Mill Insight | The 5 key elements of designing branded virtual experiences for a socially distanced world

The events of 2020 have changed the way that we interact with the world around us. Being forced to conduct work, play, and everything in between from behind a variety of screens has stoked a deep desire for the complete opposite: for in-person interaction, shared moments and connection that evoke the full spectrum of human emotions. Mill Insight article written by The Mill's Associate Creative Strategist Min-Wei Lee.
Thought June 4, 2021

While physical activations may still be on pause, the principles of good experience design continue to provide  brands  with an invaluable north star as we design better, more thoughtful virtual experiences for our socially distanced world.

HBO approached The Mill to develop a virtual activation that celebrated the launch of their hotly anticipated new tentpole series Lovecraft Country and had the ability to transport fans into the Lovecraft Country world, whilst in global isolation. Up until that point, most virtual events were largely passive, 2D screen-based experiences that possessed the same limited and uninspired communication mechanics as a video conference call.

What was missing (and what we craved for) was spontaneous play, organic exploration of environments, the ability to read another’s body language, and a sense of shared atmosphere. If we were to truly serve the Lovecraft Country audience, these features were not “nice-to-haves”, but fundamental necessities.

With HBO, we created a three-part social VR event series called “Sanctum”. Influencers were gifted Oculus Quest headsets and invited to come together virtually to experience original programming inspired by Lovecraft Country’s socially-relevant storytelling and cosmic horror themes. In order to arrive at a strong strategic and creative recommendation, we carefully synthesized our research findings with key experiential principles:

Intrinsic value | For this experience to be of any value to our stimuli-starved audience, the work needed to be transportive, inspire play and induce wonder. The unparalleled level of immersion and full-body interactivity provided by contemporary virtual reality technology made it our ideal medium for this experience.

Democratic use | Whatever hardware/platform combination we chose, it needed to be easily accessible to people at varying levels of tech-literacy. Because we were giving headsets to influencers and asking them to set up their devices themselves, the entire process needed to be straightforward and unintimidating. The Oculus Quest’s all-in-one tetherless design, ergonomic controllers, high visual quality and easy step-by-step setup process, made it our natural choice for “Sanctum”.

Culturally resonant | The work needed to be mindful of contemporary anxieties and speak the language of now. Not only did this mean providing a moment of escapism for those cooped up at home, it also meant recognizing that the themes of Lovecraft Country, a show about the racist horrors of Jim Crow America, were extremely resonant with the contemporary Black Lives Matter movement. Working closely with Black artists and the show’s writers’ room, we made sure “Sanctum”’s programming respectfully and faithfully reflected those themes.

Audience first | The work needed to place value to the audience before business – in essence, the audience needed to feel like this experience was tailor-made for them. This meant taking great care to design the best user experience possible; from the bespoke packaging and themed instructions manual for our influencer kits, to our trained in-world hosts who guided guests throughout the “Sanctum” worlds

Community-minded | In order to truly share a moment and form a genuine connection, it isn’t enough to simply see another person. The work needed to foster dialogue and interaction amongst friends as well as strangers. “Sanctum” was designed such that guests could interact with their host and fellow guests through a variety of intuitive means including physical gestures, verbal audio, and emoji reactions. To create a more meaningful and intimate experience, our 100+ influencers were split into smaller groups of 10, each with a dedicated host.

As 2021 unfolds with its own set of unique challenges, brands must remain vigilant to the shifts in audience mindsets, and be agile enough to adapt. An inconsistent global vaccination program and new variants make it near impossible to predict when in-person experiences will return, and enduring screen fatigue will make it more difficult to convince audiences to sit through yet another online webinar. If we can make an effort to approach new challenges with a greater sense of empathy towards our audience, and think creatively about the applications of existing and emerging technologies, we will be able to design virtual experiences of value, relevance and resonance that are truly worthy of our audience’s precious attention.

Check out the Case Study for HBO Lovecraft: Sanctum and get in touch with us about crafting Virtual Events or Experiences.