Brand events have largely shifted online this year, as the pandemic continues to disrupt in-person experiences.

Creating a successful virtual event is no mean feat, of course, with consumers already suffering from screen overload – yet another Zoom event is a tough thing to market.

Over the past few months, however, we have seen agencies and brands pull together to make virtual events more engaging and immersive, with many using live music or entertainment-driven experiences designed to engage consumers. Here are some of the most effective examples, and what makes them work.

Fenty Skin’s ‘House Party’

Launch parties are a common occurrence in the beauty industry, allowing brands to build excitement and prestige (which can also translate into online engagement). This year, Fenty Beauty held a virtual and VR-driven ‘house party’ in the summer for the launch of Fenty Skin, pitched as a way to “party with Rihanna”.

Glossy reports that online attendees were able to enter different ‘rooms’ including a bar to discover cocktail recipes, and a living room that featured livestreams with Rihanna and celebrity guests such as Lil Nas X. Users were also able to click around in the virtual beauty bar to discover more about Fenty Skin products, such as the various ingredients used and their benefits.

While the event lacked certain physical elements – such as the ability to touch, feel, and smell products – Fenty’s virtual event gave consumers access to an experience they might not have otherwise been a part of, with additional benefits like early and exclusive insight into new products, as well as a sense of community and conversation with Rihanna herself.

Tomorrowland ‘Around the World’ virtual festival

The vast majority of live festivals and concerts were cancelled in 2020, apart from a couple of socially-distanced examples in the summer. Some artists took to live-streaming instead, but Belgian festival Tomorrowland is one of the few to have pulled off a full-on virtual festival, with more than one million people eventually tuning in to its two-day extravaganza.

The immersive event was created in partnership with agency DogStudio, who designed an immersive virtual world (featuring eight 3D stages) called Pāpiliōnem for visitors to explore. To encourage ticket sales (where prices started at 20 euros to watch the event live, or just 12.50 euros to ‘re-live’ it once it had been broadcast), Tomorrowland enlisted more than 60 big name artists including Katy Petty, David Guetta, and Eric Prydz.

Using technology to recreate the sounds, sights, and sensations of a music festival – complete with virtual lasers and crowd cheers – Tomorrowland successfully achieved its goal of creating an immersive gig experience for people at home. Despite the event just falling short of a profit, it was considered enough of a success to plan a second one which is now scheduled for New Year’s Eve.

The lack of profit could have been down to the events’ royalty-sharing scheme, which saw artists paid based on the number of ticket sales as well as number of views their set received. Regardless, Tomorrowland’s organisers have suggested that virtual events like it could be an option in future, particularly for people who might otherwise miss out. Speaking to DJMag, Tomorrowland press officer Debby Wilmsen said: “We think this can be a very nice thing next to the real festival. It gives many people the opportunity to experience the festival. People who are not able to come to Belgium [because of] age, visa, tickets, health; the digital festival is open for everyone.”

Indeed, accessibility is one of the biggest benefits, taking away barriers that could otherwise prevent people from attending in real life (such as travel or budget), which still exist outside of the context of Covid.

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Fortnite & Travis Scott’s Astronomical concert

US rapper Travis Scott is also in the running for virtual gig of the year, with a whopping 12.3m people tuning into his concert held within the video game Fortnite back in April. The gig beat Fortnite’s previous virtual concert with Marshmello, which attracted around 10 million people in 2019.

While the Travis Scott gig might have pulled in even bigger numbers due to the lockdown, it’s also just a great example of how gaming can aid immersive experiences in any context, driven by the strong investment and power of gaming fans. Big brands within the entertainment industry are now beginning to capitalise on this opportunity, with many in the industry seeing Fortnite and Travis Scott as an example of what’s to come. Speaking to Campaign Live, Christophe Brumby, strategy director for Amplify said: “Not only do virtual gigs allow millions to enjoy an experience beyond borders, enabling artists and brands to reach new audiences at scale, they also offer endless, out-of-this-world creative possibilities for audience engagement and participation.”

While in-game events are nothing new, Covid-19 has accelerated the demand for and the quality of these types of events, largely due to the increased need for connection as well as virtual escapism during difficult times.

Heineken’s Champions League ‘Kick Off’

Sports fans have been unable to enjoy match experiences (or social viewings) since the pandemic took hold, which is why Heineken decided to create a virtual event for fans to celebrate the start of the UEFA Champions League, which the brand sponsors.

In partnership with Defected Records, Heineken hosted ‘Kick Off’ – an eight-hour virtual music event featuring eight different DJs livestreaming from various locations including Amsterdam’s Heineken Experience and Lisbon’s Estadio da Luz. The idea behind Kick Off was to bring the two worlds of music and football together, delving deeper into the combined interests of Heineken’s target audience.

As well as generating engagement on Heineken’s own channels, the event was also streamed on UEFA and Defected’s social channels, increasing the opportunity for brand awareness across the board. Some of the videos have now clocked up more than one million views, with Idris Elba’s performance alone generating 1.4m views on YouTube.

Could virtual events be here to stay?

Covid-19 has accelerated the virtual event industry, pushing what was once considered a pale imitation of the real thing to become – in some cases – an equally immersive and perhaps even more enjoyable experience. Innovation in technology has certainly enabled this, with VR, 3D creation, and other digital software now allowing brands to recreate real life elements that were once impossible to replicate online.

Alongside this, greater accessibility – which opens up exclusive insight and entry into events to a wider fanbase – means we could see more brands holding virtual entertainment experiences in future. There are still many drawbacks, of course, such as the absence of those deeper and more meaningful connections that happen face-to-face. However, the aforementioned examples certainly demonstrate the benefits of simply logging in rather than travelling to an in-person event.