Welcome to the future. Won’t you come on in…
This article is inspired by our own recent experiences in developing and delivering coffee events in a digital space.
Normally I wouldn’t use an event we run, or consult on as fuel for an article, preferring to separate the blog from the services we provide, but in this case I am making an exception. This is because I really believe that as the world changes under our feet, we need to be aware of the potential avenues that we can use to accommodate those changes.
Note: It’s hopefully clear enough from the content of the article itself, but because Bear Essentials is always open about our practices, yes the event to which this article refers was a for profit one, and yes we at Bear Essentials did receive payment for working on it. So clearly I have a vested interest in the positive framing of the event, but as always I will do my best to remain objective in my analysis and discussion.
So with the advent of Covid 19 (oh how much I look forward to penning an article that doesn’t reference that subject!) digital communication has hit the forefront with a vengeance. All over the world, industries and companies are learning to adapt, engaging in new ways of working and of marketing products. Coffee is no different and we found ourselves having to take some steps into the unknown lately.
So a little bit of backstory/context, a while back we got talking with our friends over at Cloudgate Coffee about the potential to deliver a Zoom based coffee event in the midst of Covid 19, and after some hard work we did it. I think we did it pretty well as it goes. So I am going to use that experience to form a narrative around which I can discuss coffee and digital media engagement.
So when we were first discussing the idea of coffee and a virtual experience, I was deeply sceptical, and here’s why.
When I lead any coffee event, I am more than a little particular about the space in which I work. I’m not a diva (well ok, I am a little, but not in this case), but like most professional communicators, my best work “feeds” from the energy of the room. Man that sounds pretentious, but I promise it’s real. When you are addressing a group of people their reactions both verbal and physical are the most important tool in gauging how engaged they are, and thus in knowing when you need to change up pace.
This of course leads to a real concern for me in trying to deliver quality content via something like Zoom.
Beyond my concerns about quality there were plenty of other worries. To discuss these properly let’s look at how a standard tasting event would run for me, then compare it to its digital cousin.
Kicking it Old School
Generally speaking when event planning, we look to have no more than 10 people at a tasting, this cap is one that we have found ensures that the atmosphere remains comfortable and everyone feels engaged. The event itself centres on three or so selected coffees and a single piece of brewing kit. I will talk folks through the brewing process and some coffee history as I brew each drink, this allows me to both control the brewing and to engage with people.
Then we all take some time to try each coffee and chat about what we are tasting, this is often a very interactive experience and a really good chance to share differing perspectives. Toward the end we will have a good old natter and a Q&A session to close out, sharing a drink and learning together.
Finally the event will round out with the chance to present any offers on the coffees we tasted and to encourage people to support both the coffee roaster and Bear Essentials.
If you happen to have been to, or perhaps to have even run a tasting or two (of any type), reading over the framework above a few issues may grab your attention when considering moving to a digital event space. Let’s break (some of) them down as I saw them for this event.
1. Audience engagement: Digital media may allow voice and video transmission but it is a far cry from the energy of sharing a room. How would this impact the cadence and flow of the event? Could I still ensure we kept people’s attention and provided an enjoyable experience?
2. Brewing Consistency: Time to be blunt. 9 times out of 10 I am pretty confident that my experience in brewing will produce a superior result than most people can manage with consistency. This isn’t arrogance, just the reality of years of learned technique and knowledge, and it’s why I will always brew the coffee for a tasting myself. Clearly in the case of a digital event this can’t happen, and so I have to trust the participant’s ability to follow my brewing lessons and get a good result. As a self confessed control freak this made me nervous. How the hell to balance the need for good brew with the limitations of the medium?
3. The Volume Issue: Not of drink (we’ve had some practice getting that right) but rather of people. As I noted above generally we look at 10 or less people for a tasting. To have any financial legs (which was of course part of the equation) this would need to be more like 50-100. That’s a huge step change. Could we attract that kind of interest? Also how well can you engage that many people?
4. Tech Support: If you think the tech for an event like this is just a smartphone and Zoom, think again. We spent a lot of time on finding a setup that would allow us to produce the quality of event we needed, and we were on a shoestring budget. Plus add in the need for a stable internet connection throughout and you can see the worries. Would we look good enough on video, what if we “go dark” mid event?
5. Value for Money: Believe it or not, whenever we plan any coffee event we spend a lot of time considering the value proposition for the consumer, we actually deeply care about providing a good product. Honestly this is not entirely altruistic, after all reputation is our only currency in the industry, we need people to like and respect what we do. In this case the balance was a tough one, because this was new as an idea we had no idea what the acceptable “buy in” point would be for folks. So we crunched numbers, chatted about value led decisions and came to what we thought was a decent deal, then launched the invites and hoped.
So, how did it go?
The event was a real success, we got a decent number of attendees, and we were able to deliver what I consider to be a really good product. It wasn’t issue free, indeed it was never going to be, though that’s not relevant to this article. But overall I was very proud of the work we did.
Anyway back to the focus of the article. The reality of delivering this event wasn’t the nightmare I conjured in my head, my laundry list of concerns (those outlined above, are a very edited list, trust me) were largely overcome, and while I wouldn’t say that the virtual event has quite the same impact as doing it in person, it honestly over delivered for me. So much so that we are looking at doing more of it.
The Emergent Reality of Digital Event Space
Forgive me if some of this ends up sounding like “marketing speak” (some of my coffee roots are still in retail and brand recognition/development) but I really feel that this new space is one to explore, not just amid the “C” word but in general. The concept of digital events isn’t exactly new, but recent events have certainly moved the world towards greater awareness of it, and this creates opportunity.
For coffee there will always be a concern when it comes to any suggestion of physical distancing, the industry, the very history of the drink is founded on a strong sense of community and personal engagement. But as the age of the internet hits a new horizon, and blazes past it, as only modern technology can, we need to see the momentum that is growing around us, recognise it’s general direction, and be sure to be a part of it, rather than watch it from the sidelines.
I am not suggesting that the physical experience of coffee is going anywhere, indeed I will be the first to fight to keep that alive. Rather I am of the opinion that we can expand the reach of our passion into this emerging space. Clearly I already subscribe to this ethos, I write this blog to do exactly that, but I also believe that we can apply skill and experience to enhance the potential of digital space experiences in the world of coffee.
If you have found all this interesting you should definitely look out for more from Bear Essentials in digital format events as we go forward. we’d love to see you at some of them.
As ever we remain committed to ensuring the accessibility of coffee and will work to use any tools we can to do so.
Please also click through the link to visit Cloudgate Coffee our partners on this voyage of discovery and maybe pick up some great coffee while you do.
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Thanks, – Bear