Three experiential rules to be broken

Rubbermaid Products:FlickrNobody knows less about something than an expert.

We agencies should know this; after all, it’s the whole foundation of the value we bring to a client. People who work within a brand are enveloped in its world and assured of its importance and value. They’re incapable of stepping away for a moment and recognising that, to a normal person, the new ergonomic grip on your bathroom cleaner actually isn’t that exciting.

We see the wood so that they can focus on the trees. This is a great system. But why should we consider ourselves to be immune from that same problem?

Our product – communications in various guises – is just as prone to blinkered thinking as a bathroom cleaner, and the evidence is all around us, in every sarcastic comment or dollop of indifference delivered to campaigns by straight-talking, normal folk. Behind every failed campaign, there’s a network of marketing types who thought it was great.

This being the case, it stands to reason that the more superficially specialised a marketing discipline, the deeper down the rabbit warren its practitioners tend to go; slowly tangling themselves in a web of self-imposed dogma that would baffle someone coming to it fresh.

So, if there were an agency for agencies, which could bring a bit of naïve clarity to proceedings, what would they have to say about the ‘tree focus’ for that most specialised and incestuous of disciplines, experiential?

Here are three rules, cornerstones of imagined expertise for many experienced experiential experts, which they might identify and innocently ask – ‘why?’

Rule 1: You must choose between depth of experience, or reach

A humdinger, and sire of many a creative argument and zero-sum see-saw charts, which invite you to choose where on a scale you’d like pitch your activation. Do you chose short sharp cheap interaction, churning through thousands of people, or an immersive brand experience, much richer for those who interact, but expensive and time consuming, thereby decreasing your reach?

Ignoring for a moment amplification as a means to extend reach, and focusing on the primary consumer experience, this rule is predicated on the assumption that a long and involved brand experience is more impactful than a fleeting one.

Quick consideration of our real, non-marketing lives proves this to be an imaginary correlation. I’m pretty sure that someone running up to me on the street, giving me a Chinese burn – all four seconds of it – would impact me much more profoundly than, say, looking for eggs in a supermarket – all 20 minutes of it (I always have that problem for some reason). As anyone who’s ever spotted a celebrity crossing the street and banged on about it for the next six years of their life can tell you; dwell time and impact aren’t correlated.

The likelihood is that you’re trying to put across one clear communication with your activity, and this can be accomplished in half a second. If it’s taking you 10 minutes, then, far from maximising impact, you may actually be minimising it.

Rule 2:  Footfall is king

Another rule from the days when amplification was less important, but judging by the continued popularity of high streets, stations and shopping centres as stages from experiential campaigns, a lingering one nonetheless.

Of course, it seems pretty obvious that you’d want to maximise footfall.  After all, it’s effectively a mirror to most other disciplines that buy media largely based on reach, and experiential practitioners can be especially tetchy when it comes to the “r” word. However, the key thing to note is that effective reach is not measured by footfall, it’s measured by meaningful impacts – and these aren’t the same thing.

Comparing footfall and impacts is one situation where a see-saw type chart would come in handy, as we need to balance how much we influence people with how many of them we hit. Basically, it’s probably better to hit 1,000 people and influence 500 of them, than to hit 10,000 people and influence 400 of them. That’s the difference between footfall and impacts.

Maximising your impacts is contingent on the idea and execution, and given that experiential is highly contextual this is quite likely to be tied to your location. Naturally going to the spot that has a new piece of unrelated experiential every week isn’t necessarily a recipe for standout. But going to a spot that perfectly ties in with your idea – that is.

If you deliver impact, not raw volume, amplification and talkability might just deliver you both.

Rule 3:  Experiential is face to face

I’m not sure if many people actually believe this, but it certainly gets bandied about a lot, presumably as a side effect of the many abortive attempts to define the discipline. Because experiential can be so varied, it defies easy categorisation, so people look to find what different campaigns do have in common, and one thing that fits the bill is people (staff, brand ambassadors, etc).

It’s not hard to find examples of experiential that defy this rule, like this, or Sense’s own Sky Rainforest Rescue Discovery Trails (currently in a forest near you).

Now, you might refer to non-staffed experiential as ambient, but really this is a case of tomayto, tomahto, and once again trying to impose strict and unnecessary restrictions on a monumentally broad category. I don’t see any client who’s bought an experiential campaign complaining that what you’ve delivered is technically ambient. As I said at the outset, they aren’t experts, so they won’t tie you down with this meaningless distinction – an argument in favour of inexperienced clients.

In conclusion, these three points are nothing more than teething problems in what remains a young form of marketing, which everyone’s still feeling their way around. Stepping back and ensuring we don’t consider ourselves experts in something that’s still developing, will allow it to continue to grow into shapes and definitions we haven’t even considered yet.

Alex Smith is planing director at Sense