• Strategy

Digital Strategies to Spur Physical Interaction

Mia E Lee
Mia Ellis-Lee
Design & Frontend Development
Write to Mia

The release of Pokemon Go by developer Niantic two years ago was met with massive hype and record-setting download statistics. The game’s surge of popularity saw hordes of players exploring their neighborhoods in the summer of 2016. By September 2016, just two months after the game’s release, the game had been downloaded 500 million times.

News articles were suddenly being written about players walking into traffic and into environmental hazards while playing Pokemon Go. People ran into Central Park, leaving their cars by the side of the road in order to catch a rare Pokemon. Video after video shows these Pokemon Go-induced stampedes occurring worldwide. The city of Toronto petitioned Niantic shortly after the game’s release to reduce the number of in-game locations of interest (“PokeStops”) after crowds of players began to congest the area around the Jack Layton Ferry Terminal. Yelp even added a filter for searching businesses that have nearby PokeStops.

A digital product spurring physical interaction on such a massive scale was unprecedented. Similar products had existed previously (such as Niantic’s predecessor to Pokemon Go, Ingress) but none so far had been met with the same widespread global popularity. Niantic had developed a product that compelled people to venture outside, congregate together, and share a common experience that was owed itself to both the physical and the digital.

Since the release of the immensely popular game, we’re seeing increasing numbers of physical events that leverage the benefits of digital technology to explore new possibilities. Integrating the digital with the physical can humanize a brand, a business, or a product. Retailers are finding novel ways of generating marketing buzz. We see digital content that encourages interaction with the physical world. Art installations now use social media, arduinos, and other tech in order to create completely unique experiences. Of course, strategic planning can be immensely valuable when melding digital technology with physical interaction. Over the remainder of this post, we’ll break down a few aspects of digitally-driven physical experiences implemented strategically and provide examples where these strategies paid off.


Timing can be everything. The release of Pokemon Go in the (North American) summer of 2016 was an immensely shrewd move on the part of the development and business team onboard. Not only did the late summertime release encourage North American users to play the game and explore by virtue of warmer weather, the timing of the release ensured the young target audience could play without school or university restricting their time. Moreover, the release was timed such that markets in the southern hemisphere would be transitioning from winter to spring.

Similarly, when the Lonely Whale foundation launched their #StopSucking campaign in the spring of 2017, the foundation was capitalizing on a growing societal concern with the protection of the environment. The #StopSucking campaign is focused on eliminating the use of plastic straws - by 2050 plastic in the ocean will outweigh fish. The digital campaign coincided with a physical experience dubbed “Sucker Punch” that appeared at South by Southwest (SXSW) 2018 in Austin, Texas. The extremely popular event saw people line up to take a super slow-motion video of an octopus tentacle smacking a plastic straw out of their mouth and drink (the straws used in the event were recycled to create skateboards). Participants were then given a link to download and share the video. Signage and staff communicated the goal of the movement and facts surrounding plastics in the ocean to participants in line, while celebrity participants such as Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Brooklyn Decker, and De La Soul generated buzz around both the event and the campaign.

The #StopSucking campaign benefited immensely from growing interest in the environment and minimizing our impact on the planet, but also a rising concern surrounding plastic use. Viral videos of sea life suffering and dying as a result of pollution were becoming increasingly common the internet. Articles by CNN, the Guardian, USA Today, the Washington Post and reports by the World Economic Forum and Anthropocene in 2016 revealed the massive extent of plastic pollution to more and more people. Efforts to reduce the use of plastic bags in previous years had already ingrained the issues surrounding single-use plastics among many. The start of the campaign and the SXSW event capitalized on this surge of attention. Moreover, the announcement by the United States of their withdrawal from the Paris Agreement in June 2017 (just a few months after SXSW) brought even more attention to the issue of environmental protection at large. #StopSucking has been monumentally successful so far: plastic straws will be completely banned in Seattle starting in 2018, 74.3 million people have been reached by the campaign so far, and 100+ partners of the Lonely Whale foundation devoting themselves to go completely strawless.

Digital Content

Depending on your strategy, distributing great content digitally can play a large role in promoting physical experiences or events. Whether your content is designed specifically to drive physical interaction or the content serves as a draw to get people to interact physically, it can play a big role in encouraging people to take part. Great digital content can serve to incentivize or promote face-to-face experiences (as is the case with our Digital Insights Guide)

Perhaps one of the more successful examples of digitally distributed content driving physical events over past few years has been the Nike+ Run Club and the Nike+ Training Club apps. The former serves as a run tracker, supplies coaching tips based on statistics such as pace or distance, and integrates social features to spur both competition and shared experiences amongst users. The latter is focused on distributing workout plans, training tips from pro athletes, as well as offers booking for Nike workout classes. The content is curated by Nike staff and plays an integral role in encouraging people to use the Nike apps over those of their competitors.

