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If You Build It, Will They Come? Rules to Live By In Experiential Marketing

By Rick Kiley, Co-Founder of SoHo Experiential

We’ve all been there before. We’ve laid out the spread, adjusted the lighting, stocked the bar, iced the beers, and pushed play on the hand selected playlist. Weeks of planning build to this moment when, 10 minutes before the party is scheduled to start, we sit on the sofa, nursing a drink to calm our nerves about our greatest fear:

“What if nobody shows up?”

Whether it’s for an event we are producing for a client, or for a birthday party I’m throwing for my kids, I’m often dealt a sweaty moment of pause right before it begins, dreading that the unlikely doomsday scenario that haunts my dreams might become a reality.

Of course, as with any anxiety, the only relief comes in the form of PREPAREDNESS and EXPERIENCE.

In the business of experiential, the stakes are raised even further; our natural fear that people will not show up is compounded by the fact that we are spending other people’s money. For experiential marketers and event producers around the world, a poorly attended event can be a death sentence because, according to clients, if a tree falls in the woods, and no one hears it, it definitely did NOT make a sound.

I’m still caught off guard when people attend a SoHo Experiential event and the first question they ask is, “How did you GET all these people here?” as if it were some magic trick we learned while attending Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Don’t get me wrong, my astonishment isn’t with the question; our team mines gobs of data and works our invitation plans for months to get right, it’s just a little surprising to me that with all the new interactive doodads and digital bells and whistles we layer onto our events these days, that this is STILL the number one question.

“No. Really. How did you GET everyone here? I mean, they are all the RIGHT people too! They all look like the people that I want here.”

I, and everyone else at our agency, have always been a little cagey about our answer to this question, since we don’t want to give away our competitive advantage. However, saying it’s a trade secret doesn’t tend to go over very well with clients. So, we formalized our invitation management process into a service we call SoHo Connect, and began offering attendance management as a stand-alone service, giving our clients a little more insight into how we do what we do in the process.

For anyone interested in ensuring their events are full in the future, I thought I’d share seven insights that help us get the job done. Some of these ideas are building blocks of our SoHo Connect system, which is 10 years and 50,000 events in the making, and still evolving every day.

  1. DON’T BE AFRAID – First and foremost, it seems that everyone wants to pass the buck on this task. Many agencies want to create great events, but don’t want to be held responsible for generating an audience. This is a fully analytical task that with enough time and opportunities any mathematically sound mind can figure out. Also, it’s great to raise your hand and say you can do it, when no one else wants to. Be bold, be accountable – and don’t be afraid.
  2. TEST CONSTANTLY – The methods of driving attendance are changing constantly. The only way to stay on top of the ever-evolving landscape is to test new invitation tactics, even when you don’t have to. If you find a successful approach and just stick with it, you will learn too late that some new social site called TwitFaceSter just popped up, and it’s the only place to find the influential members of the millennial creative class your client so desperately wants to engage.
  3. UNDERSTAND THE VALUE OF YOUR OFFERING – You need to figure out how important your event is to people. Once they say they are going to come, will they? How many? If the Chicago Cubs make it into the playoffs, will people ditch your event to watch the game instead? Will people pay? How much is too much? These are all excellent questions that need to be answered if you are going to deliver a full house (in October in Chicago). Unfortunately, while advance intelligence will provide some guidance for all your questions, the only way to truly know for sure is to test it out. If you can build in budget for some test events with your client, great. If you can manage their expectations during this process, even better.
  4. OVERBOOK – Take a page from the airlines. It’s always better to turn people away, and offer them an apology and an invite to attend at a later date, than to have no-shows. Clients often shy away from this, and you need to show them that a few momentarily unsatisfied people is far better than a 50% full house, at double your target Cost per head. Furthermore, if you are able to develop a good turn-away- plan, you’ll be able to turn those unhappy people into future leads for your program, and your client.
  5. HAVE A PLAN A, PLAN B, and PLAN C – This seems obvious, of course. However, with driving attendance, you also need to build in enough time to implement your backup plans. It will not help to learn that your event is only 60% full two days prior, because you will not have enough time to react accordingly. Start your invitation campaign early, and build in specific goals to hit by target dates leading up to your event. If you don’t hit the mark, pull the trigger on Plan B – don’t get emotional about this, and don’t hesitate. If you delay, you will lose precious time required to fulfill your commitment.
  6. ENCOURAGE PASS ALONG – Especially when dealing with digital invitations, the “pass along” or “viral” aspect of the medium is very helpful. Someone receives an invite, determines he or she cannot attend, but knows a friend who would like it, and passes the invitation along. Our campaigns often see up to 30% of registrants come through pass along methods, and we LOVE this. Recently we’ve taken steps to reward people who will pass along invites to friends, using systems we’ve built, and I encourage you to do the same.
  7. FILL EVENTS FIRST, OPTIMIZE TARGETING LATER – This may sound a tad controversial, and you don’t need to agree with me; however, over the years we have found that, in the eyes of our clients, an empty event is a cardinal sin, while an certain “acceptable” number of attendees being off- target is perceived as an opportunity to improve the in the future. I believe this is true for two reasons. First, at the end of the day, cost per attendee is a big Key Performance Indicator – arguably the #1 performance indicator. If your program is budgeted for $100/head, but ends up costing $200/head, it doesn’t matter who you have there – eventually your client CFO is going shut it down. But, if some off-target people come, they are still usually viewed as people who are interested in your client’s brand – and the bean counters will stay off your back.

If you have other ideas, I would love to hear them and discuss them. The good news is that, as daunting and anxiety provoking as driving attendance can be, live events and experiences are what people want. The day of branded swag has passed – I mean, when was the last time you saw someone post a photo of an awesome branded keychain on Instagram? People want to come to events, and there is big opportunity for anyone with the patience and diligence to develop a system to draw them in.