Real life is natural and authentic. Events are designed and created. Can something that is designed also be natural and authentic?

Or is a designed, created situation by definition unnatural, fake and an imitation of the real world? If this is true an event can never be "real." Here’s why we need to give this a moment’s thought.

Design vs. reality

In its "Guide to Modern Experiential Marketing: Real World Ideas," Sense Marketing Services Ltd. explains that "people are now responding increasingly favourably to ‘real’ content rather than fictional – it’s more significant because, ultimately, it actually happened.”

They say: "What is the Facebook News Feed if not, essentially, a reality ‘TV’ stream of people you know?"

This shift from “studio” to “real life” content can also be recognized in the rise of companies such as Airbnb. People nowadays want to discover the world as real, authentic as possible, rather than in a “designed holiday” (or hotel), which is sometimes far from local reality.

What may happen if we stick to our "studio events"? To be able to explain this, I first need to explain the difference between an experience and value creation.

Experience vs. value creation

When at the end of an experience (or event) nothing has changed in any stakeholder’s situation, no value has been created. Everything is exactly as before the experience. Value can only occur if something is added to the original setting.

Since there are different types of value this ‘something’ can appear in different forms. The Allport-Vernon-Lindzey Study of Values outlined six major value types: theoretical, economic, aesthetic, social, political and religious. Theoretical value can be shown in a discovery of truth, economic value in a rise of usefulness etc.

In my article, 4 Criteria to Measure Event Emotional Value, I wrote: "Nowadays people are looking for meaningful experiences that help them to create personal emotional value. Value in a way that the experience should contribute to their 'quality of life'."

In other words, people want the meaning of the experience to transcend the experience itself and in that way add something to their lives in other contexts: emotional value.

Events vs. real life

Until now events usually take people away from their real lives. We ask people to stop doing what they normally do and place them in a designed "event-situation." Then we trust them to be able to transfer this "imitation experience" on to their everyday reality again.

It is exactly this ability to transfer knowledge or skills from the event back into reality that decides if the event was valuable. Being unable to put the event experience into practice means the event will eventually have no value. That is why we should make events as real as possible. No more "studio events," but events that are less designed and more natural, authentic. The smaller the gap between an event and real life the smaller the risk of a loss of value.

Of course, we should still be able to guide these real-life experiences into the direction of our goals. We need to create events combining both direction (design) and authenticity, real life at the same time. We need to create Airbnb-type events.

Bridging the gap

There are some fine examples of brands creating value for their target groups by meeting them in their personal, real life: NIVEA helps parents when and where they need it in their real lives, Coca Cola helps students when and where they need it in their real lives.

Since the value is created in the actual lives of people, there is no gap between event and real life. Therefore, there is no loss of value from event to real life.

Even if you feel you have to create a designed experience or event, you should try to keep the audience in their natural behavior as much as you can. I think Adidas gave a perfect example of how authenticity can be implemented in a designed setting that strongly connects to the target groups’ real lives.

But what if there is no other way then to take people away from their real life situations? What if your target group needs to get together and therefor needs to leave their own situation? There are some tips to bridge the gap between an event and real life. The key element is authenticity, as I described in my article, "Are You Fit to Plan? 5 Ways to Bring Value to Your Event."

Use the raw material

As Anna Snel describes in her book "For the Love of Experience," the concept of ‘raw material’ was already written about by John Dewey, "who claims that an important criterion of what may be called an experience is contact of the individual with the raw material."

"The meaning of the experience, the raw material, cannot be transferred in any direct way, since it is a personal construction. Telling someone about what one has experienced does not transfer the experience itself to the other person and can cause the loss of meaning," she writes. As described before, we definitely don’t want a loss of meaning. That is why we should always try to bring the raw material into our events, or the event to the raw material.

