Experiential Marketing

Modern consumers are savvy and informed, not helpless and dumb. They are less likely to blindly believe your claims about your product or service. Given the abundance of information online, they expect more information than can be delivered in a :30 TV spot or a full-page print ad, so they tend to research online and ask their friends about your product to see if lives up to the hype.

Experience Is King

Consumers must experience products or services firsthand in the context of how they would use them in their daily lives.

For example, our family rented two different minivans for two different weekend driving trips – a Dodge Caravan and a Chevy Uplander. We found that the Uplander had a child safety seat hook in the second row and another in the third row, whereas the Caravan had both safety hooks in the second row. These details would never be communicated in TV ads, print ads, or even in official brochures. Our experience with both vehicles helped us determine that the Uplander fit our needs (infant in the third row, toddler in the second row).

Aircell’s GoGo in-flight high-speed Internet is taking off because many early adopters were so pleasantly surprised that it actually worked as advertised; they raved about the experience on their blogs by posting actual speed test charts and conducting video calls.

In another example, Archos provided personal entertainment devices (7-inch portable media players) to all first-class passengers. Passengers could see how easy the touchscreen user interface was and how many movies, TV shows, and music tracks could be stored on the device. With this level of detailed experience with the product, potential customers could justify the purchase.

The service that BzzAgent provides to brands is a systematic approach to experiential marketing. Advertisers supply a sample product, which is then distributed to people who have declared interest in specific product categories. BzzAgent then manages a feedback aggregation process that provides the advertiser with insights into whether and how target customers liked the product, how they described it to their friends, and whether they would buy it again or recommend it to someone else.

Social Media Facilitates and Amplifies Sharing

Advertisers often resort to over-the-top, edgy ads to generate talk online, but that talk usually ends up being about the viral ad instead of the product. At best, the advertiser increases awareness about the brand and product indirectly, but this usually doesn’t help modern consumers get closer to an informed purchase decision.

Getting people to talk about a product, service, or brand is hard. What’s the difference between Avis, Hertz, or Budget; Nike, Adidas, and Puma; or Coke, Pepsi, and Dr. Pepper? If consumers can’t articulate the difference between brands or cite a single point of differentiation, they can’t really talk about the product, let alone convince a friend to buy one rather than another.

Despite the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on brand advertising, most consumers aren’t able to carry on word of mouth for the brand. Yet once consumers experience a product or service and see how it fits into their lives, they’re more likely to be able to articulate what’s different and why one is better than another.

When consumers talk about these things with their friends on social networks, they talk publicly in their own words, not advertiser-speak. For many great examples of highly efficient experiential marketing, look no further than all the new Web 2.0 online services that invite real users to beta-test the service and provide feedback, bug fixes, and new ideas. When these initial users feel there’s enough value, they’ll write about it on blogs and tell their friends to try the service, helping with the service rollout.

Some practical examples of experiential marketing include the following: 1) IKEA Hotels – hotels decorated entirely with signature IKEA furnishings to let people truly experience the tables, sofas, beds, chairs, utensils, etc. The hotels get a complete makeover and IKEA dramatically increases the number of locations where people can experience its products (in addition to its retail stores). 2) Avis sponsored rentals – car rentals subsidized by auto makers so people can test-drive (experience) the latest car models. 3) Cereal bars – popup quick service locations serving free breakfast cereals. The cereals people choose and how they mix and match their own cereals and add-ons will provide real-time market research for the cereal manufacturer sponsoring the cereal bars. And 4) Lean Cuisine in-flight meals – hot, complete meals provided by manufacturers. Airline passengers get something better than the proverbial “airplane food” or nothing at all, and Lean Cuisine gets thousands of people to actually taste the food, rather than just see or hear about it on a TV ad.

As you can see, true experiential marketing is not some gimmicky stunt, but rather marketing that has direct and immediate business impact, delivered through genuine experiences. It goes without saying that the products being experienced actually have to be good.

Tips for Doing Better Experiential Marketing

  • Give people something to talk about (e.g., a unique feature, benefit, value proposition, etc.).
  • Let people experience the product and facilitate their talking about their experience publicly.
  • Use traditional media to drive people to talk about their experience so their collective feedback is accumulated and publicly visible for others to use in their own purchase decisions.
  • Be prepared to hear what you don’t want to hear; be prepared to acknowledge questions, complaints, and suggestions and openly carry on the dialogue.
  • Use the ideas contributed by real users to innovate as fast as possible to give people something more to talk about, such as adding new features that users say they want. Repeat the cycle often.


When consumers can experience products and services, they can identify specific reasons they think one product is better, different, or more useful than another. With this detail, they actually have something to talk about.

Countless studies show that consumers rely on reviews by people like them when making purchase decisions. It’s never been more important to let users experience the product rather than just viewing an experience through advertising.

This column was originally published on December 18, 2008 and updated on April 28, 2011.

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