Last updated: Experiential marketing: Resurrected and revamped for digital times

Experiential marketing: Resurrected and revamped for digital times


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Experiential marketing is back, baby.

When the global pandemic erupted more than two years ago, many CMOs put the approach – which depends on driving engagement with target audiences at key live events – on hold. Others attempted to continue experiential activations online, albeit with mixed results.

Now, with masks coming off and live events returning, experiential marketing appears poised for a comeback. According to a study conducted by AnyRoad, an experience management firm, 75% of brands have returned to in-person events and the same percentage say they’re driving experiential programs once again.

A separate survey found that 83% of marketers plan to continue or increase spending on experiential marketing this year.

While brands are brushing the dust off this marketing approach, they’re also changing it up to suit a different world.

Experiential marketing returns

Some of the renewed experiential marketing efforts will follow the playbooks that were commonplace for shows like South by Southwest (SXSW), Panorama, and the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.

For example, at Coachella this year, vodka brand Absolut hosted a clever, metaverse-based activation, singer Billie Eilish’s team hoisted a giant bottle of her new fragrance, and Spotify hosted an album release for Swedish House Mafia as well as a daytime retreat. And American Express returned to live events with a lounge that gave Coachella attendees a place to cool off from the desert heat with a crystal bar, tarot card and astrology readings, acupuncture, and hydration stations.

But many other experiential programs will be hybrid, meaning they’ll mix digital and in-person activities in an attempt to reach wider and more geographically diverse audiences.

Indeed, 71% of B2B marketers and 63% of B2C marketers opted for hybrid events in 2021, according to a 2022 Agency EA study.

Keeping digital in-the-experiential-mix makes sense when you consider 98% of consumers who attend events or experiences traditionally create digital or social content. What’s more, COVID conditioned people to do more than they already were online.

Although symptoms like Zoom fatigue can always dampen online experiences, if the activation is done well, brands can still appeal to attendees, and especially influencers, who wouldn’t otherwise be willing to spend their time or hard-earned money on event travel.

5 tips for successful activations

To be clear, no marketer can assume live events are here to stay. Every new COVID variant presents the possibility of more crowd-control measures. As such, using terms like “post-pandemic” would be premature when considering the future of experiential marketing.

But experts offer a few tips for navigating the new normal for more successful activations, including:

  1. Think virtual first
  2. Redefine success metrics
  3. Drive separate physical and digital experiences
  4. Prioritize hot trends
  5. Consider tiered experiences

Flip the script with a digital-first mindset

Yes, it seems counterintuitive. Experiential marketing was built around live, in-person events with the digital components serving as amplification of that. A nice additional benefit.

But Gartner predicts the cost, reach, and innovation opportunities tied to online activations will make them more attractive than live engagements. For instance, the analyst firm says 30% of large technology vendors will adopt a “virtual first” event model by 2024 compared to less than 5% before the pandemic.

Gartner goes on to note that adopting a virtual-first strategy also enables organizations to be ready in case they need to quickly pivot all activities online due to “external market forces.”

Today, live events must be viewed as a nice add-on to digital marketing efforts.

Find new ways to measure success

Before the pandemic, it was common and sensible to measure success by counting the bodies passing through the gates of hosted events while separately gauging eyeballs or impressions from social media and other online amplification efforts.

But as Gartner points out, physical event attendance could be lower for some time, which means marketers will need to look for other ways to claim victory.

Gartner recommends developing “long-term strategies that reflect the pandemic’s influence on events.” It says marketers should also be realistic in forecasting future event participation and set clear expectations with stakeholders about that.

Consistent storytelling, separate experiences

It would be easy to try and mimic what you do physically in the digital world or vice versa. But experts recommend having separate activations that still tell the brand’s story.

While there should be some consistency of storytelling, marketers should consider separate activations designed to take advantage of each environment’s strengths, then package them together for overall campaign success.

For example, a hot marketing trend is to build programs around “bleisure,” which is a combination of business and leisure travel. Marketers might put together entire travel programs that combine on- and off-site aspects of a trip, including air, lodging, dining, and nearby entertainment in addition to the specific on-site activations they are hosting.

The digital aspects could also tie into this, including online contests, award ceremonies, live social media concerts or parties, or influencer meet-ups.

Focus on hot trends to stand out

Experiential marketing, as with all marketing, is all about differentiation. If a brand is doing the same thing as everyone else in physical and virtual events, their activations quickly become white noise for attendees.

That’s why it’s critical to take a few risks and integrate new and emerging technologies in the experiential mix.

For example, some marketers are experimenting by offering NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, as prizes in experiential contests and promotions to attract and influence younger attendees.

NFTs are digital ownership certificates for unique art, music, and other items people might like to possess. As opposed to typical event swag, they actually can end up being quite valuable with some NFTS selling for tens of millions of dollars.

Finding ways to make use of augmented reality, virtual reality, and extended reality tools and technologies could also help brand marketers create unusual yet memorable customer experiences.

Create FOMO with VIP experiences 

Since people pay to get into most events, brands allow attendees into their experiential activations for free. But creatively monetizing physical and virtual experiences with VIP packages or passes could be an option as well. Asking people to pay a bit more for unique add-ons or special content builds value in their minds.

Many attendees will also fear missing out on experiences that others could later crow about. And many participants will go on to boast in social media about having attended the exclusive portions of an event, adding to its overall mystique.

Experiential marketing never truly died, even if it was on hiatus. But as it becomes a core customer engagement strategy again, brands must approach it from a fresh perspective. The world is radically different from just two years ago, and customers want the experiences brands offer to reflect that.

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