3 Things You Can't Skimp on With Experiential Marketing

Spending more where it matters can mean the difference between a forgettable event and one leading to real ROI. Just ask the Casper mattress folks.

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By Ralph Failla

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Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

It's getting harder and harder to dismiss the experiential segment as a niche within the world of marketing. According to a 2017 Freeman study, more than one in three CMOs expect to funnel up to 50 percent of their budgets into brand experiences.

Those leaders have finally discovered what consumers could have told them ages ago: People don't want to be bombarded by ads. What they want are authentic, one-to-one interactions with the companies seeking their business. In other words, they want brand experiences.

Related: Behind a $100 Million Mattress Startup, Casper Co-Founder Shares Advice on Finding Success as an Entrepreneur

"That's where experiential marketing comes in. The term refers to a marketing strategy that invites and encourages consumers to interact with a brand through live experiences.

But consumers aren't looking for something snooze-worthy -- at least not in the typical sense of the word. Mattress company Casper, for example, gave this year's SXSW attendees a rest they won't soon forget. In partnership with One:Night, Casper offered $99 hotel rooms outfitted with a Casper mattress -- and milk and cookies.

"Moms" were even on call to read bedtime stories to restless sleepers. Unsurprisingly, the rooms sold out instantly. The reality is that not all brands can afford to rent out an entire hotel, but that doesn't mean you should default to a low-cost activation.

Where should you spend?

While some marketers have managed to cut costs without curtailing the actual experience, they've likely found that spending a little more where it matters can mean the difference between a forgettable event, and one that leads to real ROI.

Where should you allocate your money for maximum impact? If you value results, don't skimp on any of these three:

1. People and training

When consumers interact with a brand, they're interfacing with a real person. No matter how great your product might look or taste, customers won't care about it if the brand ambassador was rude. All they'll care about is that they had a terrible experience.

Although sales and experiential marketing aren't one and the same, brand ambassadors and salespeople have similar roles. And in sales, 68 percent of consumers surveyed by Salesforce said that interacting with a salesperson who understands their preferences is absolutely critical or very important, according to Salesforce. So, even if brand ambassadors can't honor someone's preference -- say that the rason is because they didn't have any unsweetened tea on hand -- they can still create a happy customer by listening to that person's needs and offering an alternative experience.

The perfect representatives are created through a combination of equal parts hiring and training. During the hiring process, our company often interviews with a client on hand to ensure that applicants mesh with both our team and the brand they'll be representing. This way, we can gauge whether an applicant will be the right person to advocate for the brand when he or she interacts with consumers.

Consumers can tell when someone isn't a genuine advocate of the product they're pushing, so having a brand-lover is of the utmost importance.

Then, once you've found the right people, be sure to train them on answers to common questions -- no question is too "out there" to be asked. While they won't know the answer to everything, they should know what to do and where to go when that occurs.

Remember to train for extended engagement, too. Recently, reps of the Alabama Tourism Department visited New York City to showcase their state's tourism offerings. Given that most New Yorkers aren't exactly experts on Alabama, it was crucial that representatives could communicate extensively about their home state.

2. Production

Aside from your people, your set build is one of the biggest takeaways from attendees at your activation. "Cheap" can be spotted from a mile away, and run-down, incomplete or simply boring builds communicate to consumers that your brand cuts corners. By building a high-quality display, you can diminish the natural wear and tear that occurs from one event to the next.

If you need to bring down the activation cost, scale back the footprint rather than compromising on materials or build quality. Great customer experiences, which Forrester data shows are a top priority for 72 percent of businesses surveyed, occur in great environments. And, for the most part, engagement levels don't shrink with footprint size -- but they sure do with build quality.

Related: You Sell Experiences Whether You Realize It or Not

If you can't decrease the footprint size, think about the less essential elements as places where you can find cost efficiencies. If a photo booth isn't critical to your experience, opt for the $10,000 booth instead of the $40,000 one.

Be doubly sure to spend adequately on the set build if the set itself is the experience. Last year, we hosted a snow day -- something unheard of in Phoenix -- for Sara Lee's Artesano bread. Cutting corners here would have quite literally melted the experience. But nobody batted an eye when the photo booth was a tad slow. Instead, we used the long lines as an opportunity for additional product education.

3. Measurement

Brands are becoming smarter with their marketing spend. According to eMarketer, 57 percent of marketers say their top priority for 2017 is cross-channel measurement and attribution. If a program can't show ROI, it -- and the marketers behind it -- may get axed from next year's budget.

Before the event begins, have at least one metric in mind that you'll use to measure success. Good benchmarks to measure against include brand-to-consumer engagements, social impressions generated during and after the campaign, the number of new users and the most important one: sales.

Related: How Do You Measure the Impact of an Experience?

Set up a live data feed, and monitor it during the event. If something isn't going well, you may have already invested in the physical elements, but you can use data to adjust everything else on the fly. You might need ambassadors to change up their engagement strategy, stock up on everyone's favorite product or shorten or extend the event.

Afterward, dig into the numbers. Did the annual festival sponsorship yield surprisingly little social sharing or sales? Stop wasting money on it. Instead, put the funds toward something consumers haven't seen before.

CMOs may be spending millions on experiential marketing, but those efforts don't have to be expensive. They just require the right people, a high-quality set build and measurable metrics. Without any of those things, the experience won't be worth having -- either for consumers or your company.

Ralph Failla

Account Director, Inspira Marketing Group

Ralph Failla is an account director at Inspira Marketing Group, an experiential marketing agency headquartered in Norwalk, Conn., with offices in New York City, Chicago and San Francisco. An experiential marketer by trade, Failla managed tours for Adidas, Nintendo and Vitaminwater prior to joining Inspira, where he now applies his tactical expertise in designing consumer experiences. Throughout his 15 years in experiential marketing, Failla has executed more than 150 campaigns.

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