So, did you have the chance to be present at CES 2020? You know, the aptly considered “a global stage for innovation”? Well, whether you attended or not, chances are, you probably read some articles. And many of the news pieces that came out in regards to CES 2020 surrounded the same topic. HBO and their hit show Westworld, a dystopian future where technology reigns supreme in strange ways. And that’s exactly the topic we’re discussing on today’s Event Brew.

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Today we’re joined by our amazing hosts Will Curran and Nick Borelli. Because after news broke about the Westworld activation at CES 2020, they just had to jump right into it. So expect some of the most interesting discussions we’ve had thus far on the show. Grab your favorite drink and press play – it’s time for some brewing!

Click here for the full audio transcription.

ces 2020It’s Not Westworld’s First Rodeo

CES 2020 wasn’t the first instance where HBO caused waves with their bold activations. “Two years ago at South by Southwest, there was an activation, that Viacom via HBO via Westworld did, that it was just unbelievable”, Nick recalls. “So there was a number of different companies with the main organization being HBOs’ parents. But also Lyft and a few others. And attendees would be picked up in a car by Lyft. And then there was like an audio kind of like the introduction of what to expect of this activation”.

“But they took you off-campus, and they dropped you into this huge, kind of like wild West kind of a town that they created”, he continues”. And they had 100 character actors who had 400 pages of script, that were kind of gave the parameters for these characters to act within and things they had to say eventually to get to it. But they were to improv and also utilize these lines, but you also have to get from A to B to C and you have to guide it there. People are blown away because it was completely immersive”.

Take Two: CES 2020

“So this activation was a two and a half-hour long interactive experience, at the Las Vegas Nomad”, Will explains. Essentially it leads with that everyone was hearing about this invite from this company called Insight. And obviously, if you watch the show, you don’t know anything about Insight quite yet”.

“But essentially the activation happened that they reached out to a bunch of people who invited them to come, kind of similar to South by Southwest. I’m sure it’s based on the invite or press list or whatever it may be. And essentially what they did is they sent the attendees a survey and said, “Hey, we want to ask you a bunch of questions.” And the big questions that if I remember right in this article that talks about are they asked them about like food preferences, name, last name. What other questions? Whether they feel guilty after eating animals, they feel anxious about the future”.

Things Get Weird

“And essentially, to take it to a high level, there was a dinner party with a keynote. That was it. But then it got weird very, very quick. So, this guy is walking in line, he’s waiting in line and in the article, he talks about how a woman walked up to him that he didn’t recognize and gave him a big hug and said how nice it was to see you, how his dog was and how his boyfriend by name were doing. And he spent the whole time talking or wondering, man, did I forget that we had met or if the game had begun”.

“But he says that, “It quickly became clear that it was the latter.” So, in the article of businesses, “Throughout the night, random folks approached me and my coworkers to discuss personal details of our lives, our work, the articles we had written, the changes in our hair color. And in one case, uncertainty whether or not to move out of their current city was warranted.

The Breakthrough

“And it says that “essentially they found out that the later they found out there was a 600 page script similar to what they did the last time, that was personally tailored for the entire evening.” So essentially what they did is they scour the internet for all the information on these people, and were able to build these epic scripts to personalize their experience. So instantly people were coming up and talking about things that you don’t know them, but they know a lot about you”.

What About Privacy?

Discussing the events that took place during CES 2020, Nick is all for it. “Personally, I don’t believe in the level of privacy that most people believe in. Because I believe that every time you engage with one of these platforms, you are willingly giving up privacy to everything that you publish”.

“I believe it is a publishing platform, in which we engage in their terms of service”, he adds. “And oftentimes when it has no price and it offers a lot of great tools because it’s paid for by someone else. It comes with a stipulation that absolutely everything that you give there is open for anyone to find out about. So, I just am not scared, nor am I entitled to a product like a Facebook without paying the Piper. In the way that they have designed and I have agreed to”.

Personalization Enters The Chat

Will brings up that this activation was all about using data. And using data to make better decisions for people. Which brings us to the topic of events and hyper-personalization. “It’s tricky”, says Nick. “They just did it as a show of brute force power of what they can do because it’s like a fun activation for a television show. But if you’re in a real behavior professional, you could read certain clues about people. And determine that some of this stuff might be creepy. So best to not play your hand too hard and let people know how much you know about them. It’d be subtler while others would like the less subtlety”.

“That’s really where I find it funny with this stuff”, he continues. “Because I think that everyone wants personalization, customization and less friction, and more satisfaction in their experiences. And other people are subjectively creeped out by it going too far for them. Knowing where too far is for other people right now in this period where I think too far is a significant number of people, is going to be the trick. And then I think over time that bar will go further and further back to the point where again, minority report where people aren’t really squeamish about it at all”.

Deeper Into The Events Industry

Will wonders if the CES 2020 activation didn’t “create damage within your attendees to the point they don’t want to ever attend the event again? Or will they just be back next year as long as you say we took it too far, sorry?”. And here, Nick says that “there are ways to mitigate that risk by creating smaller sample groups and focus groups. You don’t necessarily have to treat your core attendees like guinea pigs”.

