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How to make magic and capture people’s attention for your world-changing idea

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Elevate Tech Festival welcomed around 20,000 people to its week-long technology extravaganza in Toronto. From hackathons to mainstage talks (including Martha Stewart and Michelle Obama), the event offered both star-studded commentary and practitioner realities in all things tech.

One of the key learnings from almost every speaker revolved around building something big or solving a massive societal problem. Talks echoed each other, albeit in different industries, countries, and team sizes, lamenting how people solve rich-world problems and not enough people look to solve whole-world problems.

Unfortunately, though, a good idea is not enough to capture the world’s attention. Competing economic interests, political rivalries, and other social divisions act as the opposite army, fighting to keep people away from much-needed change. To break through the noise, the experience of the idea must resonate as strongly as the intent of the change.

Getting would-be users and supporters to pay attention is exactly what one panel discussed at Elevate Retail, one of the many stages at Elevate 2019. A panel consisting of Anna Wiesen, co-founder of somewhereelse; Graham Budd, executive producer and partner at Array of Stars; and Steffen Christiansen, creative director at Jam3 spoke on a panel moderated by Bay St. Bull editor-in-chief Lance Chung on how to create magical experiences that grip people into paying attention.

The panel took on the often-overlooked discussion of how you get people not just to notice your idea, but to engage with it. Speaking in the context of live activations, the panelists offered insights on how anyone can create experiences that people want to engage with, whether or not they supported the idea or message beforehand.

 

Creating authenticity

When Donald Glover – aka Childish Gambino – was set to perform at Coachella, his team wanted to do a unique activation that would get people excited about his performance. He happened to be partnering with Adidas, so the idea came about to do a shoe giveaway. The problem, though, was that most shoe giveaways end up in the reseller market, far away from the hands of true fans.

As Christiansen recounted the story (his agency worked with Adidas and Glover on the activation), the thought of limited edition Adidas shoes made in partnership with Childish Gambino ending up on eBay for triple the price sounded like a recipe for disaster. So the Jam3 team came up with an idea: airdrop shoes to fans in the audience.

Glover is known for engaging with his fans on social media, so the team built custom messages ‘from Donald Glover’ that would be airdropped to phones of fans in the audience. That way, the messaging felt authentic – it was not a random Twitter contest, but something that, according to fans, Glover might actually do. Geo-fencing the event also meant that true fans, the ones who paid to see Glover, would be the ones getting the shoes.

The direct connection helped people “to get that moment of power – like they were part of something special,” said Christiansen. “They felt included [and] part of the narrative.”

This inclusion narrative is how you create authenticity. It’s not created in a vacuum with smart people brainstorming in a room, but by looking at the context not only of the setting, but each player involved. Adidas wanted shoes in the hands of super fans. Glover’s team wanted his fans to feel loved. And Coachella is a music festival where everyone’s on their phones.

Only by looking at everyone involved did the idea come to action – advice Christiansen and the panel said is crucial for anyone looking to create meaningful, authentic experiences.

 

Avoiding key errors

Budd and Wiesen shared similar examples of how well-segmented and cared-for stakeholder groups led to brilliant experiences. But there are also many errors they cautioned people to avoid.

 
Ignoring physical or digital context
Budd recommended people start with context first before coming up with any ideas of what to do.

“Understand the context of how that [activation experience] will be used,” said Budd. “Is it enough to engage?”

 
Not planning for the desired action
Something flashy may get noticed, but it won’t always get used. Wiesen talked about how many activations and experiences seek the moment of interruption – wanting people to notice you and stop for a second. But what happens after?

“In some environments, you don’t need to capture them in the first few seconds,” said Wiesen, adding that in some cases you need them to stay for minutes or hours, not see something for a second then continue moving.

Instead, Wiesen suggests you look at what you really need people to do then service a need that will get you the desired action. For example, if you want someone to stick around at your experience so you can talk with them or capture their attention longer, a phone charging station might work better than a flashy art installation.

 
Forgetting the cohesive experience
Before your experience begins, Budd wants to make sure you know how you’re going to get people there.

One of the biggest challenges he sees is “under investment in getting people to your experience,” something he says can derail an otherwise amazing activation.

Once you’ve invested in getting people there and built an experience they will love, though, follow up is crucial, something Wiesen cautioned creators to think much more about.

Many brands and movements want data capture, for example emails, and may do a truly authentic activation that resonates with their core audience in order to collect this information. Then the follow up is a generic cover-all email that offers no uniqueness or authenticity. The results can range from resentment to downright hatred of the movement, but either way you risk losing a lot of your momentum.

Instead, “you have to follow up – that’s often missing,” said Wiesen, adding that a single experience will always peter out over time. It’s the follow up that matters.

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Stefan Palios

Stefan is a journalist and entrepreneur passionate about the people behind tech. He writes about innovation, scaling, people management, and entrepreneur journeys, among other things, and is the founder of PulseBlueprint, an educational media company for entrepreneurs.