Three girls sitting on ground at a music festival
Marketing Content Strategy

Are Authentic Stories the Key to Experience Marketing?

12 Minute Read

Traditional marketing scholars teach the 4 Ps: product, price, place, and promotion. It’s not about experience marketing. Just combine these ingredients, they say, and you’ll reach your unique selling points. You’ll create community engagement. You’ll go far.

And yet . . . “The rise of the ‘experience economy’ is currently one of the most important global trends in marketing,” writes Zoe Lazarus in Campaign. “Now, more than ever, consumers desire unique, spontaneous and immersive entertainment wherever they are. They want multisensory experiences, beyond sight and sound. However, they don’t want to be restricted to specific venues or times for their entertainment, and crave experiences that say something unique about them, which they can share with their friends and followers.”

Lazarus was writing about the rise of experiential marketing, that discipline that teaches brands to create a unique experience to increase sales of their product. The Event Marketing Institute found 77 percent of brands view experience marketing as a vital piece of their marketing strategy, and roughly two-thirds of brand marketers see increased sales because of experience marketing campaigns.

It’s an enticing statistic, for sure, but all of those experiences ultimately lead back to a tangible product. What if your product is intangible? What if the product itself is an experience? How do you use traditional marketing techniques for something you can’t touch and feel?

As one marketer puts it, it is “product promotion versus education.” Harry Chan is a retail marketing manager who is also chairman of the Hong Kong Surfing Association, a body set up to promote the experience of surfing to residents of the tiny island. He’s had the best of both marketing worlds. “Marketing an actual product—something that can be touched, tried, and felt by your customers—is a process of promotion. It’s most important to use a compelling proposition and the correct channels.

“If your product is in fact intangible, it becomes more a process of education: What is the experience, and how will it make people feel to take part? Annoyingly, the consumer experience won’t be the same every time. Your mood, your interactions with staff, even the weather can impact on your experience. It’s all subjective. But the experience itself creates community; it creates exclusivity. It’s highly shareable, and your marketing begins to take on a life of its own.”

Experiences Transcend Generational Boundaries

Those all-important millennials want personal experiences, writes Sue Duris for Almost eight in ten millennials in a survey said experiences helped to shape their identity and make them feel more connected. But millennials aren’t alone: The demand for more experiences is increasing across generations.

Social media and FOMO have a lot to do with this demand: When you see how excited and engaged people are during an experience, you want to be a part of it too. Call it the Facebook Effect; the humble brag driving more demand for unique experiences.

Hill Valley Town Fair

One brand that truly understands the power of FOMO is Secret Cinema. Built around the idea that a trip to the movies shouldn’t just be watching a film, Fabien Riggall’s great idea has become an international success story.

Attending a screening at Secret Cinema is something else: You’re given a character to inhabit. The venue is dressed according to the period. Actors mingle with cinema-goers, even recreating iconic scenes in front of you. They’ve re-created 1950s Hill Valley for Back to the Future; culture clashes and sand dunes for Lawrence of Arabia; dystopian Los Angeles for Blade Runner. They’ve even built and run an entire jail for The Shawshank Redemption.

As Ellen E. Jones points out in the Evening Standard: “With the perspective of a decade to draw on, it’s clear that Secret Cinema wasn’t just a good idea but a timely one. Ten years ago, Facebook was just beginning to take off globally and around 100,000 early tweeters were busy creating a mode of 140-character communication. Most understood that a new age was dawning but Riggall was one of the few to recognize how social media sharing would increase the value of a secret. ‘Mystery and enchantment in a disenchanted world is critical. Life is meant to be mysterious, surprising, exciting and unexpected,’ he says.”

