When the economy hit the ground like Joe Frazier didn’t like its face event marketers could have fallen right down with it and hugged the canvas. But you didn’t. You took the left hook from accounting about your budgets and most recently the uppercut from the media and the public about your sponsorships and meetings. And you’re still standing.
Some of the best minds in the industry members of EM’s Editorial Advisory Board are strapping on the boxing gloves too. Here they come together to offer up strategies that have helped them survive and the methods they’ll use in the coming months to turn this near-knockout into a 12-round upset. Among their insights: the importance (and cost-effectiveness) of integrating social media into events; winning new more qualified customers through mass customization and virtual experiences; and finding the hidden upsides in the downturn.
EM: What emerging trends will be top of mind this year?
Judah Zeigler: I think because of what’s happening with the economy and because of the whole paradigm shift in customers’ minds and brands’ minds you’ve got people really thinking now about multi-platform marketing. I think you’re going to see for lack of a better term a partnership between properties and sponsors in terms of thinking outside the box and really coming up with integrated multi-level activations instead of “let me put a sign up in the outfield” or “let me stand outside the front gate and hand out something.” It’s all part of a bigger plan and that obviously takes a lot more work but it’s also a lot more rewarding for everybody.
Bobby Wilkinson: Digitally connecting with those consumers who are either on-site or at home. It will be the companies or the segments that continue to leverage technology to reach more and more customers in building their brand and making their brand top of mind that will continue to stand out and deliver and bring in new revenue to their firms. It is technology technology technology for the foreseeable future.
Scott Paddock: One thing that we’ve seen and that we’re now embracing is this notion of a very 360-degree integrated marketing approach. We used to start everything with a TV idea. Now we’re much more focused on coming up with a concept and building a marketing plan around it. Some of it may go to TV some of it may be more of a digital application and some of it may be more event-focused. Typically in our world event marketing meant sort of a grassroots effort focused on elite teen and tween athletes to get them into the franchise and to be part of their formative experience. Now the definition of event marketing—the context—has changed and we’ve gotten much broader in using event marketing as a platform.
Phil Bockhorn: Mass customization. The economies of scale have been reversed where now we scale to the economies. It could be a micro-economy that we’re looking at it could be a macro-segment but the events and the experiences that we offer are really more and more tailored to the needs at hand. The climate has changed and it’s really become a more sophisticated industry that’s able to cope with a more complex set of customers out there. I don’t think that any two [consumers] are the same not that that was ever the assumption but nowadays I really think that we’re able to accommodate that complexity.
Terry Shorrock: Live events that are tied to social networking sites. For the Consumer Electronics Show in January we invited a number of bloggers to come to CES on behalf of Panasonic and they wrote about our performance at CES from their point of view. So we asked regular people to comment on Panasonic rather than us talking about ourselves. And I think you’ll see that not just from Panasonic but also from many companies. When they do live events they will have some way to integrate that live event with online programs.
EM: How does this change how event marketers manage their portfolios?
TS: Event marketing and experiential marketing is still going to be very important but as marketers we have to let the customers speak for us. We can’t as Panasonic use messages that describe Panasonic as amazing and state of the art. We have to let the customers do that and let the customers speak for our brand almost as ambassadors of our brand because in general the public will respect the opinion of an outside person or entity or an organization more than they will our own company. More and more of that is going to be important and I think the experiential and event marketing activities that people engage in allow people to engage in that more.
Mary Fehrnstrom: It’s an understanding that brands aren’t in control anymore. I think it will be the brands that can let go and engage with our customers the way they want to engage with us those brands are going to win. I think one of the realizations we’ve come to is taking more of the customer perspective in everything we do. We have traditionally had an event team and a trade show team and an online team like most organizations have. And right now the way the world is moving a trade show has a customer intimacy element in event-related activities. They have maybe a different kind of trade show floor presence than they’ve had in the past and then they all have online extensions or virtual environments associated with the participation. So what we’re seeing from a customer perspective is: an event is an event is an event. They don’t know and they don’t care how it gets done or which team does it internally. I think our opportunity is organizational alignment to our customer’s needs and wants. That will be a challenge for Cisco and maybe a lot of other companies—how do we think differently because the customers want what they want.
PB: I think it’s analogous to the Internet; how many subsets of Internet users or customer groups there are out here. Infinite right? I think in our industry we are recognizing that and to me that’s the next big trend. It’s a myriad of sub-segments and segments beyond that. So that’s the difference—it’s truly down to the mom who might love a minivan to the mom who hates a minivan to the mom who hates it now but will love it in a year or two. It’s fascinating. I don’t think there’s ever a dull day in this business.
EM: Any big lessons from the past year?
