Back in the early 1900s—when digital communication would have been considered sci-fi and "going viral" might have meant catching an unpopular illness—ads began sprouting up across the globe touting the White Star Line's newest cruise ship: the Titanic.

Tickets for its trip across the Atlantic sold like hotcakes, and thousands of people from across the globe flocked to England to witness the 45,000-ton monstrosity in all its glory.

In a sense, the Titanic's maiden voyage was one big experiential marketing campaign for the White Star Line. At the time, the company was facing stiff competition, so it spent the equivalent of $400 million building an event that would draw in huge numbers of consumers and show them why it's the best in the biz.

We all know how that turned out.

When planning an experiential marketing campaign, it can be tempting to sink a titanic budget into the splashiest one-day event ever conceived, but that single-minded pursuit of buzz is risky. There are icebergs in those waters.

Photographic Evidence

Approximately 100 years later, Samsung took a similar big-or-bust approach when it set up a one-day experiential campaign in two of the busiest cities in America: New York and Los Angeles. The company gave away brand-new $800 cameras to people who agreed to trade in their old ones; and, when all was said and done, more than 1,000 cameras were handed out. Yes, that's nearly $1 million of product.

Surely, the consumers who received free merchandise walked away happy that day, and Samsung garnered plenty of media coverage leading up to the event. But did the company reap any long-term rewards from the campaign?

Ultimately, it seems Samsung succeeded in taking 1,000 potential consumers out of the market, and it missed out on $1 million of potential revenue. Unless the company somehow broke even by selling tons of accessories to the people who received free cameras, that campaign was counterproductive.

In another, similar example, Bud Light poured hundreds of millions of advertising dollars into its "Up for Whatever" experiential campaign. The goal was to hook Millennials into the brand by promoting a cool, carefree, party-animal lifestyle

From a purely social media standpoint, it seems the company could declare victory. Three catchy YouTube videos bearing the #UpForWhatever hashtag received more than 1 million views in 72 hours. There were also 55,000 likes on the campaign's Facebook page over the same timeframe, and user-generated social content surrounding the campaign reached 15 million people.

However, we've now learned that Bud Light didn't need social media awareness; it needed more people to drink more Bud Light. Millennials may have posted about the brand during the promotion, but afterward they apparently cozied back up to their craft beers.

Lift Your Sales

Samsung's and Bud Light's seemingly unsinkable campaigns drew big crowds but failed to drive buying intent. Yet, isn't that supposed to be the whole point of what we do?

Here are three strategies to help you navigate your experiential campaigns toward success:

Drop an emotional anchor

Persuasive ad content, viral videos, and giveaways aren't enough. You need to go deeper and solicit an emotional reaction from your audience, which is the reason why consumers love brands like Disney, Rolex, and Red Bull. They sell lifestyles. When consumers think of any one of those companies, they know exactly how its products will fit into their lives.

Experiential campaigns are a terrific vehicle for making this emotional connection with consumers. You can let them touch, hear, smell, and (if it's edible) taste your product. Instead of having a sales rep cook and eat a frozen pizza while spouting off facts about its nutritional value, allow attendees to cook the pizza themselves, smell the cheese as the pizza bakes... and burn the roofs of their mouths because they can't wait to try it.

Float a targeted boat

The term "target audience" exists for good reason. Why charter a cruise ship to the Caribbean when your consumers would rather canoe across Lake Tahoe? In other words, you'll make a greater impact if you tailor your event to the group of people that's most likely to buy your product.

Meet your target demographic where it wants to hang out, and offer an experience it wants to experience. Building targeted campaigns that suit the specific desires of a niche audience engenders loyalty and builds more trust than the as-big-as-possible approach.

Your best customers will feel like you "get" them, and they, in turn, will reward you.

Begin the targeting process with what I like to call "practical creativity." Divide your past consumers into subsets, test different event approaches within each group, and uncover the secret sauces that work best for each of your target demographics.

Map your route

Begin with the end in mind. Clear objectives in the planning phase are critical to a successful event. Obviously, sales are a good goal to have, but they're more likely to occur after the event. Your job is to figure out what needs to happen during the event to make this goal a reality.

Sit down as a team to brainstorm specific metrics that will help you gauge your progress. Maybe it will be a certain number of people signing up for your newsletter, or perhaps it will involve social media shares. Whatever it is, you cannot jump to the conclusion that engagement automatically results in sales. Engagement gains attention, but you need to have a plan in place to turn that attention into sales.

At the conclusion of each campaign, use hindsight to fuel future insight. Your data should help you build better experiences down the road.

* * *

The Titanic's designers were so focused on being the biggest and best that they lost sight of the true objective: getting the boat across the ocean. A huge event that goes viral but doesn't promote purchase intent is a huge waste of effort.

Large one-off events are spectacular. That's literally what they're meant to be: spectacles. If you're going to have one big event, make sure you're providing your brand with more than just that. Whether you're building a city in the mountains or opting to have a campaign of smaller targeted engagements, take a measured, steady approach, and create focused events that deliver real value to your target audience—and, ultimately, your brand.

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Don't Make a Titanic Mistake: Bigger Experiences Aren't Always Better in Experiential Marketing

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image of Steve Randazzo

Steve Randazzo is founder and president of experiential marketing agency Pro Motion Inc. He has longstanding relationships with big-name clients, including Dr Pepper Snapple Group, the Walt Disney Company, Hewlett-Packard, Duck Brand, Fiskars, Citgo, the NBA, and Tractor Supply Co.

LinkedIn: Steve Randazzo