Chief marketing officers are investing more in event and experiential marketing these days, because live brand experiences are proving their ability to engage audiences effectively in an increasingly noisy world filled with so much digital marketing.

However, marketers should focus more on defining their brand culture and aligning their event mission statements around that to differentiate their value proposition and drive attendance in today’s experience economy.

According to last year’s EventTrack 2015 survey, prepared by the Event Marketing Institute and experiential marketing agency Mosaic, event marketers reported a 6% rise in their budgets overall for the year.

More telling, over 58% of them said those budgets were funded directly by corporate, rather than being scavenged from other marketing budget buckets, versus 35% who said the same in 2014. Furthermore, 65% of marketers reported seeing a direct sales lift as the result of experiential marketing, compared to 59% in 2014.

“Marketers around the world are embracing experiential marketing as a primary driver of their marketing mix,” said Jeff Stelmach, president of Mosaic. “Experiential marketing is being used as both a standalone channel and as an integrated part of overall campaigns.”

Meaning, live events are closing the loop in the marketing journey developed around today’s consumer, from the first brand engagement through to the desired end-user action.

“We know mass-market is dead or dying, so brands are finding new ways to reach their audiences, and that’s been trending for a while now but it continues to accelerate,” said Chris Cavanaugh, EVP and CMO of Freeman. The event management company is behind the design of many mega-events, such as the annual Computer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas.

“Live experiences are gaining a bigger share of the pie because they draw on the basic needs of us as humans to connect and socialize,” Cavanaugh explained. “For a while, people thought we could just live online and stay at home in dark, dim-lit rooms eating bon-bons and never talking to people again. But we now know that’s not true. The combination of live engagement, dimensionalized experiences, and digital is proving to be the trigger for most brands’ products and services.”

‘Who’s Got the Relationships?’

Freeman organizes Marketo’s annual Marketing Nation Summit, bringing together over 6,000 marketers from around the world. In the past two years, keynoters have included luminaries such as Hillary Clinton, Will Smith, John Legend, and Arianna Huffington.

We asked Sanjay Dholakia, CMO at Marketo, what is driving the rise of events today as experiential brand marketing vehicles, above and beyond their usual role as platforms for networking, education, sales, and business development.

“There’s so much information online today that you can’t blast your way thorough it anymore,” he said. “In this crazy digital, mobile, social world, we now have infinite channels, so there’s much more noise. It’s hard to get the signal through.”

So for companies to be competitive today, Dholakia said, “It’s no longer about lower cost, the best product, or the biggest brand. The basis now is: Who’s got the relationships? That’s where the physical engagement is really important and powerful.”

The biggest challenge for marketers designing live brand experiences is integrating the online and offline messaging to complete a holistic marketing mix where all of the brand components help cross-sell and upsell each other.

The second primary issue for event organizers today is engaging audiences online and offline once the messaging is established. Cavanaugh says planners shouldn’t think of events in isolation. Rather, they’re “flash points” during the year that help brands amplify their messaging that’s already engaging the same audience on other channels.

“So how are you talking to them the rest of the year?” Cavanaugh said. “How are you talking with them online, and then how can we use that dialogue with your audience at events? So it’s thinking about it programmatically, more holistically. Think about events as one more marketing tool.”

“The formula is great content plus great energy plus emotional impact to connect with your audience,” added Dholakia. “The challenge is how do you create all of that content to connect with your audience, because the only way to get at them is to have targeted, relevant content.”

So why do planners needs to be told this?

Cavanaugh suggested, “With planners, there’s so much to do, and so many people to please, and so many components to a successful live experience, that we don’t often have the luxury to kick back and adopt a broader strategy.”

Design Thinking in Event Design

To help event planners formulate broader strategies more seamlessly. Freeman has been developing new frameworks around design thinking, or empathy design, like many other companies these days.

Design thinking is about leadership and understanding the bigger picture, according to Bruce Mau, chief design officer at Freeman. It’s about designing solutions to innovate by better understanding pain points from both the client’s and the individual customer’s perspective.

“If you think about what design is, it’s fundamentally a leadership methodology,” says Mau, in the above video. “It’s the ability to envision a future and systematically execute the vision. So it’s not dependent on a particular product or service or outcome. It’s the capacity to produce a future that we want to live in.”

The unique angle here is about morphing those parameters of design thinking onto those of event design and overall corporate strategy. Because, without understanding the evolving attendee mindset in relation to the evolving brand experience year-over-year, event organizers will be challenged to drive attendance.

“If you think about what our customers are experiencing every day, they come to the show every year a different person,” Mau said. “They’ve got new devices, they’ve got new technology, they have new information, new access. The idea that we somehow own the content and they have to be there is gone. That’s over.”

Freeman COO Bob Priest-Heck also says design thinking in the events sector is not just about understanding the needs of a client in terms of how a booth or graphic should look to best engage their consumers’ psychographic profile. It’s really about how companies are empathizing with their own mission statements and brand culture, and how they can better align customer experiences like live events around those.

Priest-Heck says, because of that, “The future of experiential marketing is going to be much more contextualized and much more personalized.”

Photo Credit: The HP Discover conference was designed by Freeman for 11,000 IT executives. Freeman