How to Avoid Having Your Experiential Marketing Become Programmatic

Poorly executed experiences are like a pre-roll ad you can’t free yourself from

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As more industry attention is being paid to consumer experience as an interplay of physical and digital touchpoints, the definition of experiential marketing is getting used in wide and varying degrees. Some think the “Real People, Not Actors” series of Chevy spots could be construed as experiential marketing while admirers of the Fearless Girl statue, citing its continued visibility, would say the same.

As brand-created retail experiences become more prevalent in culture, the notion of experiential marketing gets stretched even further. How could Red Bull Stratos, Always’ “Like a Girl,” Dove’s “Real Beauty,” #OptOutside or so many other incredible experience-based campaigns be defined as anything other than experiential marketing?

An equally important definition of experiential marketing encompasses activities that often live below the line and engage people with branded experiences like sampling, promotions, retail-tainment, sponsorship activation, live event production, pop-up retail and lifestyle-based partnerships. This form of experiential marketing is becoming prevalent in almost every venue permissible, from in-store to concerts and sporting events to food trucks and street teams roaming cities and public spaces. And need I add B-to-B events and conferences that are extravaganzas of experience-based marketing?

Branded experiences that try to transact rather than inspire are worse than pre-roll ads because people are physically unable to click themselves out of that experience.

The reason for the explosion of experiential marketing can be largely attributed to its reputation as being one of the best tactics to convey and authenticate brand proof. According to the Experience Brand Index, global research conducted on 100 brands and 6,000 consumers, it’s the experience of brands (actions of and interactions with them), not their promises, that are the strongest driver of brand health. In fact, brands that lead in experiences enjoy a 200 percent higher Net Promoter Score, which measures how many people are promoters of a brand versus its detractors, than those who don’t provide brand experiences to their customers.

So experiential marketing is a big deal now. Brands are creating experiences big and small. Some brands are looking at experiential marketing as one immersive, large-budget activation and other brands are using experiential marketing as multiple sampling and live promotional events that are scaled and repeated on thousands of occasions. This bifurcation of experiential marketing is growing and requires an evolving approach to best-in-class strategies and activations.

The approach can be encapsulated in two non-mutually-exclusive questions that every marketer should ask when crafting experiential campaigns: Does this experience provide a clear benefit, utility or service that helps our audience in some way? And does this experience provide an opportunity to inspire, challenge and evoke a sense of delight, astonishment or strong emotion in our audience to varying degrees? If as a marketer you cannot clearly answer one or both of these questions when considering an experiential marketing approach, don’t do it.

Too many campaigns in culture right now don’t answer these questions adequately enough to stand out and create awareness. Worse still, not answering these questions prevents a brand from positively changing people’s perceptions of it.

Sampling without utility is physical spam. Branded experiences that try to transact rather than inspire are worse than pre-roll ads because people are physically unable to click themselves out of that experience. When a brand creates a very cool pop-up store, the key success metric shouldn’t simply be how many Instagram posts were generated and what influencers were paid to visit it. If a brand is spending millions of dollars to create event experiences and sponsored brand environments, it better be providing a relevant service or an unforgettable emotional connection to augment the event experience itself. Otherwise that brand is just part of the white noise of advertising. Without benefit or astonishment, those experiences look and feel programmatic.

As a mentee of Joe Pine, I recommend doing a two-by-two chart of your experiential marketing campaigns. On the X axis, put “high utility” and “no utility.” On the Y axis, place “amazing” and “superficial” at the ends. Start plotting out your brand’s experiential marketing efforts within this ecosystem. If you find a lot of your activations have no real benefit to people and lack any kind of stopping-power beyond a brand message, you may be doing experiential marketing all wrong.