What we’ve learned spending $80 million on events in the past few years

Six years ago, our long-time partners (and friends) at Cirque du Soleil came to us with a challenge. Something was itching the CEO, Daniel Lamarre. He asked us: “Do you think we could create creative business events at our head office and make money?” A few weeks later our answer was: NO and YES. No, we could hardly fit something in the limited space available at Cirque (they do have to produce mind-bending shows in those massive studios after all.)! But, YES — a big resounding YES — to reinventing business meetings.

Thus, the idea of creating a radically new kind a business event was born. Later called C2 Montreal we decided to build it as a non-profit organization set-up for the benefit of promoting the innovative spirit of our city of origin. Launched in 2012, the event has grown into the largest business innovation conference in the world and hosts 5,000 executives from 47 countries each year. It has been described as a “conference unlike any other” by The Economist and it was recently selected as the #1 Most Innovative Business Event globally.

This journey has been a fantastic roller-coaster experience for us. We went from producing punctual events here and there like most agencies, to overseeing a large team (up to 300 people during prime time!) managing an annual budget north of $10M, ticket sales (at $3,800 each), millions in sponsorships, new event technologies, etc.

Needless to say, we’ve learned a trick or two…and got a few bruises along the way as well. Thank goodness, C2 Montréal is now a full-fledged organization with its own capable team. They now deserve all of the credit.

Fully understanding the growing importance of events in the marketing arsenal, we simultaneously expanded our Sid Lee experiential team. We started working with our clients to produce more branded events & activations. In recent years, we have had the privilege of working with some of the most prestigious brands to deploy events in more than 30 cities around the world, from Sao Paulo to Johannesburg, by way of New York, Berlin and Amsterdam.

Like many of my colleagues, I was personally involved knee-deep in the ups and downs of developing our own approach to experiential marketing, from properly embedding it into larger marketing strategies to controlling the myriad of details that unfold on the ground.

My associates and I made notes along the way. Here, I am sharing some of our observations. You will also find valuable links and additional insights acquired over the years. I hope they will prove useful.

5 Key Learnings in Experiential Marketing

1. Digital needs physical

The trend you know about and the counter trend you should know about.

It’s no surprise that marketers have been making gigantic efforts to shift their focus to digital and social marketing. And who can blame them? Today, more than half of all media dollars are spent online and there doesn’t appear to be an end to the growth of social platforms anytime soon. Hyper-connected consumers do pretty much everything online and on mobile devices now.

Consumers increasingly want to accumulate experiences more than things.

There’s also a counter trend that’s happening simultaneously:

  • Research indicates that more and more consumers are recognizing that their lives are made fuller by accumulating experiences, not things.
  • Brands have direct digital access to consumers but a lot of “digital relationships” are proving to be superficial and distant. Plus, organic reach is abysmal and the relationship is not so direct anymore, with social platforms acting as well-paid gatekeepers.
  • Consumers are expecting brands to do more than “say” things, they want them to “do” things as well. In an era that values brand authenticity more than ever, a brand must walk its talk. Or else.

Hence, a powerful counter trend is shaping up in this digital age: brand experiences are coming to life in the physical world to bring consumers together in carefully curated environments. This phenomenon can be observed in numerous sectors:

  • Retailers are re-embracing the importance of brick and mortar to act as “brand shapers”. Exhibit #1: cutting-edge e-retailer Frank & Oak opening flashy destination stores and Amazon rumoured to be considering brick and mortar as well.
  • Sports organizations are elevating their live events and transforming them into experiences. Exhibit #2: millions of people attending tailgate parties across America: a game is now a day-long communal experience.
  • Music festivals have enjoyed double-digit growth for years while music was becoming digital at an equally rapid pace. Exhibit #3: the 198,000 fans attending Coachella in 2015.
Events allow brands to walk the talk by ‘doing’ things, not just ‘saying’ things.

In the field of events & activations, the implications are clear for brands. Experiential marketing is no longer just an ancillary tool to spice-up a mass media strategy. The most progressive marketers now see events in a new light:

  • Events allow brands to unite consumers and develop bonds by generating true engagement. On social media, engagement is measured in terms of “likes-shares-comments” and that’s fine. In experiential marketing, we’re talking about appealing to the 5 senses and physically immersing consumers into a brand environment that’s been curated from A to Z.
  • Events allow brands to “walk the talk”. They give brands the ability to demonstrate their beliefs and behaviors in more salient ways than what advertising permits.
  • Events, if well-integrated into broader communications initiatives, allow for content and lead generation. This precious content, or opt-in data, can (and should!) fuel real-time social media as well as longer-term relationship marketing programs.

