Nothing from my marketing past could have prepared me for this meeting. Fresh from having run a large, publicly traded interactive agency, I was in my second month as president/CEO of a mid-size, independent experiential/promotional agency. Earlier in my career, I had been embedded in the fact-based, data-driven world of direct marketing.

Sitting around the table were some very smart guys with great energy. They were responsible for outfitting the brands involved with NASCAR’s three race circuits (Nextel Cup, Busch Series and Craftsman) and pairing them with the actual teams that race across the entire country for 36 weeks. They were in our offices because we were convinced that one of our clients would benefit greatly from making the leap into the large market segment that follows NASCAR. Eventually, we got around to cost: What does it actually cost to become part of such an iconic and definitively American pastime?

“Well,” the head of business development and partnerships began, “there’s $14 million to own the paint [so your brand’s name appears across the hood], and depending on the quality of the team, $18 to $20 million locked and loaded for the sponsorship and, finally, about $12 to $15 million for activation.”

Activation, I thought. Hmm, this is where it would get the most interesting for me.

If you’ve been in financial services, activation means someone has not only applied for your credit card, they’ve actually started using it. If you talk about brand activation to a data-driven marketer, you are basically saying, “Yes, we have had an exchange of value.” That usually means you have created something relevant and that an individual responded by giving you some personal information. Hopefully, a successful dialogue breaks out as a result.

Not so in event/experiential marketing. In this type of marketing, activation means we’re talking about giving away pencils and towels. Yup, that’s right. We are approximately $50 million in, and we are activating a brand’s presence and developing criteria for success by putting up a tent and giving away pencils and towels!

I began to think back to 1997-’98, when advertising types hijacked the discussion about what the Web could be and brought us banner ads, gross reach and CPMs. It was only later that we applied direct-response science and data, and the real nature of the medium emerged. A marriage of both reach and sales conversions was not only realized, it was demanded.

And so, sitting at the NASCAR meeting, it all began to clarify for me. After two months on the job, I realized there really was very little marketing going on in “event marketing.” There were a lot of arms and legs, a lot of logistics and a helluva lot of T-shirts, key chains, loud music and swarms of people.

But where was the marketing? This was more like a living tableau of a brand billboard – a sort of daydream of all the fun things that a brand could do for you. After $50 million, you would hope someone would be having fun, and maybe someone was. It just wouldn’t be anyone on the sales staff.

If you were to present this scenario for an “event” in the business-to-business world, you would be fired. Where are the leads? Where are the insights? What are the follow-ups – the proposals, the visits to the office and the inevitable start of the long road to a sale?

I can just hear the guffaws among veterans of consumer-event marketing: That’s not our gig – leads – that’s not our job. These are people who came up in an industry rife with concert promoters and logistical producers; it’s a business with more moving parts than a game of Twister. But it’s not a business with a lot of marketers, i.e., those who live and die with data, results, tweaking, conversions of leads and so on.

So as this NASCAR meeting came to a conclusion – it really was a revelation complete with angels, cherubs, choruses of bad singers – it dawned on me that a great opportunity existed to talk to senior marketers whose organizations spend so much and yet expect so little. This is a part of the industry that needs to grow up a little and live side by side with the scrutiny and ROI expectations that many of us experience every day.

At the risk of being less relevant to “event marketers” but hopefully instructive to the marketers who would love the opportunity to turn a great direct-to-consumer, face-to-face opportunity into a strategic addition to the marketer’s tool kit, I offer five things to think about and a “next generation” of event/experiential marketing:

  1. Create a “theme park” focused on generating demand, making sales and building relationships. You’re already making the investment, so why not apply the brand immersion techniques we have learned from the online world? The experience needs to be built from the consumer in, not the product out.

    For example, Abt will collaborate with its manufacturing partners to deliver a variety of environments that a consumer can dimensionalize from his own point of view. The idea is no different than what we in B-to-B marketing call “solution selling.” In this case, you are not selling high-end appliances; you are creating a unique and highly satisfying solution that fills the need for a new way to articulate the concept of “kitchen” as more of a social gathering space and less of a room that someone disappears into and reappears from later with food.

    In the business-to-business arena, Boeing has caught on to a similar concept with its 54,000-square-foot Dreamliner Gallery in Everett, Wash., which acts like a one-stop showroom where customers can experience everything from what the seats feel like to how the window shades move and where the microwave ovens are installed. The same kind of creative thinking can be applied to make things like pop-up retail, mall tours and stadium demos more engaging and effective.

