In a year dominated by division and fear, it’s hard not to look forward to the start of 2021 as a harbinger of better things to come. Of course, 2020 was also a year of great change – and some of those changes will remain with us for the foreseeable future.

For those of us who thrive on creating experiences, it required a reimagination of what it meant to be together, and continuing travel bans and staggered roll-outs of the COVID vaccines will continue to make that true for many more months. There’s been plenty of reflection in the last few weeks about what 2020 has taught us, but now it’s time to look ahead to what we might accomplish in 2021 as a result of the disruption.

Sharing spaces

Many of the most exciting moments of 2021 will come when it’s safe for us to share spaces again. The reopening of event and entertainment venues will be a boon for so many. But being together in a shared public space may never look the same. After a year of reimagining how to be “together,” the digital tools that gave us solace – video calls, virtual events, etc. – are here to stay.

While in the minority, some companies, like O’Reilly Media, have decided to shut down their in-person events operations altogether and pivot to virtual events for good. Many conferences, especially those that are early on the calendar, such as CES and SXSW, will be fully virtual next year. Others have taken a different approach – National Retail Foundation will have two events in 2021, a virtual one in January and an in-person event in June. Innovators expecting to merge physical and digital realms will likely reap benefits from planning ahead to meet the demand for physical events and claim the key venues and best talent to make hybrid events happen.

Data wealth

Regardless of how these events are held, the trailblazers who pivoted to virtual conferences in 2020 now have a wealth of data about how consumers responded and participated in a variety of offerings as well as how they felt about the brands they engaged with, even months later. Those who can harvest the metrics for actionable analytics will be in the driver’s seat. How brands leverage this data for in-person events during the second half of 2021 is going to be interesting to watch.

Integration of new tech

In both physical and digital spaces, real-time 3D experiences will rely more than ever on mobile devices, many of which are now 5G-capable, to create a user-centric and low-contact medium and deliver imaginative, personalized content that allows for deeper brand engagement. There’s more need than ever for digital experiences that create memories and that can leave the venue with a customer while leveraging social media to create further buzz. Throw in innovative mobile pop-up engagements and the ability to use architecture as art to engage people safely while they’re outdoors and you’ll see that there’s more opportunity than ever to captivate current and prospective customers both on the couch and on the street.

Even formerly tech-resistant consumers have learned to use digital tools out of necessity this year. Leveraging this new customer base will require digital channels to boost their creative engagement through augmented reality and expert storytelling. Creating more online resources will win over customers initiating interactions and researching brands online, especially if brands can integrate 3D modeling and visualizations to create a sense of tangible presence where traditional photography was once enough. Greater bandwidth will allow richly visual storytelling and experiences to scale. Improved AI tools and real-time graphics will help to immerse customers in personalized experiences, from shopping “trips” to product demos.

And while entertainment has long used digital tools to engage fans, the use of virtual reality and augmented reality can be the key to taking your audience through not only space but time, whether it’s a rock concert or virtual travel experience. Making digital connections from a distance was an idea on the horizon that has become more urgent than ever.

Adjusting the message

This symphony of engagement strategies can only work with the right brand strategy and storytelling. Creatives are integral to the implementation of new digital tools so they don’t simply become technology for its own sake.

In a report from Salesforce months before the pandemic forced us to pivot to digital, 84% of customers already reported that the experiences a company provides were as important as their products and services. With consumers reevaluating the role of all companies in the larger ecosystem, trying to align their brand loyalty with their values, seeking out empathetic and engaged marketing, and looking for signs of social responsibility and ethics, working with digital storytellers who are well-versed in the experiential economy and audience engagement will be one of the best investments a company can make in 2021.

Featured Image: Real-time 3D graphics from Acura Mood Roads