Secret Cinema’s secrets to success are simple: Engage loyal fan bases, put on a show, capture a moment, create an experience that people want to share, and change perceptions. Easy, right? Its big idea, immersive theater experience, is one thing, but you don’t have to dream so big to create an experience that people want to be a part of. James Bayley, managing director of ProPlay Sports Events, recognized a burning desire in many to play on the same fields as their heroes. He turned that need into Play on the Pitch, which has just celebrated the end of its first season. Bayley works with big-name sports clubs and grounds to give limited access to regular Joes. By organizing mini-tournaments at the end of the season and marketing them as company away days or sporting club treats, he has a compelling story to tell that is both inspiring and aspirational.

Tune In to Built-In Communities

“When you’re sure you have a product that is inspiring, rather than a necessity, it’s almost easier to market than a straight product,” he says. “It’s very easy to claim an experience offers x, y and z; the longer term differential is showing the experience you’re delivering is the real deal.”

Bayley found in his first year, with no visual proof to fall back on, he needed to get his brand out there. He ran competitions among the grassroots soccer community, offering free kits to junior teams. This brand awareness helped to build up a social following, and also helped to ensure marketing messaging was “not just hammering home ‘buy this’,” he says.

“It was a hugely effective campaign,” reflects Bayley. “It was building the brand relationship that then fed into the product. There are great communities involved with soccer, so we tapped into those. It’s far easier than in the traditional holiday market, where I spent my early career—if you’re offering a trip to Lake Garda, so is everyone else. In the soccer community, if you start talking about an experience that is unique, you can get people’s attention much more quickly. There’s such passion in these communities, and a great affinity. Tell someone they can get changed in the same changing rooms as their heroes, walk through the same tunnels, and play on the same pitch, and it’s an aspirational thing.”

Bayley knows he has a great story to tell, and is looking forward to his second season now that he is armed with plenty of visual content and first-hand reports to use in his content marketing. But he also has his passion and his belief that the experience he offers is a great one: “In your heart of hearts you’ll know if you’re delivering an experience that’s great and that people will want to return to. You need to really believe in the product.”

And there’s that P word again: product. In the end, your experience is a product. But it’s a product with a built-in, genuine story. “It’s easier to bring it to life,” says Crispin Vitoria, managing director at Cool Motor Racing, a body set up to develop strong grassroots for British motorcycle racing. Through marketing great experiences and utilizing his years of working in sponsorship, Vitoria built a reach of more than 5.2 million for video content and 1 million for social media in one year. Did we mention he’s talking to kids aged six to thirteen?

Cool Fab Racing

Mind Your Language

“No one even knew this sport existed, and we are now getting YouTube views of a quarter of a million per round—unbelievable audiences you could never imagine. Global audiences, too,” he says. “Social media is amazing for marketing an experience. You can access these incredible audiences, which gives you real value in sport. We’ve now quadrupled the amount of competitors because we could get out there and tell the stories. Back in the day you were printing fliers that were out-of-date within a month; we still print fliers for people who come to super bike events, but all it does is drive people onto a website, onto far more engaging and interactive forms of communications.”

Vitoria also stresses that with experiences, with the more intangible products, it’s not just about telling great stories—it’s about the language you use to tell those stories. He gives the example of trying to get corporates involved in sponsorship for racing; once the word “grassroots” was uttered, there was no more interest. So they stopped using the word, and things changed.

“It’s vital to look at it from the perspective of the outsider,” he says. “So many people market things based on their knowledge, but you need to put yourself in the mind of the consumer and assume they know nothing. Look at it as if you were consuming the content you’re producing. Don’t get too fancy or clever.”

Harness the Power of the Hashtag

Social media is the godsend for experience marketing. Writing for HubSpot, Julie Hong says: “English music producer Simon Cowell once told Rolling Stone Magazine, “You have this amazing thing now called fan power. The whole world is linked through a laptop. It’s absolutely brilliant.” He was talking about music artists here, but this can apply to any type of event host or marketer. Social media allows us to promote our events more strategically, listen to and engage with our fans, enhance attendee experience, help measure the event’s overall success, and find areas for improvement.

