Three months into the coronavirus crisis, isolation has taken its toll. In addition to the direct impact of the virus, people are grappling with a loss of connection. With many social gatherings and events on hold for the foreseeable future, we’ve had to seek out new ways to connect—from Zoom calls and video chats to live-streamed events. Somehow, though, these virtual interactions still feel like a poor proxy for what we earn in each other’s company.
Being in the business of crafting experiences for audiences around the world, I ventured to better understand the psychological impact of moving to virtual experiences 24/7—specifically, which elements drive meaningful connection while everyone is communicating from afar.
First, we must understand the dynamics of the human brain. Over 60,000 years of evolution, nature has ingrained a series of chemical rewards to help humans flourish. When we exercise, endorphins kick in; when we help others, our brains release serotonin; when we share experiences with friends, our brains release oxytocin, increasing feelings of attachment.
While virtual experiences are generally entertaining, evidence of pronounced increases in anxiety and loneliness during the pandemic proves that virtual experiences don’t always trigger our body’s release of oxytocin.
In addition to the devastating health impact of the COVID-19 crisis, people are struggling with a loss of connection and identity while isolated. How can virtual experiences genuinely replicate real-world human contact and compensate for this connection void?
Despite a majority of states reopening, many in-person social experiences won’t be back for much longer. So, what can we do to facilitate those feelings of social bonding sorely missing in our lives? And taking a closer look, what role can brands play in helping to foster connection as more customers experiment with new interactive experiences?
Here are four strategies to consider as your company works to reshape digital experiences.
Experiment with what works for you
When toying with different formats, remember that what works for some, may not work for others. To counteract the isolation of working from home, many people have slipped into a pattern of overcompensating digitally, which includes working and staying online with no clear unplugging point.
While thumbing through social media feeds or scheduling another Zoom call may seem like a good way to find connection, these channels often lack chemistry. A few studies have found there are physiological reasons for why Zoom calls exhaust us. For most people, replacing human connection with more screen time simply doesn’t work and can actually increase feelings of loneliness, a rising trend with Generation Z.
In a nutshell, while video chats may offer some reprieve, we are not meant to connect via screens in the long run.
Consumption is not creation
Social experiences require active participation. As we interact, we create original content. We feel happy, heard, connected. Remote experiences, on the other hand, can feel contained, stale, and awkward.
Videoconferences can create unneeded friction, from uncomfortable poses before someone speaks to frozen video feeds; suddenly, small talk has become a larger chore and a process to get through.
The limitations of these virtual interactions can leave us frustrated. Virtual communication can cause us to slump into bystander roles rather than becoming active participants. This one-way, consumer-centric communication can hinder the creative process and limit our oxytocin.
Build community and unlock shared experience
The pandemic has distinctly shifted the routine ways we do things, including conventional connection techniques. Our mindset around embracing new experiences and the meaning we take from those experiences are part of this new reality.
Communities forming around those experiences present an opportunity for brands. The resurgence of individuals staying indoors baking bread is a great example. It’s heartening that at this strange, frightening time, people have returned to this artisan craft.
The right brand can bring niche communities together and facilitate interactive experiences. Bakers, for example, are preparing and showcasing their frog bread, amphibian-shaped loaves that are all the rage on TikTok. The platform rolled out robust programming to keep users engaged through live streams organized under a “happy at home” hashtag.
Brands also need to set a higher bar for digital experiences they create by tapping into emerging communities. An organization called Volunteer from your Couch, for example, offers the chance to engage in charitable work from the safety of your home.
Try new formats to drive engagement
Social connection is no longer easy or automatic. It’s hard to find ways out of our comfort zones, especially when we’re working from home. But we need to stretch, experiment, and find new ways to drive engagement. Brands can facilitate this.
A good example is streaming shows, such as Tiger King, through a Netflix party. This gives friends an opportunity to watch at the same time while chatting and building connection around their experience. Friends can do what they would if they were together: comment, crack jokes, create.
Focus on purpose, not passion
The advice to “pursue your passion” can feel empty, especially during an anxious time. While it can feel rewarding to pour energy into a project you’re passionate about, people will derive more benefit from seeking a purpose. Worldwide, people are stuck at home with extra time on their hands. They’re worried about others who are suffering, and they’re looking to help.
We have an opportunity to come out of this more connected to ourselves, our family, our community. Brands can, and should, take a lead in this area of pursuing a purpose.
The pandemic has ushered in the largest-scale social experiment of our time. For many, it’s a wake-up call, as well as an opportunity for reinvention. Hopefully, when the global turmoil and uncertainty subsides, we can successfully share what new value we place on in-person experiences, as well as point to our evolution.
Brett Hyman is the president of NVE Experience Agency, a world-class experience marketing agency and event production company guided by the principle that the right moment will transform someone forever.