  2. Integrate events with online and other marketing activities. Get your outside agencies and internal teams together. Share the media plans across all disciplines while there is still time to develop integration strategies. Inform your strategy with what you have learned from face-to-face encounters with consumers and vice versa.

    Given the power of face-to-face brand marketing, it can reveal an incredible amount about what is really going on – as opposed to trying to approximate what happens between products and consumers online.

    My firm recently created a campaign that integrates high PR currency with a live brand experience – a makeover tour across the country introducing a new line of cosmetics. The brand itself will be launched on MySpace, and six highly influential “brand ambassadors” will document their lives with the brand on the launch site. This idea never would have been realized or even considered had we not asked for a tighter relationship with the client’s media agency.

    Indeed, media is often bought in a vacuum. In the cosmetics example, much of the client’s budget was committed at the beginning of the year, so there was no way of being opportunistic and taking advantage of flux. The owners of the media budget (the media agency) invested heavily in print and traditional media, which forced everyone else to retrofit their strategies to fit the agency’s agenda. But our example shows that, even when most media are pre-bought, you can still influence the creative product and overlay your event schedule with your annual media plan.

  3. Deploy field marketers, not activators. You need to turn events from field activation exercises to field marketing experiences. This means training the people who represent your brand at events to watch and listen closely and ask questions.

    For example, on the cosmetics tour, a total of 55 aspiring makeover artists will be trained to look out for what we call brand diffusers, i.e., young ladies who can’t contain their enthusiasm for the makeover experience. We actually have employed a cultural anthropologist to develop a guidebook that teaches staff to look for certain types of behaviors so they can focus on truly enthusiastic consumers with the potential to become loyal advocates. Once these “fans” are identified, clients have the opportunity to invite them into special programs. Such programs use exposure and education to recruit validated brand connector/ diffusers, who then turn their social circles on to a variety of products that are relevant to their lives. It’s a very deliberate and structured approach to word-of-mouth marketing.

  4. Create a word-of-mouth architecture. Yes, there is such a thing as “word-of-mouth architecture,” and no event should take place without one. It simply means that you have taken the time to provide consumers and influencers with multiple pathways back to the brand as well as to the online and community-driven parts of your strategy.

    For inspiration, check out an online social network called, which not only enables members to meet other people with similar musical tastes but also view music videos based on the songs in their music libraries.

    It’s all about finding common ground between your brand and consumers, giving them something to talk about and then providing them with a means to talk about it. Make sure there are plenty of ways for individuals to converse within a like-minded community.

  5. Develop ROI/KPI measures. I visited with the head of experiential marketing of a leading American brand, and he told me they were letting their four experiential agencies go because none of them could show any ROI metrics for the activities they were executing. “They win a lot of awards for creativity, but it turns out it is an awful lot of fluff,” he said, in describing the situation.

    The challenge, as I see it, is that another layer of marketing knowledge needs to be added to the mix when developing face-to-face activities. There is a lot of time and effort that goes into understanding how the consumer interacts in the retail experience. We observe how people move through aisles, how much time they take looking at this particular display or that, we talk about optimizing the experience to allow for the best marriage between happy consumers and profitable transactions. We need to apply the same depth of analysis to events.

    At my company, we are developing “cookbooks” for each client’s programs to give staff a better understanding of the various consumer behaviors so that we can segment them appropriately. Collecting data – be it consumer surveys or trained observations – is key to helping companies add additional insight into how people interact with brands.

Some other ROI/KPI components that can be deployed immediately are:

  • Collect data, have people fill out surveys, conduct customer interviews – but make absolutely certain you have a plan to get that data back into the company’s infrastructure. These are leads, prospects and people that can be connected through larger, well-thought-out CRM and Email programs.
  • Make it easy for consumers to share their information with you. Technologies like short message and multimedia message services (SMS and MMS, respectively) allow you to offer value and receive data in return – in a way that makes it easy for both sides.
  • Connect the dots to retail. Have offers ready and available for driving people to transactions or, at the very least, drive people online to relevant landing pages (not to your home page).
  • Develop analytic strategies that defend special consumer experiences beyond basic reach. For example, clients can validate their investments by getting third-party data from retail partners that looks at sales on the days when events take place.
  • Commit to ambassador programs. Once your staff is trained to look for potential brand connectors, develop a program that deputizes these people to carry your brand into their lives.
  • Think of all your activities as lead generation and surround them with the appropriate processes and tools.

The outcome will be a much deeper and more sophisticated marketing exercise that will deliver data and insight, integrated efforts across other tactical channels, potential leads that can be carried to retail or face-to-face salesforces and a much more defensible position.