In this era of personalized, one-to-one engagement, brands are increasingly turning to experiential and event marketing to create rich, emotional connections with consumers. 

From huge events and sponsorships to small, guerilla-style activations, experiential and event marketers are generating new, highly creative initiatives that demand consumer attention. As important, these events become fodder for social media, encouraging Tweets, Instagrams, Snaps and streams. This not only amplifies the reach of an individual event, but also provides sponsors with unique, real-time insights into how consumers react to the campaigns.

In fact, experiential campaigns are going beyond brand awareness to drive direct ROI, whether in the form of immediate sales or, more importantly, in terms of the consumer data that can be gathered and analyzed. On-site registration and giveaways drive qualified leads. Event hashtags provide metrics for consumer engagement. Deeper social listening data gives a sense of overall event impact.

That’s not to say that brand perception is no longer important to experiential. Just the opposite is true. According to the Event Marketing Institute’s 2016 Event Track benchmarking report, 72 percent of consumers said they positively view brands that provide quality event content and experiences. More importantly, 74 percent indicated that engaging with branded event marketing experiences makes them more likely to buy the products being promoted. That explains why the study found that more than half of brand marketers were increasing their spending on experiential campaigns and events.

“The power and impact of experiences that create emotional connections between brands and consumers is finally being appreciated and understood,” says Chris Meyer, CEO of experiential agency George P. Johnson. “This is being driven by three things: 1. A shift in preferences by millennials who not only expect but prefer experiences over any other engagement. 2. Data driven platforms that allow hyper-personalization and much stronger metrics.  3. Heightened creative thinking applied to experience design to create unique and valuable interactions. Experiential has finally taken its place at the adult table as it relates to marketing mix and investment.”

Millennials’ thirst for experiences—and their desire to share those experiences with their social networks—remains a crucial driver of experiential and event marketing success. Netflix took advantage of this for the promotion of its revival of Gilmore Girls, a show with a strong millennial audience. This past October it transformed more than 200 local coffee shops across the country into Luke’s Diner, the fictional hangout on the series. Working with its agency Allied Experiential, it recruited shops based on their location and their ability to attract 20- to 30-year-olds who were most likely to be one-time fans of the show.

Brands are further upping the ante with millennials by leveraging emerging technologies such as VR to immerse consumers in these experiences. In fact, it seems like having a VR headset available is now almost a requirement for a successful event. During last year’s SxSW conference, Anheuser-Busch set up the Budweiser Beer Garage to engage the tech-savvy attendees. The highlight: a virtual brewery tour in which attendees strapped on a VR headset for a multisensory journey seeing how Budweiser is made.

“Brand experiences must put the audience at the center because their access to information is limitless and their ability to create is more robust than at any other moment in our history,” says Chris Cavanaugh, EVP and CMO of Freeman. “This means we have to create meaning and value or they simply won’t engage. We’re on the constant hunt to uncover new ways to inform, amplify and extend their online and in-real-life experiences. The experience has to be worthy of their time.”

“Today, the consumer is the boss and in charge of shaping their brand experience,” concurs Lisa Fasana, VP of account management at agency Marketing Werks. “When developing an activation strategy, agencies must think about how to meet the unique individual needs of the consumer. Ultimately, the consumer is who will control the outcome of their experience.”

Enhanced by Big Data

Experiential events have long had the ability to produce torrents of data for brands and agencies. But using that data has been a challenge. While posting comments or images of an event to social channels is de rigueur for attendees, simply measuring social reach doesn’t take into account what is being said. That’s why brands are now taking more advantage of social listening platforms to hear what is being said and organize the unstructured data generated by an event. Image recognition now makes it easier to identify photos posted to Instagram, Snapchat and other visual channels.

“Data is absolutely changing the game for those who can capitalize on it,” says Scott Kellner, VP of marketing at George P. Johnson. “[We’re] using it to inform strategy and creative, measuring during execution and creating actionable insights post event. The customers get more personalized experiences and our clients can measure ROI. It’s a game changer.”

Agency executives believe that using data can make activations more personal and powerful. Consumers are increasingly accustomed to personalization in their daily lives—and want it at the events they attend as well. VR, mobile apps and second-screen engagement linked to an activation can provide real-time digital feedback that can enhance an event experience.

“Big data does help to deliver better, more effective experiential marketing programs,” says Fasana of Marketing Werks. “Being able to reach a consumer in the right place, at the right time and with the right message allows us to develop targeted, immersive experiences that can successfully accelerate a brand beyond a single moment in time. It provides the foundation for a brand to build long-lasting relationships with consumers.”

A More Active Role

With brand experience more important than ever, experiential agencies are being engaged earlier in the process. Events, sponsorships, tours, pop-up stores and the like are becoming more critical to overall campaign success.

“There are now blurred lines between the different marketing disciplines. Strategy can come from any agency and the best idea wins,” says Mia Choi, founder and chief creative offices at MAS Event + Design. “We’re no longer trying to adapt creative to the physical space, but are instead often coming up with the campaign idea and integrating experiential elements into it right from the start,”

Choi points to a recent program MAS did with Condé Nast for Lincoln Motor Company that started as physical, event-oriented activation, but ultimately morphed into a larger integrated campaign.

Aardvark Event Logistics, which works with agencies to provide mobile tour support, is also seeing a shift. “We’re starting to hear a lot more from strategists than from creative departments,” says Larry Borden, founder and CEO. “The strategists are coming to us with clear objectives and firm business goals versus just a creative vision. This signals to me that mobile tours, sampling efforts and pop-up shops are now an important part of the marketing mix instead of just being a really cool piece of eye candy.”

 

This post originally appeared in Adweek. Read the original here