How do we do this? Sometimes it’s easy. For instance, when the goal of the event is to sell or promote a product. You can bring the product to the event and let them use the product (raw material) themselves. If a test drive doesn’t convince them, other stimulants (e.g., information, a TV commercial) probably won’t either.

But what do you do if you don’t have a product, but offer a service? Then what is your raw material? Recently, I came across two very nice examples at Event16, an annual trade fair on business‐to-business events in the Netherlands, which prove that the solution can be as simple as effective.

Example 1

The Independent Dutch Event Association (IDEA), an industry association for event companies, hosted a stand at the trade fair. What’s the raw material if an industry association connects different parties within an industry or stimulates development of knowledge? It’s the connecting and the development of knowledge.

IDEA-organized round table sessions at their trade show stand included discussions of key industry issues every session and involved and connected different parties and developing knowledge at the same time.

Even though they added a little bit of event design to the experience as well, they did bring their "reality" into the trade fair rather than a designed experience that might be far away from what they normally do.

Example 2

D&B Eventmarketing is a well-known event company in the Netherlands. What’s your raw material if you present yourself as “the leading event partner for the entrepreneurial Netherlands”? It’s your advice.

Therefore, D&B challenged visitors to come up with their hardest event-related questions and offered free event consults to visitors as well. This is how they brought their reality into the trade fair. They added some design to the event experience as well, by making it look like a consultation with a doctor.

It not only created value for their visitors, it provided them with some interesting leads at the same time. To top it off, they won the award for best stand concept.

Create (the illusion of) the raw material

But what if the raw material is definitely unavailable, or what if it’s undesirable to bring the audience in contact with the raw material, because it’s too expensive or may be not safe? Then we should try to make them feel as if they are in contact with the raw material even when they’re not.

This is what Anna Snel describes as a "vicarious" experience, "What distinguishes vicarious experiences is that although there is no direct contact of the individual with the raw material something is done to create the illusion of contact with the raw material in a less filtered and framed way than there would be in a pure secondary experience."

Personally, I’m still a bit doubtful about the potential of these kind of experiences because I’ve seen some good and some not-so -ood examples. How real is the raw material when the Chinese build a replica version of an entire Austrian village? Can you honestly say you saw the Eiffel Tower when you visited Las Vegas?

Technology and raw material

Technology plays an increasingly important role in creating raw material. For instance, by 3-D-printing provides a nice example found in the ING’s project, The Next Rembrandt.

Virtual reality also seems to be rapidly improving on creating illusions of raw material. Samsung does a great job at this when they make people feel like they’re shark diving in the desert. But did we really see a Rembrandt, and did we really go shark diving?

While technology definitely has the potential to create raw material, or to create the illusion of raw material, the fundamental question remains: Is it fake or real? Will people consider this artificial raw material as real?

Does technology help us to get in touch with raw material, or does it in fact remove us from raw material? I guess the answer to this question is very personal and contextual at the same time.

A good example of the difference between the experience of an illusion and the experience of reality is shown in Nivea’s Second Skin Project: Nivea had developed a new technology that allows people to feel a human touch from anywhere in the world through sensors and a VR headset.

A Spanish mother and son living in Paraguay were one of the first people to try it out. The goal is a real hug, just in time for Christmas.

Are these kinds of experiences capable of creating value? And the answer to this question is: yes, they sure are! Samsung created the illusion of heights, and in this way made people get over their fear of heights without them having to go through undesirable moments of contact with the real raw material.

In conclusion

The smaller the gap between an event and real life, the smaller the risk of a loss of value. In an ideal world, we can organize our events in our target group’s personal, real life. When there is no gap between an event and real life, there is no risk of a loss of value from event to real life either.

If it’s not possible to organize the event in your target group’s reality, you should try to keep the event as authentic as possible: by using the raw material. And if this is undesirable or not possible, we should create the illusion of the raw material.

Technology definitely has the potential to both create raw material and to create the illusion of raw material. In this way, technology will play a more and more important role in creating value for our event attendees.