Is Your Brand Ready For Experiential? The Five Questions You Must Answer YES to before hiring an agency.

By Rick Kiley, Co-Founder of SoHo Experiential

It would be my hope that upon reading the title, you, the reader, would say “HELL Yeah.” You wouldn’t be alone either. These days, it seems that our clients get more excited about creating experiences for their brands than they do for anything else. We feel they are right to be enthusiastic, of course. As an experiential agency, we invest so much time selling the idea that consumers love experiences, that we sometimes overlook how much satisfaction our clients (who are basically the most passionate brand users out there) get out of creating them.

Over the past 11 years, SoHo has morphed from a tiny, three-person startup agency that would take on nearly any project, to a mid-sized agency that is lucky enough to work with some very well-established and recognizable brands. Throughout our first decade, we’ve worked with small emerging brands as well as recognizable brands with eight and nine figure annual A&P budgets.  As a result, our exposure to brands in different life stages (from product launch to market leader), has provided us with the insight required to determine if a prospective client is really ready for experiential.

The cynical person may now comment, “Well, I bet you work with any client who has a ton of money to spend.” And yes, of course, a war chest of cash can be enticing, but unfortunately, cash alone cannot make a bad strategy work, or make people want a product they don’t like. Believe it or not, we have walked away from well-paying clients in the past, and it’s because they were not able to answer YES to the questions below.

1. Can attendees buy your product or service easily? This is the number one issue plaguing new brands. Unfortunately, you simply cannot invest in experiential until EVERYONE attending can buy your product or service easily. If your brand’s online store isn’t set up yet – DON’T invest in Experiential – set up your store. If online sales aren’t easy or an option; if you don’t have distribution at retailers that your attendees can get to from their homes in less than 10 minutes – DON’T invest in Experiential – invest in distribution.

If your event’s attendees love your brand, but they can’t get their hands on your products easily, you will lose them forever! They will be mad that their emotional balloon was popped, and find the closest competitor and start using their brand. Please, please, don’t let this happen.

2. Can you articulate what success looks like in a measurable way? My (least) favorite briefing meeting we’ve ever participated in went down like this:

CLIENT PROSPECT: “We just want to do cool stuff.”
ME: “Ok. But what do you want the event to do?”
CP: “We want it to be cool.”
ME: “I hear ya… but what do you want the attendees to do after they attend?”
CP: “Say that the event was cool.”
ME: “Ok… How many people do you want to attend?”
CP: “I don’t know.”
ME: “What kind of budget do you have?”
CP: “That will depend on the idea. On how cool we think it is.”
ME: “How much do you want to spend per head?”
CP: “We’ll see what we’re cool with.”
ME: “Thank you for your time.”

In writing this short play, I honestly only added one extra “cool” into the script, but I think the point is clear. The fact is, many clients have a hard time translating what they want out of an experience into a measurable objective, and therefore will not get as much support from their superiors, who are often bottom-line minded CFO’s and CEO’s. The entrenched CEO/CFO thinks, “if we invest this money in a shopper marketing program, I’ll see an 8% uptick in sales over the next quarter.” Client side marketing leaders must put quantifiable objectives in place, because it will help us agencies deliver, and ensure that the program will not get cut by financial leadership at some point.

I will pen a future blog post about measurements and analytics; but, for now, focus on three main factors – increased usage/consumption, increased affinity, and post-event advocacy. These three metrics are 100% quantifiable, and key to proving success.

3. Do you have the ability to scale up? When creating a new experience, most clients, whether they are a Fortune 500 brand or a small startup, want to “test” a program. This is smart, and we are always supportive of a test and learn approach. But, consider this – you’ve performed the test, you’ve researched the results and captured feedback, and you’ve determined that it’s an unqualified success. The experience changes behavior, it’s highly memorable, and your guests are now converting their peers. Now what?

For a successful experiential campaign to take off, clients need to be ready to put the pedal to the metal when they find a winner. If your roll out budget is only a 25% increase over your test budget, then the program will not be a difference maker. Clients need to plan for success, not failure. Use long term planning to earmark 5x or 10x your test budget so that, if a program works, you can ramp up quickly, and in a big way. Brands that are able to execute decisively are rewarded with a notable uptick in every brand health measure.

4. Can you be patient enough for your experience to bear fruit? Branded experiences, when successful, change behavior. The realization of this behavioral change, in the form of increased buzz and greater sales, rarely comes immediately. It takes time. It takes time for someone to take what they experience and incorporate it into their lives. It takes time for them to tell their friends about the experience, share what they learned, and influence their friends to incorporate it into their lives. It takes time for that new behavior to repeat, and repeat again.

Every client has a different expectation on when they should earn back their investment in the consumer who participates. For some clients, they want to earn it back in a year, or two years. Some can be a little faster, and some who have very slow sales cycles (like car companies) can be even more patient.

While the timing differs from brand to brand, one thing is clear. If your need is to hit a sales number in 30 days or for a quarter, experiential may not be the answer. If you are looking to drive subscriptions or drive sales, then coupons, BOGOs, and GWPs are the way to get you there. Just don’t expect coupons to change behavior.

5. Can you stay focused enough to make an impact? Once a program is proven to be successful in one city, stakeholders in other cities will clamor for the campaign to appear in their market as well. The brand director who helped create the program, and was smart enough to plan for a 5x increase in budget because it was so successful, is now faced with a challenge:

“Do I stay focused on fewer areas, where I can achieve a beach-head and really own the market? Or do I try and make internal stakeholders happy, and run the risk of diluting the impact of the campaign by potentially stretching it too thin.”

This can be a real problem for several reasons; the first being that it is simply more expensive to run a program in more markets. If your goal is to reach 100,000 consumers, it will be significantly cheaper to focus on three cities than to extend to 10 cities. With 10 markets, we see increased travel, extra activation kits, more people to train, etc. This drives up the costs and reduces the efficiency of the activation.

Additionally, stretching too thin reduces your campaign’s ability to hit a tipping point in a market, where the campaign buzz takes on its own life, and you benefit from that focused investment in earned media and social chatter.

In our experience, clients that have the most success with experiential marketing answer YES to all five of these questions. They are the clients with whom we are enjoying productive long-term relationships today.  Experiential is a unique and exciting discipline, because you get to see opinions changing before your very eyes. When we are able to take a patient, measured approach, ensuring that our clients are ready to realize the full benefits of experiential, we can go beyond marketing goals; changing consumers’ minds and creating vocal brand advocates.