Marketers are in it for the experience as well as the money. In September, "Event View 2006," a global study co-sponsored by George P. Johnson Co. (GPJ), a full-service event marketing agency, and Meeting Professionals International Foundation (MPI) found that 81% of 900 marketers surveyed are currently adding some form of experiential marketing into their event planning.
Even so, the process of executing a successful experiential campaign can be complicated. While return on investment can be high, marketers should have a solid understanding of their goals before embarking on an experiential campaign.
Even though the outcomes of an event can vary, there are a few target audience responses that ring true for everyone. "You want to touch people's hearts and minds. That's how you change people's behavior," said Dax Callner, VP-strategy practice leader at Jack Morton Worldwide, an experiential marketing agency. The key, he said, is to build "toward the pinnacle, which is customer advocacy. They're going to believe so much in the brand that they're going to tell others about it."
That means the power of the message needs to extend far beyond the event floor. "It needs to convey a benefit that is both emotional, psychological and intellectual. ... We literally mean that there are no errant details," said David Rich, VP-strategy at GPJ. "Every single detail of the experience personifies the brand."
It's important to create a campaign that will slice through what Callner termed "life spam"-an inundation of advertising that can drown out a marketer's message. Consequently, the most important aspect of planning for an experiential campaign is to know your audience. "You need to understand what will help them in their careers and what will help them in their business-not always the same thing," Callner said.
Rich did just that for a group of IT developers after GPJ was hired to work on an event. In order to connect with a skeptical audience, GPJ began by analyzing the developers' habits to help outline the event. The result, called "Code Camp" was unorthodox.
"Rather than having a more standard conference, we created an interactive experience that was just like camp," Rich said. "People could gather in the hallways, in sleeping bags, and work all day and night. Everything they wanted in the middle of the night was available."
The outcome, he said, was that the event felt like it was developed by the developers themselves. "We had taken their usual environment, heightened the attributes and invited them into it," he said.
For many marketers, the goal of these events is to let the audience have fun. Al Saltiel, VP-marketing at Navistar International Corp., has been behind several experiential events that were more about brand-building than selling a specific product.
"Our guys play a lot of golf," Saltiel said of his typical event audience. So Navistar runs an annual golf tournament. Guests get caddies, instructors and even real TV camera crews that follow them around and videotape their games. The winners receive a trip to Pebble Beach, and the participants in the event get follow-up calls from their instructors to provide a swing analysis.
"I think the most important thing that companies can do is to focus on an element that will keep people talking about the event long after it happens," Saltiel said. "Is this something that they're going to talk about later? Present your products in a unique environment, that's what creates an emotional connection between your customer and your product."
Recently, Saltiel had the opportunity to create another unique event. Navistar introduced a new line of long-haul trucks by inviting customers, dealers and employees to a two-day experience in Columbus, Ohio. On the first night, participants were introduced to one another at a dinner; the next day, they had the opportunity to drive the new trucks in several different roadway environments: on the highway and in the city, for example.
Finally, at the end of the day Navistar added an unexpected element-a trip in a different kind of Navistar vehicle. "In our case, we had a military vehicle that was not part of the product, but we did an off-road excursion-climbing hills and over streams," Saltiel said. "It was a nice special treatment. It was just totally fun."
And creating fun-or eliciting an emotional response-is the key to a successful event. According to Tony Lorenz, president of ProActive, a strategic communications and events agency, "If you're looking to address a target audience and either retain or acquire those relationships it's probably the most effective medium you can use. There's an emotional piece to the puzzle."