Experience design is entering a new era — with new players involved. Welcome to the age of social experiential design, where the visual tactics must integrate a “pixel x frame” approach and include social media influencers on the activation team from the beginning of the experience’s concept.
Unlike the past, in which photographers and videographers were the sole gatekeepers of setting up and documenting the moment, the scene or “money shot,” today’s audiences — disciples of social media communication — are attracted to visuals that must be captured. This requires the understanding of lighting, pose, framing and storytelling within a camera lens that may only capture a 6 ft. x 8 ft. physical space — the new experiential landscape that successful creators and influencers understand.
Likewise, in retail design and experiential marketing, visual design and merchandising are also subject to an audience that now experiences the physical space virtually through these brand ambassadors who leverage their online social influence.
Social media influencers are poised to become the latest power tool in the world of experiential and in-store programming. Like the once-established use of window and visual displays, influencers photograph or video themselves in an experience or using a product, which is then shared and published across social media to their audience — instantly amplifying a brand or a retailer’s cachet among followers. Beyond that, influencers can also harness the strength of their followers for beta testing or to provide qualitative feedback before a next iteration or public reveal of a space or product.
This new language of visual communication needs to be properly managed by a chief experience officer or chief creative officer who understands how to integrate influencers into the concept and design process, so that they can support the spatial, visual and activation, as well as event or PR teams during the entire campaign.
The power of this new social experience design process is that it extends beyond the design and planning stage. It becomes a cross-category and cross-department resource after the store’s public unveiling, as the new social visual teams convert to marketing and promotion teams to support the retailer and brand. The influencers would continue as a contracted publicity team, with agreements to activate in the store as well as virtually, to expand the experience across social platforms.
Key Principles of Social Experiential Design
Principle 1: Define Influence for your brand and location
This exercise is a critical foundation to the experience design phase. Considerations here include the type of influence you are seeking (such as wider audience reach, engagement and conversion, content creation or reigniting customer relationships), as well as who influences your most desired customers. Not all brands, social media influencers and brand ambassadors are a good fit together.
Note that visual and contextual communication is not only important but also subjective, in that some companies prefer wide, scenic integration while others prefer intimate, solo experiences.
Beyond understanding the categories of the influencer ranking (nano, micro, etc.), the design teams will need to study the digital videos, photos and personality of the influencer to understand the visual framing and context, and how their own approach should intersect with those. Therefore, designing for the customer in this new age is about matching personalities, not just products.
Principle 2: Design for the theater of stories vs. merchandise
The story should bring to life the artistry, voice and product in a world designed to communicate on digital platforms. The story should come alive as authentically in the world of social media channels as it does in real life.
Think about how set design and theater can transport you to different times and different rooms — to private and public spaces. This is the exact principle we suggest in the theater of stories approach. Displays and modular vignettes that can move from place to place are key to keeping a space fresh without having to start from scratch.
For example, imagine entering a space where it’s not just the mannequins and the merchandise that changes. What if the entrance of the store was an “Alice in Wonderland” dressing room that led to the other parts of the store and then, the next week a Hollywood film studio with different featured studios? Each studio could potentially be hosted by the featured Influencer and brand.
The spatial plan, visual displays and store programming would have to start with the stories, align with the customer journey and be shared on a true engagement platform. Doing so builds upon the digital purchase behavior consumers have adopted, while still offering a fulfillment center vs. a store filled with merchandise that may or may not sell.
Principle 3: Engage a new CEO and social PR team
Experience design in the digital world influences how we curate and create spaces in real life. The future of retail is intertwined with social activities and social stories. Therefore, it’s time to hire a different type of CEO — a chief experience officer who bridges strategy and creative with space and social experiential design.
We’ve been hearing about the new CEO for a couple of years, but we have not defined how their resume might read differently than a chief creative officer, head of store design or other related roles. Perhaps the most important skill will be the ability to tell stories like film directors, directors of photography and executive producers. Those individuals are adept at working across physical spaces, talent and teams, schedules, creative processes, and technology. Most importantly, their roles always intersect with the end viewer or audience.
Principle 4: Activate influencer marketing
Influencer marketing in the social experiential design world is a shared service group and a team that works across display design, store planning, publicity, and marketing. Therefore, influencer marketing should have a seat at the design phase to allow for the strategy and tactics that consumers expect in today’s entertainment, shopping and lifestyle. Spaces are no longer only assigned to specific activities that carve out “private events,” workspace or commercial space. Marketing and design will need to assume that anywhere there’s something appealing, photo worthy or shareable, that “photo opp” will become an opportunity to influence customers and publicize brands.
Principle 5: Activate digital and in-store experiential consumer programs
Beyond the behind-the-scenes role, the activated influencer teams are then the virtual brand ambassadors and talent contracted to engage, host and cultivate in-store events.
For example, a TikTok social lounge hosted by X or a Twitch streaming fashion show hosted by Y are not about the location alone — they are about serving an experience to followers. We already see these all around us on social media. That trio rehearsing with their mini-tripod or video crew (AKA friends) at subways, public spaces, museums or parking lots? They’re looking for places to express their personalities. Why not attract them to do this in your space? What better way to encourage them to feel like they have equity in the experience than to invite them through their favorite influencer and give them a platform to potentially be discovered?
Space, social experiences and the digital world are not separated by devices; they are integrated, unified and amplified — pixel by pixel and frame by frame — in visually appealing, emotionally compelling activations. These campaigns are curated and delivered by social media influencers who help retailers reach their target audiences with miniature stories conveyed in a new retail environment that fits within the camera lens, but are designed to go big across digital platforms.
Michelle M. Collins is Founder and President of A Non-Agency, a consumer experience marketing firm based in New York City. You can contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org