Is your experiential idea portable?

spoonsYou know the feeling you get when someone tells a story, and ends up trailing off with “well, I guess you just had to be there…” Well, that’s the kind of dead fish many experiential campaigns serve up on a daily basis.

We spend so much time agonising over ‘the experience’, the ‘consumer journey’ and the ‘drive to sales’, that we forget the awful truth: the people who come up and engage with your experience don’t really matter.

Think about it.They’re generally few in number, and by getting involved they’ve proven they’re such a bunch of keenos that they’ll believe anything you say – just give them a choc ice, a friendly word and send them on their way. Easy.

But what about the people who don’t engage – you know, the ones you actually want to talk to – what are you giving to them? Chances are, nothing. And that’s why we should think about a new rule for campaigns: Don’t design experiences for the people who experience them – design them for the people who just hear about them. At first glance this might sound like another pointless plug for making things viral, but it’s not.

It’s a given that you want to create an idea that’s so cool and talkable that it’s making other agencies across the seas curse their unambitious client – sometimes you’ll achieve this and sometimes, well probably most times, you won’t.

No, this rule is for the more humble forms of indirect reach – the person who gets told about it later that day, the person that just glanced at it walking by, the client who you present the case study to four years later.

Those people are the important ones, the disinterested and the numerous – has your campaign influenced them? Here’s how you can tell: Does the top line gist of your activity clearly communicate the strategic message behind the campaign?

Don’t think about how this is going to play to the man who engages with your experience – think about how it’s going to play to his wife when he mentions it for five seconds through a mouthful of fish fingers at tea time later in the day.

If it plays well, this is what we might call a *Portable Idea* – and it’s a very rare phenomenon. A portable idea is an idea where just a glance, or a status update, or a dinner table chat is enough to communicate the brand’s message instantly.

You know when someone says “you had to be there”?  Well, this is the opposite.

Here’s a portable idea:

spoon project

I don’t know anything more about that project than literally what you see in that image.

But I totally get it, and just looking at that image made me think about Parkinson’s in the way they intended – I certainly didn’t have to be present to understand it, and neither did the thousands of people for whom this campaign was just a short anecdote, tweet or Instagram snap.

That campaign was built for everyone, direct and indirect, and as such has set itself up to achieve incredible reach with full impact.

Conversely, here’s a non-portable idea:


Now, just like the Parkinson’s example, I know basically nothing about this campaign.

But from looking at this image and reading the blurb about it I’m none the wiser about the brand – and therefore the same thing would have applied to every person who strolled by without going in, to every person who was told “I got a free ice cream today” by an attendee.

Naturally all the usual caveats apply about the nature of the briefs (we’re comparing ice cream and Parkinson’s disease here…), however simply taking the broad point about portable ideas, would not every campaign, including the Ben & Jerry’s one above, benefit from being designed at least a little bit for people like us, reading about it in a vague unengaged manner 18 months later?

Your campaign is going to go places you don’t expect, and will never know about. Make sure it’s prepared for that journey.

Alex Smith is planning director at Sense