As a marketing professional, I do my best to stay informed on subject areas relevant to me, in much the same way that you are now!
During my quest for intellectual expansion, I came across an excellent post on Forbes, written by Robert Wynne, explaining the role of the modern PR professional. It was an interesting read, first offering this traditional definition of PR from Wikipedia:
“… The practice of managing the spread of information between an individual or an organisation and the public. Public relations may include an organisation or individual gaining exposure to their audiences using topics of public interest and news items that do not require direct payment. The aim of public relations by a company often is to persuade the public, investors, partners, employees, and other stakeholders to maintain a certain point of view about it, its leadership, products, or of political decisions.”
However, it was the next paragraph which caught my eye, Wynne stating “an international effort to update the definition” to incorporate the concepts of ‘engagement’ and ‘relationship building’ had led to the PRSA noting:
“Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organisations and their publics.”
This was the lightbulb moment. Knowing the driving force behind experiential marketing is also the development of a deep, emotional, interactive bond with the consumers, it is not unreasonable to assume the two approaches share some similarities.
Taking this a step further, the similarities presented indicate that experiential marketing can be exploited to achieve PR objectives. Wynne in his article provides a list of “what PR consists of”, the remainder of this article will focus on highlighting how well positioned experiential marketing is to accomplish these tasks.
What “Experiential PR” Consists Of
A study by Forbes, that spoke to 760 business executives, found 91% of respondents agreed face-to-face meetings were best for persuasion purposes. Furthermore, 85% of those who preferred face-to-face cited the development of stronger, more meaningful business relationships as the reason.
Mills, Bratton and Forshaw (2006) noted that “face-to-face interaction is the most effective form of verbal communication when the sender wants to persuade or motivate the receiver”. It stands to reason that the same remains true for consumer interactions. Face-to-face communication can benefit from; body language, facial expressions & intonation, demonstrations and two-way communication, all of which make the communication of messages easier and more human.
Compare this to traditional PR channels which are typically non-interactive, written for the masses, and we can see experiential marketing enjoys several advantages allowing for more detailed, more open and more personal communication, which we know develops a deeper relationship and is, therefore, more persuasive.
Experiential events are highly effective in the transfer of information, as they do not suffer from the same limiting factors as traditional PR channels (fixed content, world limits and editorial scrutiny to name but a few).
Furthermore, events provide the public with deeper, more flexible access to information, that is more efficient at lowering the information gap between customers and brands through two-way face-to-face communication. This, in turn, facilitates them receiving more specific, higher quality answers to queries relevant to personal pain-points.
This is then supported by the academic work of Trevor Kerry (2010), professor of education leadership, which states “face-to-face interaction is still seen as the best form of teaching”.
In a similar vein to persuasion, effective communication involves many nuances. Firstly, whilst it can be argued codifying the message ensures all recipients receive the same thing, which is true, communication requires effort from both sides, meaning the final, decoded message may vary greatly from person to person.
Also, traditional PR is often at the mercy of reporters and editors, who may choose to alter or even remove completely parts of the message.
Conversely, communication is much easier to facilitate face-to-face, it engages more senses and allows a deeper level of interaction through intonation, body language and facial expressions. All of which allow a message to be more clearly understood.
This is, again, backed up by scientific research. Professor Albert Mehrabian of UCLA found that 93% of human communication is non-verbal when discussing feelings and attitudes. Whilst these are very specifically engineered circumstances, it is still a strong indicator that the best communication is achieved face-to-face. This is supported by Nardi and Whittaker (2002), who noted “many theorists imply that face-to-face communication is the gold standard of communication”, and Daft and Lengel’s media richness theory, which describes face-to-face communication as the most efficient and informational format.
Third-Party Validation “Earned” Promotion
The main reason why PR tactics are so effective is that they leverage “earned” promotion, whereby their information is validated by whichever third-party is publishing it, often a news publication.
We know the value of “earned” promotion from studies like Business2Community’s 2016 survey which found 82% of respondents seek recommendations from friends and family when considering a purchase.
However, what this survey highlights, is that we prefer to seek recommendations from trusted sources. Whilst there are a great many reputable news sources out there, the reputation of the industry as a whole has become somewhat tarnished by recent “fake news” and phone-hacking scandals, leading to public trust in the media reaching an all-time low, according to the Financial Times.
In contrast, experiential events provide an opportunity, not only for press coverage (local, industry and national) but also to develop consumers into brand evangelists who will promote the brand via their personal social channels.
According to Event Marketer, 98% of consumers produce digital or social content at events or experiences, and 100% of these consumers share this content in some form. In context, if 500 consumers with 400 Facebook friends, attended an event, that would be 490 pieces of content with a potential 196,000 impressions via a trusted source.
Furthermore, a footfall of 500 in a city centre area is extremely conservative, and when you factor in that “96% of consumers that tell a friend or family member about their experience mention the company or brand running the event” (Eventtrack 2016). It becomes obvious experiential marketing is an extremely powerful vehicle for generating “earned” promotion.
In my personal opinion, altering public opinion is more the strategy of PR rather than a tactic, as almost all PR tactics aim to influence it in some way. However, there are still several points to make which speak to the efficacy of experiential marketing when altering public opinion.
Firstly, the interactive format gives brands a human face, making them approachable and also more trustworthy. Furthermore, this interactivity gives visitors a deeper, more involved understanding of the brand’s message, which is particularly powerful when used to champion a cause as with Uber’s Uber Puppies campaign and Dog’s Trust’s regular events.
We’ve already discussed the propensity for experiential marketing to generate “earned promotion”, public opinion is heavily influenced by those held in a high social regard i.e. influencers, and so this is another synergy which supports experiential marketing as an effective PR vehicle.
To cap this off, Event Marketer found, after the event, 74% of the participants have a more positive opinion about the company, brand, product or service being promoted, which is statistical evidence in itself, experiential marketing influences public opinion.
Again, more of a strategic goal, experiential events can be a physical representation of brand’s stance on a topical issue and a rallying point for those who agree. This helps brands show solidarity with their supporters along with a willingness to back up talk with action.
This is highly likely to generate natural media coverage, especially on a contentious issue, which can often come across more authentic than PR statements clearly written by the brand themselves.
This is supported by Burnell’s 2011 academic work, Promoting Democracy Abroad: Policy and Performance which states in the context of politics, “face-to-face interaction is the preferred means to activate contact and maintain strong ties.”
Promotion to Drive Sales, Revenues or Donations
Always high up every brand’s wish list, more revenue equals more money for the brand or the cause being promoted. Again, experiential marketing is perfectly suited to drive towards this goal. EMI’s 2015 Eventtrack found, sixty-five percent of consumers purchase the product or service promoted at the event or visit.
Added to this, seventy percent of event and experience participants that purchase once then become a regular customer. And finally, eighty-seven percent of the consumers said they purchased the product or service after the event at a later date.
It is obvious from these statistics that not only is experiential marketing effective when driving immediate sales, it is also highly effective in generating valuable, loyal, repeat customers, who are worth far more than one-time-purchasers.
To round things off, let’s take a look at another quote from Wynne’s article:
“PR agencies and advertising agencies share the same goals: promoting clients and making them seem as successful, honest, important, exciting or relevant as possible.”
After this discussion, I would argue that the same is true for experiential marketing agencies, the only difference is the vehicle used to deliver the message.