WTF is the point of experiential marketing?

Or, Why An Expensive Thing That A Limited Group Will Experience In A Specific Geography For A Short Time Can Actually Be A Great Marketing Idea.

A view of the boardwalk at The Flamingo Party, a 33,000 square-foot immersive party by Hermès.

A view of the boardwalk at The Flamingo Party, a 33,000 square-foot immersive party by Hermès.

We’re living in a world where we wear computers on our wrists, boss our homes around with our voices, and buy $335 BILLION worth of goods online every year. This is a world where our teenagers never knew life without smartphones, and where doing things online is *literally* just as meaningful as doing things in the physical world.

So why, in God’s green VR earth, are so many brands going back to the dusty old physical world again and spending a lot of time and energy to give a relatively few people, in a specific place, a brand experience that only exists for a short period of time? Isn’t that pretty much the exact opposite of the promise of all things internet-y?? And what the hell IS “experiential marketing” actually?

Great questions, you active reader you. Let’s dive in.

First things first: What is experiential marketing?

At its very core, we define experiential marketing as giving at least one person an experience in the physical world.

That’s it. That’s what all the hubbub is about.

Of course, most experiential projects, or “activations,” are meant for more than one person to experience, but it’s critical to understand that the reach and impact of experiential marketing is not directly correlated to the number of people who are given the on-the-ground experience.

We also can’t add “an experience of your product” to the definition because, although many brands choose to do that, it’s certainly not a requirement and it’s often a better idea to build the experience on something more purpose-driven or imaginative than on your product itself – even if the goal is to make people fall in love with your product.

Okay, so back to the original question: why is it valuable to give a select few people, in a specific place, for a limited time, a physical-world experience that may or may not even be about your product?

Listen, we really want to tell you that. We really do. But let’s just take one more minute to list the four most common experiential activation categories we see today:

1. Events: Good news! If you ever hold events for your brand, you’re already in the business of experiential marketing. Of course, not all events are created equal, and “Come hear our talk” has a different impact than “Come step inside an *actual dream* where the walls are lickable and the clouds are controlled by your finger pointing.”

2. Pop-up Shops: The original pop-up shops were meant to be short-run brick-and-mortars that tried to embody the ideal brand experience in ways a typical retail store couldn’t. Now, though, the only thing that’s consistent from pop-up to pop-up is that they won’t be around forever, and they’re in some way riffing on what humanity has ever known as a “store,” sometimes getting as far as 2 or 3 times removed. Does it have walls? Does it even accept payment?? Are there even products?!

3. Stunts: The power of a stunt is that no one sees it coming, so that it can disrupt a person, group or place at a specific moment in time and in a compelling way — with the hope of being entertaining enough that the people who experience it start spreading what happened to them, and some members of the press think their readers will enjoy simply hearing the tale. The telekinetic girl at the cafe prank for the Carrie movie promotion is a classic example.

4. Installations: The idea here is that you create a physical object or environment — a sculpture, a cool neon sign, a tech-powered light display that responds to your movement, a photobooth that sends photos directly to your phone — and you either add it to your event or you leave it for a longer run in partnership with a building, public space or your own store.

And after all that, there’s still an inevitable disclaimer: While most experiential marketing can fit pretty neatly into one of those four categories, the fact that creative agencies have been playing with them for a while means that there’s also plenty of mashups of multiple categories, as well as attempts to come up with something entirely different.

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So that’s what experiential marketing is. But once again, we ask, why? Why even mess with a thing that is admittedly in a specific geography, for a limited amount of time, that will only be experienced by a limited number of people in comparison to the potential of a vast online audience?

1. Because the results of great experiential marketing do extend online.
Here are two fundamental truths that hold up experiential marketing:

  • Most people today have a knee-jerk reaction to share interesting things they see and do in the physical world, with their friends online
  • Publications are always looking for stories that their readers will like.

Those might not be revolutionary concepts, but simply by turning those concepts into principles, we were able to open a pop-up shop for Daisy Marc Jacobs that existed in the physical world for just three days, and yet resulted in over 18,000 social media posts that reached more than 40 million users, and another 160 press stories that earned 500 million media impressions.

How specifically do you do that? Well, either you hire us, or you wait until our next post. (Or both.)

2. Because great experiential doesn’t just generate an experience
With a little extra planning, your activation should also empower your brand to churn out corresponding brand videos, photos, thought leadership pieces, and whatever else you can dream up — that not only create the media kit for those hopeful press stories, but also become assets for you to share on your social channels and other properties.

3. Because it gives real people out there a sticky and meaningful memory of your brand. 
As exciting as the first two ideas are, there has always been and will always be something hugely important about real people having a meaningful in-the-flesh experience with your company. Experiential marketing gives people a multi-layered, multi-sensory experience of your brand — what it looks like, sounds like, feels like, smells like, tastes like. How it decorates, and how its ambassadors chat with people. Whether the experience is inspirational or lighthearted, polished or quirky, comforting or challenging. These deep, human-level points of connection often can’t be accomplished online, and won’t be soon forgotten by those who get to experience it, and it’s all owing to the very fact that it was so limited to a specific time and place and number of people.

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Typically you don’t get all 3 of these results at 100% strength, and the strength at which you get each depends on what category of idea you choose. But once again (and a million more times, forever and ever amen) returning to Makeout’s favorite game, “What Are We Trying To Do Again?,” we’d encourage you to start with which of those goals are most important to you, and let that define what kind of idea you want to do. Even go so far as to lay out a single dream outcome. Do you want a write-up in the NY Times? Or to get 20,000 people to experience your product? Or to cause a trending hashtag?

Any goal you choose is fair, and potentially even realistic, but keep in mind: you should only choose one. The sharpest, most compelling ideas come out of sharp, compelling goals.

Once you have your goal in place, then go back and think about what category of idea makes most sense to accomplish it. That’s a way better approach than getting married to the idea of a pop-up, for instance, just because pop-ups are cool everyone’s doing pop-ups we love pop-ups. Pop-ups.

(Real talk, though? We love pop-ups.)