JZ: It wasn’t a lesson. It was sort of a reinforcement that activating with your channel partners really works. Sponsorship and event marketing isn’t just about creating a cool footprint and having consumers who attend say “Wow that’s nice.” It needs to be about focusing on your business and focusing on the things that are going to grow your business. It’s not some big 300-watt light bulb that should be going off over your head but again when you spend the kind of money that brands spend to do this stuff and when it works well that’s really a great reinforcement. How many hundreds of business case studies are there that show that brands that increase their advertising and marketing spends during economic downturns are the brands that have become more successful over time? Every single one.
PB: We’ve always had this feeling that experiential marketing means maximum experience. So for us it always meant “the car’s the star” but the experience could be interactive it can be interaction with trained product specialists interaction with our narrators. It was more of the environment as opposed to the experience. And what we’ve been forced to do is say “What does experiential marketing really mean?” It clarified what our mission really is and it’s our biggest accomplishment in 2008 because our numbers didn’t fall off. In terms of leads we track down to the sales conversion level. All of these we were able to maintain. So at the end of the day when we thought the sky was falling it turns out that by really reassessing what experiential marketing is and going back to the basic blocking and tackling we were able to hold our own. The other thing for 2008 that we did not trim was the metrics because how can you prove or disprove your strategy and tactics unless you have metrics? In a personal sense it was good we were able to hold onto the metrics side of our activities just to be able to come back and say “See it works.”
EM: What’s on tap for your brands later this year? Any big changes?
MF: Virtual is playing a huge role. Most of our top tier face-to-face events will have an online extension. In some cases there may even be an online replacement. Also how do we insert customer intelligence to build out a better targeted event marketing plan to key customers? What we’re seeing now is: you may have 5 000 people going to VoiceCon but if we can zero in on 25 of the top customers that are going to be there that have a high propensity to buy unified communications products that is where it gets really exciting for me. The rest of the people they become sort of a secondary audience and those key customers become the ones that we really engage with and spend the right amount of time and executive involvement with.
BW: In California we are focused on building our brand within the Latino community around youth soccer partnering with the Dodgers who have a huge Latino fan base and partnering with Chivas USA which is a professional soccer team out here in Southern California. So for us it’s about being on the ground with the Latino community to continue that great partnership. Again it goes back to where your customers are. You’ve got to meet them there on the ground with these great events build your brand and get them happy with your brand.
PB: Scaling back on some legacy events that have had a long history with us where it might have been a case of never wanting to let go and now almost having the freedom of saying we can’t support them as much as we did in the past nor do we want to.
EM: Any advice for your peers especially those being hit hard by the public and media?
TS: My best advice is to make sure they are measuring their programs properly and then take out their measurement statistics that show that the sponsorship activities and event marketing activities actually work for them and that they yield significant benefits. They have to understand what the ROI is because there are alternative sources and opportunities. You can take [resources] away from sponsoring golf and use it to support sales activities. They really have to know whether they are of value or not and be strategic in their selection.
PB: The key for us when we have a high-visibility high-profile sponsorship of an event is that we can reduce the optics on that and at the same time use on-site activation or the interaction we have through email and other communications related to the event. They are still just as effective without that exposure without sticking your head up too high. Don’t think that by taking a lower profile in terms of media that it reduces the impact that you have on the experiential portion of the event. It’s the packaging of that [event] or the presentation of that that needs to be adjusted but definitely not the heart and soul which is the activation and the experience.
JZ: Stand up for what’s right. If like Bank of America you can quantify—and I use them as an example because they are a fellow MLB sponsor but a lot of banks do it well and a lot of other folks do it well—I don’t think it’s wrong to stand up and say “This is an efficient use of marketing dollars and it grows our business. Sponsorship is one of the ways in which we accomplish those goals and here’s the data we have to support it so shut up.” And I mean that sincerely.
BW: We have to keep selling the value of what we do in event and sponsorship marketing. It’s just about showing the revenue that we bring in. And we have to be able to articulate had it not been for this sponsorship or this event where we brought in these leads or we brought in these new customers we would have missed out on this revenue. So we have to be able to do all that and then we have to be able to articulate it to those folks above us who make those decisions. Even if you lose one job you can find another one as long as you can show you can bring cash flow and bring value to your organization.
PB: As we’re all under fire these days the key is to not lose sight of what experiential marketing is all about and use this as an opportunity to reassess what your key experience is and make sure that you understand the complexity of the customer base as well as the prospect base out there. The nice thing is: even though we’re being challenged to reconsider and adjust our approach the tried and true elements of experiential marketing remain intact. I think this is hopefully a once in a lifetime period for all of us but what a great opportunity for everyone to really prove the merit of what we do and be able to say that we were up to the task and up to the challenge. It’s a positive opportunity if we all take advantage of it.