How Human Behaviorism Plays a Role in Creating a Successful Virtual Event

October 1, 2020

James C. Morris

James C. Morris is vice president of client development at Impact XM, a New Jersey-based event and experiential marketing agency.

The 2020 global pandemic has caused brands to rethink their approach to event marketing. Due to health guidelines, most in-person events have been canceled for the foreseeable future; yet, the event channel is still required to fill the sales funnel. As such, we have seen the “Big Pivot” to virtual to help reach the marketplace.

As brands and organizations wade into this new virtual event environment, it is important to examine how established learning theories and an emerging framework for addressing virtual audiences can inform the creative design and experiences delivered through virtual worlds. In considering this, companies that understand human behaviorism, cognitive learning and cognitive load — and more specifically, their role in virtual environments — are going to have an advantage in the marketplace.

Since the dawn of time, human behaviorism has allowed people to adapt, learn, and grow. We often use many of these principles in the live event space, perhaps without ever identifying it as such. For example, movement plays a large role in human history. We know humans are drawn to movement; in our primitive days, this helped to identify predators (today, it might mean noticing a speeding car racing toward you). Tapping into the senses is an easy way to “hook” an audience at a live event… who isn’t drawn to the aroma of coffee or freshly baked cookies on a show floor?

When considering a virtual experience, one must also consider how senses, like movement, will play an attraction role. We use movement to draw attention with the ultimate goal of the attendee engaging with the brand. Incorporating appropriate movement (keeping in mind that a 15-inch computer screen is a much different experience), driving traffic, and keeping attendees engaged should funnel into education and networking.

Finding ways to engage and reinforce educational practices is important in the live world, but critical in this virtual one. Cognitive learning is said to have occurred when a person demonstrates the desired response when presented with a specific environmental stimulus; thus, the primary role of a brand utilizing behaviorist principles should focus on how to intentionally arrange the virtual ecosystem and the information provided to the attendee as he or she interacts with the environment in ways that shape behavior toward desired outcomes.

Creative practices that support learning, according to behaviorist theory, include the use of instructional cues with immediate reinforcement feedback, and learning. Brands can accomplish this by offering learning engagement practices such as instituting unique “Easter eggs,” where attendees “experience” the brand in distinctive and unexpected ways, furthering the reaffirmation brand in the virtual space. Ultimately, understanding and applying human behaviorism to your creative thinking and the development of a virtual space will yield increased participation in the experience and amplified dwell times.

Cognitive load theory is built upon two commonly accepted ideas. The first is that there is a limit to how much new information the human brain can process at one time. The second is that there are no known limits to how much stored information can be processed simultaneously. The aim of cognitive load research as it relates to virtual creative development should concentrate on how to develop instructional techniques and recommendations that fit within the characteristics of working memory, to maximize the educational experience.

A key component to a successful virtual user experience accepts design considerations that aim to reduce cognitive load. When implementing design correctly, brands can use virtual worlds to implement highly interactive learning experiences for attendees that build on existing knowledge. Doing so allows the creative development to consider less content within the virtual experience if we tap into working memory. 

The event channel has been flirting with virtual for years; however, COVID-19 has accelerated the thinking, and organizations have had to quickly adapt. It is important to consider the UX and end in mind thinking as you ideate and strategize your virtual creative development.

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