Notably, one of the shrewdest aspects of Nike’s strategy with their digital apps is the content not only promotes physical interaction, but it also promotes further digital interaction via the app (which in turn promotes more physical interaction). The rewards program that both apps use is perhaps one of the best examples of this. As users log miles or complete workout routines, they can unlock exclusive playlists through Apple Music or unlock content from partnered apps such as the meditation app Headspace. Perhaps the most integral reward that plays into this feedback loop that keeps users both working out and using the Nike apps is the promotion of exclusive events. These events range from exclusive training classes, exclusive races, or early access to Nike gear in brick and mortar stores. Experiential rewards often seem more personal and humanizing than monetary or point-based rewards to users and Nike has done an excellent job integrating them into their apps. This all serves to drive the user feedback loop and keep people using the app and interacting with the Nike brand. Digitally distributed content serves to keep encourage physical interaction, and the physical interaction (be it solo training, classes, or races) drives people to continue to engage with the digital side.


Building groundswell and hype for an physical event or experience through digital channels can’t be ignored when we talk about how the digital can spur the physical. Be it through Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter - digital channels play a vital role in marketing (whether promoting physical events or not).

Using social media to promote physical events is nothing new, but an excellent example of this practice comes from the video streaming service Hulu. To promote their acquisition of the show Seinfeld, Hulu built a replica of Jerry Seinfeld’s apartment and took to social media to publicize the event. Rather than just tweeting out hashtags, Hulu took the opportunity to engage with their audience. Hulu social media accounts reached out to fans to talk about the show and generate buzz about both the impending online release and the replica apartment event. Using GIFs from the show and communicating in a light-hearted, casual tone kept the campaign feeling genuine and human. Influencers were also met with engagement, and were sent a Seinfeld-themed gift from Hulu (either a puffy shirt or a “Box of Nothing”, both in-jokes from the show). By the end, the Twitter campaign had generated 3.4 million impressions and averaged a 36% engagement rate - and had thousands of attendees turn out to experience the replica of Jerry’s New York apartment.

While we often think of digital marketing taking place prior to the date of an event, a great example of using digital media concurrently with the event itself comes from Texas A&M University. In 2017 during the week before the commencement of classes (commonly known as “frosh week”, or at Texas A&M - “Howdy week”), the university introduced a vending machine which would give out free Texas A&M merchandise in exchange for a tweet or an Instagram post that used the tag “#HowdyWeek” and mentioned the vending machine. Not only did this drive more people to the event, but it also achieved the goal of promoting the university’s social media accounts (much like Nike’s strategy of capitalizing on physical events to drive further digital engagement). Texas A&M cleverly used digital marketing channels to promote an event which in turn promoted their digital marketing channels.

Emotional Resonance

Perhaps the hardest aspect of successfully integrating the digital with a physical event comes down to uniqueness, both with regards to the digital side and the physical. Creating a unique experience that emotionally resonates with people requires insight on the strengths of your brand/company/product and what sets you apart.

The physical side of digitally driven physical events plays a huge role with regards to emotional resonance and creating something meaningful for people. Sensory, in-person experiences by their very nature can often reach hearts and minds more effectively than their digital counterparts. Tokyo-based restaurant Sagaya Ginza implemented a projected digital art installation into their dining experience. The projections would interact with both the food and the diners as they ate their meal, often uniquely as the behavior of the projections were dynamically tied to that of the diners. Not only is the experience of each diner unique through the behavior of the installation itself, but the sensory nature of dining imbues the event with a distinctive flair.

Participation too plays large role in imbuing an event with emotional resonance - having people play a role in an event (either digitally or physically) builds personal connections to both an event and a brand. To promote a launch of NBA player Stephen Curry’s new shoe line, Under Armour and RED Interactive Agency created a campaign to promote the new sneakers. The campaign was designed around engaging fans both digitally and physically - fans had to find hidden “drop zones” on a digital map, go to the location where they would find a booth, and then select a shoe size and place the order in the booth. From here, a drone pilot would fly an autographed pair of the sneakers to the drop zone for the fan to receive. Not only did this encourage participation by way of the event itself, but the uniqueness of the event helped the campaign drive their social media efforts - resulting in 16,000,000 social media impressions, 119,000,000 media impressions, and entries from over 25,000 people. Moreover, those who downloaded the event-specific app spent over 8 minutes on average searching for hidden drop zones (and more than 10 minutes playing a basketball mini-game built into the app).

As more and more of our world becomes networked, we can see growing opportunities for bridging the physical and the digital in unique and engaging ways. The potential for engagement and differentiation is immense, and capitalizing on timing, groundswell, content distribution strategies and emotional resonance can set your events apart from the rest of the pack in this growing space.

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