“And I think that that’s what Westworld was doing. And I think that that’s what we can do with the live events. It really is the data exhaust of attendees, measuring that and then applying that to understanding human behavior and then different types of people in order to, get them to do the things you want them to do”, he adds.

ces 2020Data & Artificial Intelligence

“We need to have a campaign of awareness of what is the data about ourselves, what we are putting it out there”, says Nick. “And where we’re doing it. Like when you write someone an email and then using a free email service that’s being scrubbed. So look for keywords in order to deliver advertising to you or to understand your behavior more and more”.

“The problem with AI 15, 20 years ago when people were thinking about it is, it’s going to be ruled really, really slowly”, he continues. “Because it takes too long to manually input data into it for it to learn. Cut to social media age where it’s like, no, it has so much human data applicable to it. Its ability to learn about us is like, it’s completely like you just turn it on”.

Looking Into The Future

“I think it will be interesting to see in the future too”, adds Will. “I mean, all it’s going to take is someone to create some sort of realistic system that allows you to collect data. Scrub the internet and tell you to build profiles on people. And then all they have to do is open an API and then say, insert into my registration system. I’m thinking for the business sample, it’s CRM. So then that way when I get up when someone requests a quote. Boom, I know everything about them! All their kids, everything I could find on the internet”.

“What makes them angry, what makes them happy?”, Nick adds. “Get me down to the point of, this is their fears. This makes them trust. Trust and fear. Those are the two number one behaviors that I’m looking for as a marketer of what triggers those things. Because I want to be able to do whatever I can in marketing to take you from a lack of awareness to trust as fast as possible. And like that comes through, personalization is a level of trust”.

What It Means To Humanity

The CES 2020 activation got Nick thinking about humanity. “We’re offered the opportunity to grow by being put into positions where we aren’t comfortable, that we don’t let things come out of the left field that we don’t expect. And we have the ability to overcome it”, he says. “And if you have a world that is tailored to you based on the things that you’ve already done to give you more and more of it…Like for instance, if you always drank coffee and you had a lot of internet of things, items in your house. And would have the coffee delivered to you the exact way you always like it. All you would do is you’d be built into this never-ending loop”.

Nick goes further with this idea of tailoring the world to one’s liking. “If your news avoids pain, then you’re like, the world is always exactly like I thought it was. And it just confirms your biases over and over and over again. So like I’m looking at this kind of personalization. Well, you don’t want to see this kind of news, you don’t want to get this kind of information. It could trigger you. It could do this, it could do that. And what you’ll end up resulting is a pretty safe, comfortable life. Where you get from A to B as quickly as possible with the least amount of friction as possible”.

What About Events?

“So discomfort might be something that we consider in our design”, says Nick. “And that is as opposed to the ideas of personalization as possible. That’s where I believe that events are, a pivot point between art and science. I think that it’s your responsibility to understand the science of people. And it’s also your responsibility to create a kind of a piece of art or something that makes people feel something in the way that it expresses what you believe. In order to, get them somewhere that they haven’t experienced”.

“You could just deliver the same thing over and over again and optimize it”, he continues. “But you’ll find that you would be in this loop of retention potentially. But if you really want to make an impact, the next level requires you to take a leap of faith”.

A Sense Of Entitlement

“The only way to reach people really is to do the thing that they’re basically saying to do”, says Nick. “Which is to go personalized because it’s what grabs them. Like they are publishing all this information. They’re giving every second of their lives out to the world and they’re also saying, it’s very difficult to put something in front of me or for me to spend any time on anything. Because nothing is speaking to me specifically enough”.

“So the user again is begging for all this stuff. And every once in awhile wakes up from this dream saying, what do you mean I have to pay for it with the idea? I should be able to have a Facebook, not pay for it. Have everything about me hidden and not known. It’s just like entitlement. It’s not a real thing. And there are search engines that exist that are completely closed off”.

CES 2020: One Heck Of An Event

“I think this is the potential to create a movement about, at least chip away at it or start these discussions”, Nick concludes. “Because again, it went from an experience that people had that was immersive experiential to other people like being so taken back by it that the world went and heard about it. And then for people like us to tell other people about it, that’s a movement. That is bigger than just, trying to change someone’s behavior. That’s trying to change behaviors of people and turn them into change agents. And, so for me, these are the best events, period”.


And that’s a wrap on this week’s edition of Event Brew! What’s your take on what happened at CES 2020 with the Westworld activation? And what are your thoughts on privacy, data, and events such as this? Make sure you let us know and don’t forget to tune in next week for some more brewing!


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The most insightful vision of the future at CES came from HBO’s ‘Westworld’

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Nick Borelli

Author Nick Borelli

With 20+ years in the industry, Nick Borelli is passionate about helping event brands communicate stories that result in achieving strategic goals.

More posts by Nick Borelli

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