Long story short: our experience has shown us that “analog” events and activations can play a big role by complementing digital and mass media channels through meaningful and personal experiences and stories. As with many counter trends, some marketers are currently so focused on the digital side (which has, incidentally, been trending for 20 years!) that they’re blind to the power of more personal, physical experiences.

Read the interview with Bradford Ross, a senior marketer at Coca-Cola, on this topic: Technology is great, but Coca-Cola wants more human connections”.

2. Event production is not about event production anymore

Events have become too important to be left, solely, in the hands of events people.

Historically, event production was seen as something that was better left to production specialists. Although marketers could usually count on efficient delivery, there were still the inevitable headaches when they’d attempt to seamlessly integrate into larger marketing campaigns.

Nowadays, this problem is compounded by many factors:

  • Events need to integrate a lot of technology to ensure they connect into a brand’s digital ecosystem, with strong emphasis on social media and data capture.
  • Events have become branded content generation opportunities, before, during and after an experience.
  • Events require strong support from paid media and PR, forcing further integration when planning overall communications.

The bottom-line: a holistic approach that begins with a full-fledged strategy is required (something that’s hard to find at production companies). This should be bolstered with brand creativity, content creation, digital and social media, tech innovation, media & PR, analytics, and of course, actual events production expertise.

In other words, events have become a team sport, involving a vast array of marketing disciplines that go way beyond producers.

3. Be a producer, not just a sponsor

Brands must go beyond sponsorship and develop their own platforms

Sponsorships operate on a principle very similar to paid advertising: money allows brands to access somebody else’s audience. Of course, it can be a valuable tool for a brand to communicate that it has a shared passion with its consumers, however, limitations are equally clear: the brand is “borrowing” credibility from a certain field instead of building a property based on its own voice and behaviors.

Therefore, many balanced and modern experiential strategies also include platforms where the brand acts as executive producer and owner. This allows for the development of concepts that fully represent brand values and behaviors. It allows a brand to do more than “say things” — the hallmark of advertising — by also proving it can “do things”.

4. Amplification is easier said than done

Event awareness is a big risk without proper support

A close connection needs to be created between the production of an event and the communications surrounding it. It sounds simple and obvious. It is not.

We see the amplification of events as a three-stage process: pre, during and post event. In our internal jargon, we call this approach the “bow-tie” model. Over the years, we’ve learned that it’s extremely important to invest time and money developing robust media and public relations plans. From what we’ve seen, marketers rely too much on social media and word-of-mouth when it comes to events. Although they both make a huge difference in amplifying the message, we’ve also noticed the power of paid media to get the ball rolling and jumpstart social media.

Even events with huge social media followings, like festivals, have big media partnerships in place. We feel brands could do a much better job by approaching media as partners for events. In fact, it’s the first trick in the book: “public” events usually get 3, 5 and even 10X their media spend in exchange for making media a partner and sponsor. Surprisingly, brands don’t take this powerful approach very often.

Brands could do a better job approaching media as event partners.

In our opinion, significant budgets should be set aside to fuel amplification. We estimate that 20–50% of budgets should be invested in paid media or partnerships. Some marketers who use events to produce mass media content will often spend far more on communicating experiential platforms than in producing them.

5. The acid test is money

Would people pay to experience this?

A great question to ask yourself, about your events, is whether or not you could charge for tickets. Too often, events are developed with the brand’s objective in mind and too little concern for the audience. (Notice the use of the word AUDIENCE instead of consumers).

The long-standing marketing mindset is that we can impose our contents (ads!) on consumers. However, with event and content marketing, people must willfully choose to engage or not. This changes everything and should never be forgotten.

If you have questions or comments, do not hesitate to reach out on Twitter: @jfbouchard

For a look at how Stella Artois is using experiential marketing today, click here.

You can also take a look at 9 Common Mistakes to avoid in experiential production. (5-minute read)