While all marketing campaigns involve experiences, what sets experiential marketing apart is its focus on authentic interaction.
As Amanda Zantal-Wiener explains on the HubSpot blog, experiential marketing is “authentic in the sense that it goes beyond sending messages to your audience, digitally or otherwise, and requires creating a live opportunity to interact with your brand.” Essentially, an experiential marketing campaign creates an interactive world for your audience that is true to your brand and its mission. This interactive element can be as elaborate as recreating Westworld or as straightforward as a scavenger hunt.
Either way, experiential marketing can be a powerful addition to any marketer’s toolkit: events and experiences increase the likelihood of purchase by 85 percent and positive sentiment by 90 percent. But effective though it is, the technique can easily backfire when managed poorly.
Thankfully, there are foundational principles that can make experiential marketing easier to execute. Here are five of the most important.
Five experiential marketing fundamentals
1. Define what you want to achieve
Perhaps this point is best made with a negative example. In early 2017, Shia LaBeouf launched a unique experiential campaign: a live stream of a vacant New York lot where the actor attempted to rope passersby into chanting, “He will not divide us,” with him. Created with no clear goal in mind — the group insisted it both was and wasn’t a political rally — the event quickly spun out of control, culminating in LaBeouf’s arrest.
“Before anything is done, ensure you’re clear on what the outcome you require is, know what success looks like,” insists experiential expert Adam Azor. As simple as this advice sounds, it’s easy to let the enthusiasm for ideas push goals into the background. And that temptation is particularly hazardous with a technique as freeform and creative as experiential marketing.
So, as with any marketing campaign, start with the end in mind.
2. Understand your audience’s values and lifestyle
The Bay Area is known for its humanistic compassion, and Google wanted to provide the local community an opportunity to express their values in their element. Instead of going the standard corporate giving route, Google turned corporate philanthropy into a community experience. It let San Franciscans vote on how the company would donate via interactive signs it posted at popular spots around the city.
Dubbed the Google Impact Challenge, the campaign allocated over five million dollars to charity, generated 400,000 votes, and helped Google change the conversation around itself. As TechCrunch’s Megan Rose Dickey notes in an article about the campaign: “In the last two years, Google has gone from being one of the most heavily protested tech companies to being the region’s top corporate donor to charities and nonprofit organizations.”
Few companies have the resources Google does, but we can all learn from how carefully it researched its target audience. Research seems particularly critical to this technique, as consumers rate knowledge of the audience as one of the most important and memorable elements of a brand event or experience.
What do your customers care about? How can you help them live out those values? Where do they like to spend their time? Can you meet them where they are? Answer these questions, and you’re on your way to creating an experience that forges an emotional connection with your audience — am achievement strived for by all brands.
3. Ask yourself, “What’s true to your brand?”
For a recent promotion, consumer audio firm Sonos wanted to craft an experience that captured the essence of sound. To achieve this effect, they enlisted three different artists to help them create small pop-up installations that uniquely illustrated the rich features of sound.
One installation translated the music into patterns from lights suspended from the ceiling. Another broke the songs into their individual elements and delegated them to separate speakers. The last room visualized the electrical activity of visitors’ brains as they listened.
While the technology and artistry at work were impressive, the campaign also succeeded in staying true to Sonos and its values. The brand is about incredible sound, and that is exactly what was center stage in this experience. As you brainstorm, use authenticity as a guiding principle. After all, 86% of consumers factor authenticity in their purchasing decisions.
4. Try to incorporate digital
To inspire its customers to hit the streets during those long summer days, Citi Bike came up with a clever campaign: Why not dare their riders to take on a scavenger hunt? Every week, the Citi Bike Summer Scavenger Hunt challenged participants to solve a puzzle that contained a secret location. Once solved, participants had to bike to the spot, take a pic, and post it for evidence on social media — all for a prize, of course.
While remarkable in a number of aspects, the campaign stands out because of its elegant integration of the real and digital worlds. Events naturally encourage tweets and Instagram posts, but experiential marketers should think beyond what’s noteworthy or photogenic about their experience. They should ask themselves which aspects of the experience they’re crafting belong on social media. Are there games, exchanges, or creative activities that work best on a digital channel? After all, it’s foolish to overlook what people spend almost half their free time doing.
5. Always test your concepts before going live
As part of a daring product activation, Jägermeister wanted to create a pool party with a unique atmosphere: fog. To achieve the desired effect, the event staff poured liquid nitrogen into the pool. Unfortunately, the reaction had unexpected side effects: the fog it created was poisonous, hospitalizing eight and leaving one person in a coma.
Experiential marketing has proven challenging for even the biggest brands, as Snapple, Paramount, IBM, and others have all had their gaffes. These incidents shouldn’t serve as a disincentive, but rather as a reminder of the importance of another fundamental: testing.
As Bel Booker notes on the Eventbrite blog, “Having a trial run enables you to flag up any potential problems in advance of your activation. And if your activity involves any technology, gadgets or machinery, make sure you’re fully familiar with it before the day.”
Wrapping up: The psychological insight in experiential marketing
Emotion is key to experiential marketing, and it also might be key to vivid, lasting memories. A recent psychological study on emotion and memory stated that “substantial evidence has established that emotional events are remembered more clearly, accurately and for longer periods of time than are neutral events.”
Few approaches have more potential to create memories than experiential marketing. Master the craft, and it could help you build real, lasting relationships with your audience.