What was once labeled as merely a "below-the-line" marketing tactic is being scrutinized like never before by marketers seeking tangible proof of events' impact.
"In the mid-1990s, we were producing big events and concerts with large budgets and little or no measurement. Now the client imperative is to design programs and events that create multiple touch points and become the beginning of an ongoing relationship with the consumer," says Sarah Eck-Thompson, co-president and chief operating officer at experiential marketing agency All Terrain, Chicago.
Such standards make measurement and accountability more crucial.
Cathy Lang, chief operating officer at Aspen Marketing Services, discerns "a paradigm shift ... the expectations have risen for what events can deliver, and marketers demand to know what they're getting in return for their investment."
Tech aids ROI hunt
Technology is playing a key role. Tablet-size wireless computers gather feedback from event attendees; touch screens, scannable instant-win cards and real-time reporting systems allow marketers to monitor events from headquarters.
"Tablet-style computers allow us to use brand ambassadors to roam around events handing out cards consumers can bring to the AT&T booth and scan to win prizes; we can touch 10,000 people a day at one event," says Ms. Lang, referring to last year's AT&T Blue Ribbon Tour, which traveled to 120 different events. The goal was to expand awareness and sales of AT&T services; about 8,000 products were sold at the live events.
"We can raise awareness of AT&T's products by 25%-30% at a major event," Ms. Lang says. At such large events, she says, the client usually hires a third-party measurement service. Consumers' cellphones and hand-held digital devices also help measure the impact of events, says Kevin McNulty, chief marketing officer of Interpublic Group of Cos.' Momentum Worldwide, New York.
When a live event has an internet or mobile device component, it adds "the science of quantitative metrics to the decidedly unscientific rationales of experience and intuition," he says. "Some of the most impactful mobile tactics we have used for data capture include text messaging, short-code promotions and voting programs, mobile ticketing, and mobile follow-up in the forms of exclusive content and user-generated video."
Addressing business goals
The ROI challenge is to find ways to better address business goals via the events, Mr. McNulty says, noting, "From the concept stage, we gather with representatives from the client's core agencies [advertising, online, public relations, media] to ensure that we are thinking about return on investment from the very beginning and setting clear measurables."
Marketers often hire Aegis Group's Marketing Management Analytics to provide an objective, third-party assessment before, during and after sponsored events.
"Event-marketing agencies are instrumenting the events themselves with more points of measurement," says Ed See, co-president and chief operating officer at MMA. "The idea is to put the points of measurement into the path of the consumer moving through the event."
Gauging consumer reaction
Relay Worldwide structures its events so it can read consumers' reactions throughout the experience, says Matt Pensinger, VP-consulting for the Chicago agency, a unit of Publicis Groupe.
"We set it up so that we can measure consumers' awareness before they see it, then we measure the number of people who see it, we describe them demographically, we measure how much time they are spending with the event, and we can get their anecdotal feedback about the event and how their perception of the brand was affected," Mr. Pensinger says. Relay can beam the results of an event in progress to the sponsor in real time.
Interpublic's Jack Morton Worldwide, New York, whose clients include Cotton Inc. (see case study), can also provide detailed results about the number and type of consumers making face-to-face contact with brands at events. In response to marketers' requests for more qualitative information, Morton next month plans to unveil an even better way of presenting those results, says Laura Schuler, president-U.S. division and chief strategy officer.
"We've developed an engagement metric that looks at the quality of the people we've reached, the quality of the experience we've created for them, and the quality of impact on their attitudes and behavior," Ms. Schuler says.
MMA says it's typical for a major marketer to spend 1%-2% of the total event budget on measuring accountability.
Higher standards, lower expenditures
"Event marketing still falls far short of what is spent on traditional advertising," Mr. Pensinger says, "although event marketing is held to a much higher standard than advertising when it comes to justifying its existence."
At the same time, All Terrain's Ms. Eck-Thompson warns that too much emphasis on measurement technologies can undermine the consumer experience.
"As experiential marketers, our ultimate goal is to facilitate a consumer's experience with a product and its features," she says. "Electronic lead generation -- and even more traditional methods, for that matter -- can make the whole experience feel transactional and invasive if they are not designed well. The key is achieving a balance between promoting the product and measuring the activity."
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Case Study: Cotton Inc.'s 'Dirty Laundry Tour'
Goal: Jack Morton Worldwide for Cotton Inc. wanted to educate college students about the care of cotton clothing
Strategy: Measure awareness of cotton's features among students. Develop promotion to expose them to cotton products. Measure post-event impact. Event: "Cotton's Dirty Laundry Tour."
Experience: Activities such as "Wheel of Cotton" trivia game and online "Rock & Load Sweepstakes."
Results: Morton says a post-event survey showed nine out of 10 students rated the 2006 tour "very good" or "excellent." Overall, 86,700 students attended the event. Accesscotton.com got 1.4 million hits (September '06-January '07); media impressions from the tour's 14 cities topped 3.2 million.
Marketer reaction: "For 2007 [the tour's third year], we will continue this successful program, engaging consumers to have fun ... and walk away with the beginnings of a sustainable relationship" with cotton, says Paula G. Rosario, Cotton Inc. VP-consumer marketing, strategic alliances.