On the surface, a bunch of weird nerds dressed in costumes lining up to collect vintage comic books is probably not what most event marketers would associate with their jobs.
But comic book conventions—the increasingly popular media events, also known as comic cons, that celebrate comics, TV shows, video games, and all things geeky—actually have a lot in common with the professional conferences that are synonymous with event marketing. Both are defined by enthusiasts attending panels and browsing exhibition halls in the hopes of learning more about a topic they care about. Sure, the attendees of one wear business suits while attendees of the other wear superhero-inspired spandex bodysuits, but at the end of the day, they’re both examples of event marketing.
As one of the weird nerds who frequently line up for comic cons (albeit not in a costume), I’ve been thinking a lot about the parallels between comic book conventions and the kinds of shows that regular event marketers sign up to sponsor or exhibit at. In a lot of ways, comic cons provide perfect examples of the kind of experiential content marketing that event marketers aspire to. Marketers can learn a lot from properties with cult followings.
That being said, most event marketers don’t have the luxury of the built-in audiences that a comic con’s media sponsors have. As exciting as you probably think your products or services are, if you’re like the majority of businesses, you’re not selling the kind of stuff that inherently draws large crowds. There will never be lines of fans eager to connect with, say, an insurance company.
At least, that’s what I thought until I saw this guy hanging out over New York Comic Con’s exhibition hall a few weeks ago.
When I first saw Geico showing up at these cons, I laughed. People attend comic cons to meet famous actors and collect comic books, not to learn about how they can save money on their car insurance. But much to my surprise, there was a long line at the Geico booth. Whatever Geico was doing, it was a hit.
Geico wasn’t the only non-media company to make a good showing. Chevrolet purchased a massive space on the show floor. DirectTV had a large, eye-catching booth. Even grill-maker Broil Chef made a showing.
These companies and others in attendance at New York Comic Con demonstrated that built-in fan followings aren’t necessary for impactful audience engagement at an event. Event attendees don’t even necessarily need to have any prior interest in your brand. As long as you provide items and experiences that are of interest to the audience you’re trying to reach, you’ll be successful—and the non-media brands that attended New York Comic Con this year can teach us how.
Whether we’re talking about comic book conventions or industry trade shows, we have to acknowledge a hidden truth about exhibition halls. People don’t go to them because they’re interested in learning about your company; they go because they want cool stuff.
Whether that stuff is collectible merchandise or freebies with company logos on them varies depending on the event, but not all stuff is created equal. Most attendees aren’t looking for logo-emblazoned lanyards—especially if they don’t have a prior reason to care about your business.
So how do non-media brands at comic cons entice attendees with freebies and merchandise? I saw a lot of different strategies at play this year at New York Comic Con. One rather intuitive approach is to offer attendees something they genuinely need. The energy drink G Fuel adopted the simple strategy of handing out free samples. Comic con requires attendees to be on their feet for hours at a time, so they’re usually exhausted. Free energy-drink samples were understandably a hit.
There’s also the tactic of dressing up products so they look like the things attendees are interested in. Jelly Belly was selling boxes of Justice League-inspired jelly beans. They were essentially just normal jelly beans, but the packaging made them popular. There was also a grill made by Broil Chef that, while functioning like a normal grill, was shaped like a Star Wars TIE Fighter. (Not going to lie, I kind of want one.)
And, of course, there are always raffles. It’s an old staple, but the chance to win free stuff never really goes out of style. Jelly Belly offered a raffle for a giant Superman portrait made completely out of jelly beans (imagine hanging that in your living room) as well as a wheel that attendees could spin for the chance to win other goodies. And everyone who visited the Geico booth gained the chance to win $500, which I’m sure had something to do with the long line.
The takeaway? Understanding the kind of stuff your attendees want goes a long way in getting them to approach your booth.
Even more valuable than things are experiences—activation points where attendees can interact with your brand. Comic con is basically one massive activation opportunity for media companies. But how can non-media companies take advantage of that?
One method is to find a way to let attendees experience what they came to the event to experience—in this case, media. DirectTV did so by allowing attendees to try out new video games in their booth, something that’s right up the alley of most con-goers. It’s doubtful many of these video-game enthusiasts cared much about DirectTV when they entered the booth. But when they were offered a free trial of streaming service DirectTV Now after playing some Madden, they were transformed from uninterested parties to potential customers.
Geico also relied on experiences to get people into its booth. What kind of fun experiences can you have involving car insurance? Well, not many. In fact, Geico’s actual product was simply not mentioned anywhere in its booth. Instead, Geico just offered attendees a chance to have fun.
According to a Geico employee that I talked to at the convention, the company was offering a chance to play arcade games, including plinko and a memory game challenge, as well as a 3-D photo booth (not to mention the $500 raffle). Arcade games and cool tech we don’t see every day? That’s definitely in the average nerd’s wheelhouse. Sure, no one walked away from that booth thinking that they might want to switch their car insurance, but they did walk away feeling like Geico understood them.
Of course, experiences don’t need to be complex to be memorable. Chevy provided a fun photo op that drew huge crowds just by dropping a couple of cars in the middle of the show floor. There’s more crossover between car lovers and comic lovers than one might think—and the nerds who don’t care about cars were still probably pretty excited by the massive Justice League decals on them. Attendees were encouraged to pose behind the wheel of the Wonder Woman sports car and imagine that they were cool enough to drive it. (Cool is a relative term at comic con.)
(Not shown: Four guys dressed as Bananas in Pyjamas posing for a picture in a Flash car. And that is a sentence I never thought I’d write.)
Competing for attention in event marketing is hard enough to begin with, but engaging with audiences that aren’t there to see companies in your industry adds a whole new level of difficulty. Looking at the brands I saw at comic con, though, you’d think it was easy. So what is the secret of their audience engagement success?
In a nutshell: understanding their audience. They did their research and made an effort to meet potential consumers where they were instead of trying to force them to pay attention to things that weren’t interesting to them. This made attendees feel respected and created a sense of trust. The examples of these brands teach us that event marketers can’t just default to the typical freebies—instead, they need to give attendees gifts or experiences that are unique, fun, and relevant to their interests.
We all know that interrupt advertising is dying. In the same way, traditional methods of event marketing are becoming ineffective. Simple sponsorships don’t really get the job done. Neither do uninteresting booths on the show floor. If you really want to reach new audiences, you have to meet these consumers where they are—even if that means getting a little nerdy in the process.
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Featured image attribution: Mitch Rosen
In-body images author’s own