Let’s start by getting all our cards out on the table: events f*cking suck.
Events are places where people talk at you. Where a bunch of grown-ass adults in logo tee shirts try to sell you things you don’t need. Events are like if you were walking around Times Square and suddenly all the billboards turned into real live humans shoving fliers and custom pens in your face.
Let’s face it: events sound like a bad f*cking time.
Experiences, however? Experiences we’ll buy.
As an industry we spend a lot of time trying to improve our events. Maybe with the right apps, or the right speakers, or idk... maybe if you throw a photo booth in there (seriously though, please stop doing photo booths).
The problem is, that kind of thinking is way too small to reinvigorate the events industry. We need to stop trying to make events better and focus on creating experiences instead.
So what’s the difference? Let me break it down for you.
Start at the Beginning
When you’re trying to create a holistic experience for your attendees, it’s important to remember that it starts with your very first interaction with them: and that happens long before their Ubers are pulling up.
In order to make sure you’re creating streamlined, on message event marketing touchpoints, you have to start by solidifying your event’s brand— a look and feel and brand voice that will carry a feeling through from online to IRL.
This needs to remain consistent from your ads to your social media to your event site to your registration pages; it’s a good idea to keep one designer and copywriter on throughout the event lifecycle to ensure the brand is being safeguarded. If you don’t have a creative team, check out Upwork or Guru to get some help-for-hire: the investment is totally worth it to make your event look and sound like it’s actually enticing.
From there, choose event marketing and registration software that allows you to customize everything— when you’re trying to evoke a feeling, a clunky Eventbrite page isn’t gonna cut it. Create an online experience that mirrors your onsite experience; employ the same colors, the same themes, the same imagery, and the same voice. Make it so your attendees can look at your event site like a crystal ball into their future: when it looks lame on a laptop it's a lot more painful to shell out the cash for a ticket.
Remember it’s Not Always About You
A lot of events have the primary goal of raising brand and product awareness, and with that goal comes the human instinct to barf a logo all over everything and transport attendees into a giant 3D advertisement.
While this may be an effective tactic for making your brand stick in their minds, if you want your attendees to walk away with an actual affinity for your product— not just a weird aftertaste— you need to find a way to make the experience them-centric instead of you-centric.
Take selfie museums, for example. These made-for-Instagram experiences exploded in 2018, starting with the Museum of Ice Cream and spawning into a thousand lookalikes, from the Color Factory to Dream Machine to a Rosé Mansion. When you purchase tickets to one of these events, it’s rare to see who’s throwing it. You’re buying an experience; maybe one that’s sponsored by Dove Chocolate, Fox, and Dylan’s Candy Bar (in the case of the New York iteration of the Museum of Ice Cream), but not in a way that’s obvious. Not in a way that makes you feel like you’re being sold on something.
Yeah, you’ll walk away with your swag bag of sponsored products. You may see some brand education along the way. And yes, you’ll probably come to the realize that everything at Dylan’s Candy Bar is f*cking delicious and you should actually stop by there sometime. But throughout the experience, attendees are getting something totally them-centric; and that’s what makes them great.
“Cool story,” you’re probably thinking to yourself right now, “but I’m not gonna fill my event with sprinkle pools.” Fair. But the logic can be applied no matter what type of event you’re putting on, whether it’s about getting hammered and taking pictures with giant grapes or learning about the implications of the newest sales tax laws in the United States
The moral of the story is, try to find a way to incorporate some good old-fashioned, unbranded fun into your event. That could be talks that are a little tangential, but add some perspective or levity to your tax conference. It could be tacking a wine tasting onto your board meeting. It could be taking a page out of Hubspot’s book and actually adding an instagrammable experience to your event.
Rubber ducky bathtub & giant hashtag at Hubspot's Inbound 2018
No matter how you do it, just remember to create experiences for your attendees, not for your brand. Sometimes we get so far up our own butts we forget the point of experiential marketing; bringing people together to share something awesome— not just to get people to buy more HR software.
Make Sure There’s Real Value— for Everyone
We’re looking at you, conferences and exhibitions.
Here’s the crux of it: the way people purchase products has completely changed since these types of events became a thing. As a consumer, I no longer need to pay to go to a centralized marketplace for products related to me or my business: that’s what the Internet is for. And no offense, but Google does a better job of serving me personalized and useful products than you ever will. It’s not your fault. They have algorithms n’ stuff.
The cold truth is, unless we find ways to instill more value into these types of events they’re quickly on their way to obsoletion. This concept doesn’t just need to be reinvigorated: it needs to be reimagined.
Transforming a sales-centric event into an attendee-first experience is a bear of a problem— and not one we’ll pretend we have all the answers for— but there are some tactics that you can employ to start moving in the right direction.
For starters, remove the transactional element. Instead of bringing in sales teams with product pitches, begin with the idea that exhibitors are each mini talks or sessions, not just product reps. Task those exhibitors with bringing a value-add to the table instead of just their product; treat them like seminars, tiny Ted Talks, or gathering places for small-group problem solving.
When the idea that every booth is guarded by a salesperson waiting to sink their teeth into you is taken away, the attendee experience becomes a lot more friendly. More importantly, when every exhibitor must contribute knowledge or their own experience, every attendee walks away with more than they came with; even if they didn’t find a product that answers their business needs.
On the exhibitor side, this structure allows each company to create tiny experiences of their own, drawing customers in and leaving them with a positive outlook on the brand. While we can’t speak for every product team, we think this is a great alternative to traditional booths where people carefully walk past us without making eye contact so they don’t have to talk to our sales team. Who knows though. Could just be us.
Equally importantly, you can take steps to make your event a place people actually want to hang out in.
We’ve all seen it: the one booth that everyone seems to be gathering in because they have the most basic luxuries. I mean, we’re talking a fr!ggen couch and some free water here— it’s not exactly the Ritz.
While it’s all well and good that the brands exhibiting at your event have the ability to bring in crowds this way, shouldn’t you get the credit— and some free publicity while you’re at it?
Create lounge areas where people can hang out, have meetings, and network. And we’re not talking some lunch space with folding tables and crumbs everywhere: real, honest-to-god comfortable places for people to get off their feet and have a conversation.
Don’t just create one, create many. Scatter them throughout the event. Equip them with extra wifi towers and charging stations for their phones and laptops— stations with your brand printed right up on ‘em.
Don’t just be the host of your event. Be the hero. Remember that the more effort you put into making the experience comfortable, functional, and inviting, the longer your attendees will hang out: and that’s better for everyone.
Keep the Party Going
The experience starts before attendees arrive, and it ends long after strike: if you play your cards right.
We spend a lot of time thinking about post-event communication, and then absolutely squander it to sh!t by making it all a sales pitch for your next event or your product.
When it comes to follow ups, apply the same principles as you did onsite: it’s still not about you. Instead of pitching, or putting in 17 buttons that lead to a sales form, create a newsletter centered on the topics covered at your event. Ask your sponsors and exhibitors to contribute thought pieces and blurbs. Continue to add value after the event, and it becomes a holistic experience.
“Fine, but when is it about me?” Well, my friends, that’s where your event data comes in. While it may seem strange to make all the “advertising” one step removed from the event, it’s the best way to keep the annoying out of your experience.
Use your event data for better Facebook ad and Google Display Network targeting. Add attendees to a separate direct mail list from your post-event communications. Identify the most popular sessions and bolster your inbound marketing plan with related content.
And remember: you were there the whole time. You’ll be like Alicia Keys’ “Girl on Fire”— stuck in everyone’s heads for years, even though they can’t quite remember where they heard you. Congratulations; you just Jedi mind tricked the hell out of everyone.