Wall Street got a shock in late February. Bookings at Norwegian Cruise Lines jumped 40% in the first two months of the year. More than 80% of the bookings were new, and in cash. In the weeks following, bookings for airlines, hotels and rental cars skyrocketed. Not long after, The New York Times reported that some of the largest universities in the United States were gearing up for in-person teaching and residence at a very large scale in the fall of 2021.
The pessimism and isolation of 2020 turned quickly toward enthusiasm, even celebration. While the desire to be happy and surrounded by others remains, concerns around the Delta variant have led to setbacks for the travel industry, slowed economic recovery and on-again off-again in-person classes.
Public sentiment, like markets, can turn fast. Ongoing uncertainty means marketers are in for yet another season of unprecedented, rapid change. The focus this time should be on the post-pandemic crowd, a sometimes virtual group I call “The New Crowd.” The New Crowd is an emerging collective thriving for engagement and connection through experiences that bridge digital and physical worlds.
Emerging After COVID: The Coming of the Crowd
Crowds, it seems, are a big part of our identity, as if individuality paradoxically requires feeling like part of something bigger than ourselves. That isn’t to say that we’re rushing back to old habits. Instead, I see these and other reports of re-socialization — just watch these fans at Virginia Tech’s season opener — as signs of The New Crowd.
Whether it’s attending a sporting event, a rave or a school play, the gatherings ahead will also be marked by the experience of COVID. It may be memorializing grief or expressing joy, but either way the experience is rich with the emotions of the past. More than in the past, The New Crowd identifies around something, stokes passions, and educates itself as a kind of social reinforcement. For marketers, this presents an opportunity to drive meaningful engagement and deep, lasting connections.
Some of what I’m saying about The New Crowd is speculation, of course. But long before COVID, this was a reality of the market: we look for emerging sentiments, and seek to provide the goods and services, even the political policies and social rules, that will please the desires of the crowd. The virtual experiences accelerated by COVID mark an enormously powerful emerging trend, with profound consequences as we work towards a new normal.
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Blending Digital and Physical Experiences
As with much else, the effect of COVID’s global quarantine will almost certainly mean changes, as we make durable practices of the new technologies, economic imperatives, and social rules created during the pandemic. In this case, virtual crowds have been strengthening, and they will change the way physical crowds work.
Customers will expect brands to build new practices that bring digital and physical experiences together in new and innovative ways. Marketers in particular will be tasked with identifying the digital practices emerging from the pandemic that made our lives easier and bringing those experiences into the new normal while leaving the practices created to bridge the gap behind. Perhaps even more challenging, marketers will need to bring two historically disparate worlds together so that information and experiences flow freely between online and offline.
In retail, for example, the spectacle of in-store shopping is gradually returning, but it will need to have elements of the online shopping standards we’ve come to expect: information about supply chains, shipping options, or personal information about who will make a product delivery, and when. This personalization may express itself in one-to-one information shared over an app, even in a crowded store.
Similarly, the life of in-person events will need to extend beyond physical limitations into the rich digital world we’ve become immersed in. The popularity of QR codes, geo tags and beacons that unlock access to exclusive content will explode. And conferences will need to create opportunities for both in person and virtual attendees to engage in a meaningful way.
This transition may seem daunting at first, but it ultimately unlocks new opportunities and channels for engagement.
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Connecting With The New Crowd
We went into the quarantine making fast changes — remember the rush to remote work? — and we’ll come out the same. To succeed, those who create brand experiences will need to understand, adapt to and connect with The New Crowd. The products, services and experiences may look vastly different, but the new paradigms we used to keep up with and survive the rapidly evolving nature of consumer needs during the pandemic will look similar. Companies must continue to engage, listen and respond to core audiences frequently, while reinventing innovation cycles to align with the pace of the market.
While the road ahead won’t be easy, it’s bound to fuel the next big wave of innovation. And The New Crowd will be the ones surfing it. Here’s to a new normal, sometime soon, and the good times to come.