Events Aren’t Enough Anymore—It’s Got To Be an Experience

Samantha Gilmore

We’ve all been to a boring sales pitch, or a supposed party where the music is too loud and you don’t know anyone. Since the pandemic, we’ve additionally had to sit through mind-numbing webinars, and Zoom sessions with way too many people, and no clear agenda.

Are those events? Well, technically yes. But not the kind that’s going to do anything good. Too many events are places where people talk at you. Where a bunch of grown adults in branded tee-shirts try to sell you things you don’t need. Events like this are equivalent to walking around Times Square and suddenly all the billboards turned into real-life humans shoving fliers and custom pens in your face.

Let’s face it: those events all sound like a bad time. 

How about an experience? 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 maybe if you throw a photo booth in there, everything will magically improve.

The problem is, that kind of thinking is way too small to really reinvigorate the events industry. We need to stop trying to just make events ‘better’ and focus on creating experiences instead. 

So what’s the difference? Let us 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, and that happens long before their Ubers pull up.

In order to make sure you’re creating streamlined, on-message event marketing touch points, 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, it’s important you choose the right event marketing and registration platform that allows you to customize everythingwhen you’re trying to evoke a feeling, a clunky Eventbrite page isn’t gonna cut it. Create an online experience that mirrors your live experience. One that employs the same colors and themes, the same imagery and voice. Think of your event site like a crystal ball where your attendees can gaze into their futures. If it looks lame on a laptop, it’s a lot more painful to shell out cash for a ticket (no matter how epic it’s going to be IRL.)

Remember it’s not 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. Resist!

While this may be an effective tactic for making your brand stick in their minds, sticking with a bad impression is worse than not sticking at all. 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 immersive experiences, for example. These made-for-Instagram experiences exploded back in 2018, starting with the Museum of Ice Cream and spawning into a thousand look-alikes, notably the Van Gogh Immersive Experience. When you purchase tickets to one of these events, it’s rare to even see the brand behind the curtain. You’re buying an experience—maybe ones that are sponsored by big brand names, but not in a way that’s obvious. Not in a way that makes you feel like you’re being sold on something.

So, you might walk away with a swag bag of sponsored products. You may even see some brand education along the way. 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 taking aesthetically pleasing pictures with giant ice cream cones or learning about the implications of the newest sales tax laws in the United States. (It’s important, y’all.)

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. Or maybe taking a page out of Hubspot’s book and adding an Instagram-able experience to your event. (And TikTok, are you paying attention to TikTok?)

No matter how you do it, remember to create experiences for your attendees, not for your brand. Sometimes, 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 our events, they’re going to be overlooked for better ones, regardless of the awesomeness (or not) of the product. 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 to have all the answers for—but there are some tactics you can employ to start moving in the right direction.

For starters, remove the transactional element. Instead of hauling in sales teams with product pitches, task those exhibitors with bringing a value-add to the table. Treat them like seminars, mini 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. They’ll remember that down the road.

On the exhibitor side, this structure allows each company to create mini 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 without making eye contact so they don’t have to talk to our sales team. I mean, admit it, you’ve done that. I certainly have.

Equally importantly, you can take steps to make your event a place where people actually want to hang out.

We’ve all seen it, that one booth where everyone seems to be gathering because they have the most basic luxuries. We’re talking a couch and some free water—they’re 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 credit— and some free publicity while you’re at it?

Create lounge areas where people can hang out, have meetings, and network. 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 there, front and center!

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

Every great experience starts before attendees arrive, and it ends long after strike, if you play your cards right.

On marketing teams, we spend a lot of time thinking about post-event communication, and then absolutely squander it by making it a sales pitch for our next event or our product.

When it comes to follow-ups, apply the same principle 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, blurbs, or pictures. Continue to add value after the event, and it becomes that 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 ads 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 it. Congratulations, you just Jedi mind-tricked the hell out of everyone.