Bradley Hatchett founded Network My Club two years ago to bring together his passion for sport and relationship-building. He works with top-level sports clubs in the UK to establish networking events for local businesses. But “networking” is such a nebulous concept. Luckily, the power of the hashtag means business is booming, and community engagement is high.

“We decided to put a big focus on our digital activity, with a strong presence on social media,” Hatchett says. “Not only does social allow you to target specific groups of people or people searching for particular information, with regular and varying content, we also identified that the clubs and venues we partner with have strong and engaged audiences online, and their support not only allowed us to reach these people but also to grow our audience. Through market research, we identified that social media was not a space being actively filled by similar organizations, so gave us an opportunity to stand out and establish ourselves.”

He has some sage advice for newbie experience marketers: “Try to identify a space in which your target audience is active and engaged, and make lots of noise! Also, be prepared to ‘give something’ in return for acquiring and growing an audience.”

Learn From the Mistakes of Others

Yet the power of social media can harm as well as help. Two recent music festival flops provide great lessons for other experience marketers. The issues surrounding the promise versus reality of Fyre Festival are a warning to those who engage influencers to promote the experience: If you’re using models and luxury yachts as an example of what to expect, you better make sure attendees experience the lifestyle embodied by models and luxury yachts on the day of.

Likewise, this month’s Hope & Glory festival in Liverpool—called off with a single tweet by organizers midway through the event—shows the importance of maintaining transparency and good relationships with everyone involved in putting on your experience.

Sometimes it’s better to start small and grow; dream big—but maintain your grip on reality. Know what your audience wants—but make sure you can deliver it. Play to your strengths and be authentic. It will make the experience all the more enticing if it’s well-delivered.

Image from BFI London Film Festival Facebook page

Everything Comes Back to the Story You Tell

The very nature of an experience hits at the emotional core of the consumer. It’s something they want to share—before, during, and after the event. Your story, told well, will engage that emotion and inspire the consumer to contribute to your marketing, too. Whether you’re selling a holiday or a cocktail festival, everything comes back to the story you tell. That story will help you to generate excitement, and to engage the community.

“Whereas features and benefits might be great selling points for product marketing, marketing an experience needs to focus on emotion—how will that experience make your audience think and feel?” says Melissa Byrd, festivals marketing manager at the BFI London Film Festival.

“Film festivals have an amazing atmosphere, so trying to capture that feeling of being there is a big focus for our campaigns. Social media is great for this; tools like Instagram Stories, Facebook Live, and podcasts all help to share the experience and make people desperate not to miss out.

“Really understanding the audience experience is crucial—so be a part of that audience and bring your friends—and make a note of how it feels to be there. Use market research and customer feedback to understand what your audience loves about what you do and emphasize these elements in your campaign.”

Crispin Vitoria agrees: It’s all about the emotion and the story. “I always market to the anecdote; a great photo or great video clip, but with a personal experience attached to it. I believe all good marketing is about telling stories, so for me it’s always been about trying to get people to envisage themselves being part of this experience. I used to run adventure races in the jungles of Borneo, but I’d take normal people who didn’t believe they could do it. And by painting pictures of a normal person going and doing something extraordinary, you gave everyone the belief they could do it.”

And whether that belief drives you to a weekend in the wilderness with your favorite bands or to a sports club to make business contacts, the authenticity of the story you tell must sit at the heart of every decision. Try to fake it, and you could end up on the wrong side of the media story.

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Featured image attribution: Aranxa Esteve

Lauren is a storyteller. A journalist by trade, she has worked in agencies, in-house and in the media over her 20-year career. She's worked as an editorial strategist and content creator for some of the world's biggest brands, setting up processes and guidelines, advising on planning, auditing content, building loyal audiences, leading social campaigns, writing blogs and flyers and presentations - pretty much handling the stuff with words. She was born in Australia, has resided in London for the last decade, and writes fiction on the side. You’ll often find her grinning like a fool at a rock concert.

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