Social media is having an explosive effect on experiential campaigns, creating the potential to multiply thousands of brand interactions into millions. Websites had already become integral to experiential activity, but usually only as a follow-up to an initial interaction, enabling people to source further information or offers.
This has changed, and now, thanks to widespread consumer awareness of Twitter and YouTube, for example, the digital element of campaigns can work before, during and after a marketing event.
'Digital is joined at the hip to experiential, and is one of the business' biggest growth areas, thanks to its complementary nature,' says Hugh Robertson, managing partner at experiential agency RPM.
At the most basic level, filming a branded event and putting it on the web can hugely amplify its reach. Ten thousand people turned up to watch professional skateboarders at a Paris show organised by iris Experience for Sony Ericsson, but when a video was made available online, it attracted a further 220,000 viewers at almost no extra cost to the brand.
The possibilities offered by social networking are exciting brands as they realise how an online conversation can draw in huge numbers of consumers. 'If you execute these strategies properly, you attract a huge number of brand ambassadors who are self-recruited and self-motivating,' says Robertson.
RPM's recent activity promoting Hasbro's Bop It and Cranium games, used sampling activity as the basis for a digital campaign that created a virtual community. Consumers taking part in an online quiz received free games, and continued the relationship through Twitter and Facebook.
Those attending events can be encouraged to upload photos and video content to networking sites so friends can see what they missed. The key is creating something people want to share.
At a roadshow run by agency TRO to promote Vauxhall's latest Astra model, consumers posed for photographs, which were then superimposed onto a film trailer to make it look like they were playing the starring role. This was unusual enough for many of them to want to upload it to their Facebook page.
'Innovations like these interactive technologies greatly contribute to strengthening our marketing strategy,' says Keith Michaels, marketing operations manager at Vauxhall. Indeed, on this occasion, the carmaker's target figure for leads was exceeded by 71%.
Drinks brands have been adept at exploiting the benefits of amplifying niche experiential activity through social media. RPM has been working with Smirnoff, and i2i has just completed a campaign for Russian Standard Vodka, based on a competition offering winners the chance to visit Moscow.
For the latter, a limited number of core events were held in shops, bars and nightclubs. However, their impact was greatly increased by sponsorship deals that gained the brand exposure on Kiss radio stations and in magazines such as Empire and Grazia.
'After the trip the winners started their own Facebook pages saying how fantastic it had been and used them to keep in touch,' says Bruce Burnett, managing director of i2i.
'Now the event has a life of its own.'
The agency's research indicates that consumers prefer to go online to interact with brands, especially as smartphones enable them to access the internet quickly while on the move.
Some experts argue that social media offers fewer opportunities for FMCG products, but, as manufacturers have discovered, consumers are willing to exchange views online about virtually any purchased product.
Haircare brand Wella achieved a high level of exposure for an international competition it staged in Berlin, with a three-month build-up gained through Twitter updates and Facebook teasers.
The campaign culminated in the release of video blogs and photos of rehearsals at the venue. Updates during the show itself were posted online, and bloggers in different countries referred to it while writing in support of contestants.
Agencies point out that the use of social media requires a much more open approach than most marketers are used to. Treating it as just another form of advertising can backfire, as some brands learned when they were ridiculed for trying to imitate the YouTube success of Cadbury's popular 'Gorilla' ad.
Pushing content or trying to control the course of conversations rarely works. 'You can't be any less than 100% honest and open, or you will receive a negative response,' says Kevin Jackson, sales and marketing director at Jack Morton Worldwide, which was responsible for the Wella campaign.
Conversely, success can be achieved by exploiting existing communities of interest, as Volkswagen did when it got camping enthusiasts to write about its new lifestyle vehicles.
Another example is a recent campaign by BEcause on behalf of Kentucky bourbon whiskey brand Maker's Mark, which commissioned artists to create live art in bars using red wax, the brand's signature seal.
As well as creating a Facebook community, the agency tapped into the artists' own social networks and encouraged them to blog about the experience of working with wax.
'The key is not to be scared of relinquishing control, but let it roll, so that consumers talk about it on your behalf,' says Karen Evans, marketing director at BEcause. 'They trust other people's views more than brands, so it's a great way of spreading the word.'
Because it is virtually cost-free, the use of social media is ideal for low-budget campaigns like the one run by Maker's Mark, which cost less than £100,000, adds Evans.
Another way to keep costs down is to get partners such as broadcasters to provide content. 'There are lots of quick-win, low-cost ways of getting your content pushed out even further, or, equally, bringing some of their content in,' says Cameron Day, business development director at iris Experience.
He emphasises that the use of social media is still in its infancy, and many brands are getting it wrong. A classic mistake, he believes, is to assume that banner advertising is needed to draw attention to content.
'Our experience is that if you create something that is interesting as well as being right for the brand, the audience will spread it themselves,' he says.
One outstanding issue is how to measure results. The impact of both experiential and social-media activity is hard for marketers to quantify. Day cites research from McKinsey that shows how advocacy leads to sales increases, but acknowledges 'it's still quite woolly', adding that it is a 'big challenge to overcome'.
He is not alone in predicting that it will take another two years for brands to get a proper handle on this exciting channel. However, regardless of the uncertainty, experiential specialists are already ahead of the field in showing what can be achieved.
TUBORG: giving consumers the big-screen treatment
Beer brand Tuborg renewed its focus on the festival circuit last summer to highlight its music offering.
Footage of festival-goers was broadcast on giant screens with the aim of creating memories that would drive post-festival sales and consumer affinity with the brand.
Afterwards, visitors were encouraged to watch filmed highlights on the brand's website and YouTube.
'This meant we could extend the feelgood factor way beyond the festival itself,' says Chris Thornhill, assistant brand manager. 'The result was to bring Tuborg front-of-mind to those people who had enjoyed the original experience, while increasing awareness and propensity to buy.'
The activity is estimated to have reached about 160,000 young consumers in total.
VOLKSWAGEN: letting fans do the talking
Volkswagen promoted its California camper van and Caravelle people carrier at outdoor lifestyle events last year. As well as displaying the vehicles to camping enthusiasts, it filmed their reactions and a select few were given a vehicle for a year, along with a video camera to record their experiences.
The content was shown on a campaign website and distributed via Flickr, Facebook and YouTube. It received 63,000 views, while social media generated 108,000 hits.
'We decided to talk to campers and let them express views that could be shared with a wider audience,' says Mark Hopkins, marketing communications manager for Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles. 'This cost less and achieved greater success, exceeding all our targets.'
TOP TIPS: How to amplify a campaign
- Before starting a campaign, visit Facebook, MySpace and Twitter to see what consumers are already saying about your brand. This should inform your experiential strategy.
- Ensure that the content you create at events is engaging and dynamic, so that consumers will be excited enough to share it with their friends.
- Involve relevant bloggers in your activity - ask them for suggestions and let them try out your product or service.
- Don't worry about occasional negative comments posted online, but be sure to join the conversation promptly to deflect criticism.
- Keep the dialogue going after the experiential activity has finished, perhaps by offering Facebook users money-off coupons or a competition.