Following a year marked by constant chaos and disruption, the experiential marketing industry came back strong in 2021. And to support the event professionals making that seismic shift from “freak-out” to “full steam ahead,” we kicked off the first half of the year by delivering the educational resources needed to help fuel the industry’s next chapter.
We’re talking, of course, about the 19th annual Experiential Marketing Summit. This year divided into a three-part event series, the spring and summer editions of the Summit were held virtually March 30-31 and May 18-19, respectively. Encompassing breakout sessions, Q&As, deep-dive workshops, power panels, podcasts and keynotes, the events were led by an all-star faculty of brand-side event marketers who explored the most mission-critical trends, best practices and how-tos available on the discipline.
It was a pair of can’t-miss affairs, but just in case you did, we’ve recapped the top insights and takeaways from a cast of A-list instructors. Stay tuned for part three of EMS 2021, taking place live and in living color at Chicago’s McCormick Place, Oct. 6-7. Get all the details at emsummit.eventmarketer.com—and get ready to raise a glass to one epic reunion.
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During an operations workshop on planning for times of change, Kelly Knowlen, executive director of sales engagement and special events at Hilton Worldwide, offered up tips on how to increase attendees’ confidence surrounding the return to live events, which she pulled from a new set of standards the brand formulated based on customer input. To meet the challenge of planning for a flood of hybrid events, Hilton created an internal global initiative designed to ensure all its brands were following the same cleaning protocols. The playbook contains everything from ideas on wellness to creative networking and F&B. One set of standards: a room checklist featuring 10 touchpoints to guarantee the space is “event-ready.”
The planning lessons learned by Hilton since COVID began are many, but among Knowlen’s top tips: Manage event expectations, begin the planning process as soon as possible, create a comprehensive redundancy plan to mitigate potential technology mishaps and monitor attendee numbers. “Make sure you try and nail down your attendee numbers for both your in-person and virtual attendees right at the beginning, because that’s going to impact the platform you choose,” she says.
DIGITAL DWELL TIME
P&G learned to embrace agility and resiliency during 2020 to keep up with emerging trends, like digital commerce, according to Phil Duncan, the brand’s chief design officer. “We accelerated something like five years of development in three months’ time,” he says. Responding to shifts in consumer behavior became a top priority. One way P&G rose to the occasion: with its digital LifeLab environment at the virtual CES conference, which mimicked the brands’ popular hands-on experience at the tech event a year prior. Attendees built their own avatars and engaged in dialogue with the products’ creators—and averaged 20 minutes of dwell time to boot.
Duncan says that though the digital activation won’t replace the in-person experience, they complement each other. “We were able to build environments in the digital space that we could never afford to build in the physical world,” he says. “Going forward, we are going to be challenged to think about how the digital platform will remain with us, because once you build that audience, we’re quite excited to continue to bring them back in a variety of different ways.”
ROCKING IT AT RED ROCKS
In her day-two keynote, Kirstie Rivard, head of experiential at Visible, detailed how the young, all-digital wireless brand stood out during the pandemic with its playful and interactive programming. Since its launch, the brand’s goal has been to leverage experiences to convey its fun and approachable brand ethos, like an intentional billboard typo or a cell phone-themed playground full of games and activities. “It’s so important… to constantly remember our brand values, what makes us us, and really stay true to that,” she says.
When the pandemic hit, Visible continued to lean into experiential with an interactive virtual concert at the Red Rocks Amphitheatre near Denver. The event, streamed to a cool eight million people, kept audiences engaged with projection mapping onto the site’s iconic red rocks flanking the stage—a first for the venue—and allowed attendees to send messages directly to the artist. “The pandemic actually allowed us to do that because people were at home and we had no in-real-life to compete with,” Rivard says. “People are dying for that connection.”
TAKING A PAGE FROM BROADCAST
Experiential powerhouse SAP pivoted like the rest of them. But instead of adapting event formats to virtual settings, the team in Australia created an entirely new event, HR Connect, during which the key factor was timing. “We moved fast, as soon as we went into lockdown, but we also wanted to emphasize the customers and make sure we were providing them what they needed at that time,” says Rushenka Perera, head of marketing, ANZ (Australia/New Zealand) at SAP.
The team took an educational approach to HR Connect, building a custom platform and offering customer case studies with takeaways, live hosts and live Q&A. When it came to planning SAP’s Effect event, the brand upped the ante by focusing on innovative content delivery. Taking a page from high-end TV broadcast productions, the three-week-long event featured multiple short episodes and bite-sized content, live performers, chefs and djs. “We wanted to use an innovative delivery method because SAP is all about innovation,” says Perera. “And so the delivery method was just as important to show that we were actually staying ahead of the game.”
THE NEW TRADE SHOW BUILD
The pivot to virtual trade shows last year challenged brands to create online showroom floors that presented their products as realistically as possible. LG Business Solutions met the moment with its LG DigiTour, a hyper-realistic, immersive custom platform that was easily navigated by the customer. “For our product and the type of selling that we have to do, it is very critical for customers to see our product in its realest form,” says Damaris Toma, experiential marketing lead at LG Business Solutions, US.
Real-time 3D environments, an event host, detailed product specs and a chat function with live personnel were a few of the experience’s key ingredients. It was also important to design a platform that LG will use in the future, continually improve upon and deploy for hybrid events moving forward. “We wanted something that will equip us as experiential marketers, and as LG, to continue to bring creative virtual experiences, even once in-person events return,” Toma says.
