How experiential marketing came to be
Experiential marketing, which originally evolved about 15 years ago from sampling agencies specializing in hiring cheerful people wearing a branded shirt standing on street corners or outside tractor pulls saying “excuse me sir/madame, have you tried the Sparkly Clean and Exciting Taste of New UltraFresh Candy-Cane/Jackfruit-flavored… hey come back here, it’s FREE!”
While consumers enjoyed receiving free product as they scurried to work, the effectiveness of these practices waned. Thus, sampling agencies began to evolve and hire creative departments and a new marketing buzzword was invented to extract whatever budget drippings were left over after TV commercials were aired: experiential marketing.
Experiential had its peak in the mid-2000s. When I was a creative director at a mid-sized experiential agency, we recognized that the biggest selling point in this medium was the ever-coveted word of mouth marketing “buzz” that we could create to “move the needle” in a market. We worked WOM into every pitch and marketers loved it. Except for one problem: without expensive, cumbersome and somewhat questionable tracking services, it’s very difficult to actually quantify word of mouth.
Every year the agency would be appeasing a new client trend: integration of the latest social media platform into our concepts. “We need a YouTube integration point.” “Included, of course, is a MySpace touchpoint.” Facebook and Twitter followed soon after. I don’t do much experiential these days, but I imagine Instagram and new brand-integrated apps like Kapture would be the new ones today.
Now, everyone has a Twitter account
It was an obvious progression that experiential agencies, faced with decimated budgets in 2008, would start to shift their focus from generating offline WOM to pushing online social media efforts for one simple reason: social media is easily trackable. The problem is that despite all of the pretty analytics we can send to a marketing director, it’s not actually where people talk about brands. According to Keller Fay, this still happens mostly offline.
Fast forward to present day. Every major brand now has a social presence that they either do very well or laughably bad. Either way, we can all agree that even Rent-A-Wreck has a Twitter and Facebook account. A lot of social media love went to the first-mover brands who, gasp, actually replied to people and had real public, off-the-cuff conversations with real live consumers without routing each response through ten partner ad agencies and the PR firm for approval.
At this point, one percent of brands have devoted the staff, resources, training, and organizational philosophy to truly have real time conversations with their audience at scale.
The other 99% are competing in a sea of chaos, confusion, desperation, and sociopathy, turning these channels into mostly curated content to show how “with it” the brand is that they too read RSS feeds and post their favorite articles, or blatant commercials for sales and products.
Endless cash spent to appear involved
Thousands of social media “dashboards,” “listening tools,” “influencer metrics,” and other such drek that VC’s continue to pump millions of dollars into for the sole purpose of allowing these creepy self-interested companies a simple way to emulate having actual conversations.
Want to show a your audience you’re with it and cool? Track what’s trending with a content curation platform. Can’t talk to all your fans? Measure influencers and talk to only the ones who matter! Reward their “status” by sending them a coupon because they are so “important.” Maybe they’ll tell all their almost-important friends! Worried an influencer said something bad about your brand but don’t have time to read the trillions of conversations per second that happen online? Use a listening platform with HAL-3000-integrated Natural Language Semantic-Parsed Pepperoni-Flavored Smelting Technology to tell you all the bad words they said about your new Quadruple Bacon Sliders with Wasabi-Chocolate Sauce.
Combine that with such meaningless consumer actions as “likes” and “follows” and brands have completely lost their way in terms of what the potential of social was when they began to engage consumers in the first place. If I like your brand, I’ve taken literally 1/2 of a second to go “yes, I’m interested in continuing to receive information from you as long as it’s interesting or saves me money.” Far more impressive is signing up for an email list, since that takes actual effort, not a click of a trackpad. Then, if you don’t have good EdgeRank, I’ll probably never see your post again anyway as it gets lost down the Facebook memory hole.
Getting marketers back to what is actually effective
One metric we tried to foist upon unsuspecting marketers back in the good old days of experiential was “Quality of Engagement.” Although completely measured on an honor system, the idea of QE makes a valid point: someone walking by and seeing an experiential event is obviously a lower QE than someone who engaged in your branded apple-bobbing competition, won it and told all their friends what an amazing experience they had despite that moment where they were sure they were going to drown.
This helps justify somewhat expensive budgets for what can amount to paying $1 and upwards of 100 per engagement depending on the goals, target and success of the campaign.
Embracing QE would allow marketers to get back to what’s important and ultimately effective: creating brand ambassadors who will help spread your marketing message through word of mouth. You don’t build these relationships in social media by putting up a contest and asking people to like you as a way to enter and then pelt them with marketing messages. You don’t do it by tweeting “we’re so sorry our Department of Stabbing Things with Metal Spears got ahold of your luggage, please call us at 1-800-HOLD-PLEASE and we’ll take care of you somewhat soon.”
You do it the old fashioned way: by shaking hands and having real in-person conversations and positive memorable experiences.
Can social media still be an effective part of experiential?
Sure. For a major soda brand, we created a private social network of existing users who drank this beverage in high quantity. Some members told stories of being obsessed with locating it far-flung places like Japan while on vacation. We vetted all of our experiential ideas with them and incorporated their feedback into our campaign (despite some expected eye-rolling from the client.)
During the tour, they were invited down as VIPs and felt like they had an ownership stake in our success. A public social network was used to send people we encountered to continue to engage with fans online after the event. Efforts like this can be highly effective if coordinated properly. The problem with social media is that by itself, it’s like trying to give people icing without any cake. If it doesn’t have something to “stick” to, it’s just hanging out there by itself. Experiential is a great cake to put the social media icing on.