Live Events and the Screen-Time Civil War
We’ve reached Peak Screen, Farhad Manjoo declared in The New York Times last year. “But now that smartphones have achieved dominance, revolution is in the air.”
He’s right. And in the world of experiential marketing, that revolution might as well be a civil war.
On one side: “If I don’t post about it, it might as well not have happened.”
Many brands remain committed to designing experiences for the Instagram set. It’s understandable and often appropriate that they want to maximize the number of eyeballs on their content. We see it in experiential museums and consumer product launches where marketers interpret impressions as effectiveness and consumers are ever-mindful of the social capital that comes with a cool selfie.
But so too do we see it in B2B events, where hashtags are omnipresent and, more concerningly, attendees’ focus is locked on their next tweet rather than on the content being communicated in the room.
We get it. We don’t agree that impressions have inherent value. But we get it.
On the other side: “If my attention is so focused on posting about it, I might as well have missed it.”
We’re with you. And increasingly, so are brand marketers, who realize that audiences who are engaged in real life, in real time, are exponentially more engaged than those who are being pulled to the not-so-dim glow of their smartphones.
Artists like Alicia Keys are essentially saying, “Come and enjoy the experience as a human being. Don’t worry about what filter makes this look the most glamorous.” And brands like Mercedes-Benz are banning all devices in internal meetings, compelling audiences to keep the focus on connecting — with the content and with each other.
Our own agency held a one-day all-staff summit last fall, and spending about 12 hours without checking my phone, snapping a photo, or sending a tweet was liberating. Phones weren’t banned, but the nature of the event kept my energy wholly focused on the people around me, not the people who might be texting me. To internalize what was being communicated rather than Googling for additional context. To participate rather than to promote.
As experience designers, we've always believed profoundly in the power of live events. But this era of Peak Screen means their value is greater than ever. If everyone’s always on their phones, the scarcity of face-to-face engagement gives it inherent value and increased impact.
Because if a live experience is sufficiently compelling to get people to put their phones away, as our company’s internal event did, it breaks through the clutter of the digital world in a way that feels increasingly novel. It’s why, at The XD Agency, we pride ourselves on being the Enemy of Distraction. And perhaps it’s also why Adweek reports that nearly two-thirds of CMOs are increasing their spend on live events.
The best designed live events engage audiences — not in the sense of “they’re so engaged with every social media post” but in the sense of “they’re so engaged that they’re present in this community we’re building.” As a bonus, it’s this state of engagement where we find audiences who are open enough that they can develop new affinities, consider others’ perspectives, and even recalibrate their priorities. It’s fertile ground for developing brand evangelists.
So whether your event all but begs for selfies, bans digital devices, or falls somewhere along the spectrum, remember to a do a gut-check:
- Is your event effectively designed to maximize the value of full-bodied presence?
- Does it limit the navel-gazing?
- Does it prioritize real-life connection, conversation, and community?
But first: It’s Screen-Free Week. We’ll still be online — we’re talking about technology moderation, not elimination, after all — but we’ll also be engaging, without distraction, in the real world. We hope you’ll join us in seeking out some face-to-face experiences. No doubt you’ll feel their power first-hand.