AGILITY BREEDS CREATIVITY
During a panel on what shapes brand marketers’ creative strategies, and how that’s evolved over the past year, Daniel Blake, vp-value brands at Anheuser-Busch, said he takes a people-first approach. It’s about figuring out “what they’re talking about, what their pain points are, what their tensions are. 2020 forced us—or allowed us, depending on how you look at it—to be laser-focused on what is relevant in their lives,” he says. The pandemic also inspired event marketers to embrace agility and be comfortable with real-time adjustments. In fact, Blake says, the most successful programs were the ones his team acted on quickly.
For Caren Holmes, senior experiential producer at The Clorox Company, being considered “essential” during the pandemic raised the stakes for the brand and required a healthy dose of imagination. Holmes says she searched for innovative ways to deliver content that went beyond virtual events. “It’s all about storytelling and connecting with who your audience is and ensuring that they feel engaged and part of the conversation—because it was so critical to get so much information out,” she says.
CRACKING THE SECOND AUDIENCE
For the organizers behind the massive SXSW conference and festival, moving the industry tentpole online was a monumental task, but the event’s success indicated just how valuable the reach of a virtual audience can be. In a keynote address sponsored by Socio, SXSW chief brand officer Jann Baskett confirmed that even when the in-person festival returns, the event will take on a hybrid format to reach younger and more international attendees. And if the success of digital activations delivered by brands like Wisconsin Cheese and HBO Max this year are any indication, the hybrid approach will offer sponsors significant engagement opportunities.
“The takeaway is that if they leaned into their own brand personality and their brand strengths and then overlaid that with this online environment that is SXSW where you can get away with a lot, they were successful,” Baskett says. “We’re excited to see how going forward there will be sponsors that want to reach that second audience who’s only going to be online. There’s a lot of possibility there.”
INTEGRATED MARKETING FTW
Building fully integrated marketing strategies will help pave the way to success for event marketers in a post-pandemic world, according to panelists from a session on professional development. The goal, they said, should be to take a unified approach that communicates a brand’s message through multiple avenues rather than relying solely on the event itself.
For Keryn Sethi, experiential marketing manager at Nestlé USA, “Integrated marketing is so important because it has to weave and thread the message, the experience, the way that the brand is activating in the right way to truly have that voice that connects back” through tools like influencers, brand partners and, in Nestlé’s case, ghost kitchens where pop-up cooking spaces act as physical restaurant storefronts but the food is delivery-only.
As Kevin Schwoer, senior manager-events at Verizon Media puts it, “Every single touchpoint is a marketing attempt. It’s about making the touchpoint so cool that people don’t know they’re being marketed to or they don’t care. And that’s the story we’re always trying to tell through all these different avenues, to make it one holistic approach.”
GETTING FAMILIAR WITH GEN Z
No doubt about it: Gen Z is a different breed. For marketers trying to reach the marketing-averse demo, conventional strategies aren’t going to cut it. Through its virtual collegiate marketing program in 2020, Microsoft learned that Gen Z prefers to be engaged by brands in an environment that’s familiar to them and with a message that illustrates how a product or service will add value to their lives. In other words: brands need to meet Gen Z where they are and, ideally, take advantage of a moment that’s already captured their interest.
As Stephen Saslow, senior audience marketing manager-higher education at Microsoft, explains, “Based on some extensive research that we had done around the world figuring out the Gen Z student, we knew that the majority of marketing efforts fall flat with this particular generation. Companies that are out there today using millennial tactics to talk to Gen Z are failing miserably.”
It’s paramount that event marketers foster diversity, equity and inclusion with every decision they make, but where to begin? In a fireside chat, Chardia Christophe-Garcia, executive director-audience and community marketing at Forbes, explained that it’s OK to start small, as long as a brand is transparent and shows that it is truly prioritizing diversity. Data can offer a valuable jumping-off point, she says. In fact, Forbes has begun asking attendees to (voluntarily) self-identify on its event registration forms, explaining to attendees that the answers will better help the brand reach diverse communities.
“We had to get really honest as a company and take a step back and say ‘What are we doing now, what have we done in the past, and how can our events team really change the conversation,” says Christophe-Garcia. “The information and data that we have been able to collect as a result of just asking that simple question has held us accountable in terms of audience and meeting those [DE&I] goals.”
MOMENTS OF CELEBRATION
When it’s held in person, Cisco Live wraps with a massive concert attended by thousands of attendees. But when Cisco took its conference virtual, it required the brand to find new ways to incorporate entertainment. The team ultimately discovered that the best approach was to deliver “multiple moments of celebration, not just anchoring on the end of one day,” says Heather Henderson Thomas, senior manager-Cisco Live event experience, sponsorship and operations at Cisco. The strategy not only broke up the content but helped the brand reach attendees with different musical tastes.
Looking ahead to the return of the in-person conference, Cisco plans to incorporate the new strategy. “We may look at two channels: Doing the big, mega-name stars in a stadium with a unique experience, and also looking at multiple talent acts throughout the duration of events,” says Henderson Thomas. “Maybe it’s not just the closing anchor, but spread throughout the event to keep that momentum and that celebration woven through.”
EMBRACING A RANGE OF FORMATS
Some pandemic-era engagement strategies are here to stay. In a candid conversation on event formats, Glover Campbell, client marketing manager-event experience at Vanguard, said some content is best delivered virtually—“and that’s OK.” He says finding the right format starts with the audience. “Meet your audience how or where they need to be met; don’t do it just to say you have a hybrid event,” he says. “Test, learn, fail quickly and be clear on the desired outcomes of the event first.”
For Mahiri Wise, program manager-cloud developer relations events at Google, it’s important to remember that the way professionals operate, particularly in the b-to-b space, has changed. “As we start looking forward, I think hybrid will be more popular based on folks’ comfortability, but for now, folks have gotten really good at being productive and meeting without being on-site,” he says. Looking forward, he adds, an event “may start on a computer screen and end on a show floor.”
—Kait Shea, Kaylee Hultgren