative and think strategically on how your core competencies can help a brand partner, and what you need in return.
Non-fungible Tokens (NFTs). Utilize this ever-so-trending topic to diversify the way in which your brand makes money. “At a very high level, most NFTs are part of the Ethereum blockchain. Ethereum is a cryptocurrency, like bitcoin or dogecoin, but its blockchain also supports these NFTs, which store extra information that makes them work differently from, say, an ETH coin” (The Verge). Accepting NFTs as a method of payment shows audiences you're "in the know" and looking to the future. According to The Verge, “NFTs can really be anything digital (such as drawings, music, your brain downloaded and turned into an AI), but a lot of the current excitement is around using the tech to sell digital art” (The Verge). The first step in accepting alternative payments is to first understand them.
Downloadable Content (DLC) and In-Platform Digital Purchases. Take a page from online gaming to up-level your digital monetization tactics. “Some DLCs introduce new and memorable characters and others open entire new maps to explore. There are DLCs that unlock different outfits, classes, and more” (Gamerant). For brand experiences, give audiences the opportunity to unlock outfits during a digital fashion show, purchase additional maps and room access for online conferences, and open up exclusive chat rooms with influencers and industry experts at your next virtual event. But, don’t just make the content digital-only: match these DLCs with tangible eCommerce that users can buy—and have delivered to their doorsteps.
Gaming, eSports Leagues, and Betting. Online gaming and esports are one of the fastest growing and evolving industries. “Most projections put the esports ecosystem on track to surpass $1 billion in revenue for the first time this year. And revenue is expected to grow from here — Newzoo projects it to hit $1.8 billion by 2022. Money flows into esports through media rights, live event ticket sales, merchandise sales, and in-game purchases, but most of the revenue (69%) comes from sponsorships and advertising, per Newzoo figures cited by Statista” (Business Insider). The pandemic brought great focus to online communities—including esports and collaborative gaming platforms—and is predicated to continue in post-covid times. Further, recent events such as the spike in GameStop shares due to Reddit users continue to show us the power of online communities around a shared theme. Betting is also a great way to monetize your event or platform, in controlled ways. Consider whether your brand fits a betting environment, if it will be beneficial or harmful for your brand to be associated with betting, and also how you would facilitate it.
“The pop-culturization of esports has helped power the explosions in esports investment and revenue. Esports has hit this stratosphere in large part because of the social component of live streaming and gaming. Video gaming-specific streaming platforms like Twitch and YouTube Gaming give fans a direct connection to the players and teams, while more mainstream socials have allowed those connections to flourish,” (Business Insider).
Experiential Marketing, Virtual Activations, and Experiences. Utilize emerging technology like augmented and virtual reality to bring activations at in-person events to life. Give your audience the opportunity to test out 3D, photo real renderings of home design projects, as Kichler did in their “Lighting the Way Forward” event; show customers behind-the-scenes of production—as Tom Shoes did using VR—keeping in mind that the more real an experience is, the more it resonates with customers.
Finding the conduit between new types of digital experiences and tried and true monetization tactics (ticketing, sponsorship, retail environments, advertising) can bring your brand into the future while holding on to what has historically worked.
From past, present, to future, we have seen the potential that technology has for increasing human connection en masse. Akin to the digital boom of the early 2000’s, the pandemic has hyper-mobilized audiences online, as we’ve witnessed—and participated in—a massive paradigm shift from physical spaces to online and app-based counterparts.
After a year and a half of working—and living—remotely, we’ve seen that human’s need communication and engagement: something that isn’t entirely replicated online. Yet, with the use of virtual and augmented reality, avatar-based platforms, haptics, and the multiverse, brands are able to capitalize on the momentum of this digital resurgence, mobilize fans in new and disruptive ways, and turn that mass engagement into revenue.
"What I've found as a historian is that emergencies, for example like World War I, World War II, the Great Depression, they tended to accelerate rather than necessarily innovate new kinds of relationships, new kinds of ways of life," said Robert Kargon, a professor of the history of science at Johns Hopkins University (NBC News).
Critics will suggest that post-pandemic, one will find audiences craving IRL experiences. And, for the most part that cannot be refuted. Likewise, the digital evolution that the pandemic brought about is also here to stay. Savvy brands with their fingers on the pulse will utilize this moment in time as a way to evolve their event strategy to include a virtual complement; others will go back to business as usual and miss out on an untapped audience and customer base that have come to value all that digital experiences can offer. It’s up to brands to find the sweet spot between live, in-person experiences and virtual events—acknowledging that “a well-run virtual meeting taking more than hitting a computer’s “on” button” (BU Today).
“Hybrid meetings will be the norm as opposed to the exception. People can attend face-to-face or virtually. There have been people pushing for that for five, seven years. There are a lot of good reasons. For associations, probably three-quarters of their revenue came from their annual convention, their mid-year conference. People who could not afford to travel—a lot of people pay out of pocket—they’re finding more people are attending because they don’t have the cost of travel [with hybrid]” (BU Today).
The future of brand and experiences will be physical, digital, virtual, visceral, personal and multi-player all at the same time. Therefore, it’s up to brands and content creators to ask themselves how can you best bring your brand into the future using the digital tools at your disposal—and how can you monetize those experiences?
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