How to Use Experiential Marketing to Reach Millennials (Hint: You're Overthinking It)

Lauren Taylor on 9/12/17 4:22 PM

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Marketers seem puzzled by how to effectively market to millennials—or, at the very least, people are telling them they should be confused.

Forbes recently published an article with the headline: "Reaching the Unreachable: How Experiential Marketing Targets Brand-Savvy Millennials." As a millennial myself, I don't agree that we're unreachable, but I do agree with a basic tenant of the article: that millennials have conditioned ourselves to ignore traditional forms of advertising—even online ads—and experiential marketing can help break through the noise.

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The online world is cluttered with articles suggesting [X] tips to reach millennials with experiential, a lot of them simply reiterating and reframing the same idea that hosting in-person experiences is a way to stand out among a deluge of online ads. While they're not wrong, their advice is too vague to be actionable, too obvious to be helpful. Recognizing that experiential can reach millennials is the first in a long series of steps to building a successful in-person marketing campaign, so what comes next? Hosting just any event isn't enough. What are the characteristics of an event that will not only draw millennials in the first place, but will also keep them coming back for more?

As a marketer, a millennial, and someone who regularly thinks about experiential and event marketing, I don't think there are any quick tricks that will revamp the way organizations engage with my generation overnight. The idea of quick fixes and clickbait got us into this mess in the first place—so much online content over-promises and under-delivers that millennials are weary of everything. If you really want to grab the attention of millennials, experiential is a good place to start, but you also need to spend time to ensure that the in-event experience is meaningful and engaging. Making an event "instagrammable" is not enough, and making a campaign "authentic"—the catch-all word that seems to describes everything millennials care about—isn't a bad idea, but what exactly does it mean, and how do you actually do it?

My guess is that marketers are overthinking the way they approach millennials. We may like our new tech toys and have more intuitive digital literacy than other generations, but what we're really craving is substance in the content we consume, whether it's online or offline. We expect technology to be an integrated part and facilitator of the experience, but we do not expect that it always take center stage. 

Creating meaningful and informative experiences is not easy, but millennials see through anything that hints of gimmick. There is no one-size-fits-all approach marketers should take with their events, but to dig a little deeper into the underlying trends that draw millennials to certain events over others, I'm going to take a marketing lens to my own experiences at live events and think about what it is that draws me to them —and keeps me coming back. My goal is to make the advice specific enough to be actionable, but general enough that it's applicable to a variety of experiential campaigns. Here we go.



On the last Monday of every month at 10:25 am, my calendar reminds me that at 10:30 I need to register for the upcoming Creative Mornings event. I watch my clock flip from 10:29 to 10:30, refresh my browser, and quickly enter my credentials to register. Four days later, I leave my apartment earlier than usual so I can spend two hours of my Friday morning at the event before going to work.

Long story short: the fact that I'm scheduling time in my calendar every month to register for an event and then wake up early on a Friday to attend means that Creative Mornings is doing something right. And by the way, these events are always packed—mostly with millennials—so it's not just me.

If you've never heard of Creative Mornings, it's a morning lecture series for the "creative community" with 175 chapters in cities around the world. On the last Friday of every month each city hosts a free event where they provide breakfast, coffee and a 40-minute talk. It's not that every event blows me away, and I've even attended a couple that flopped. But I trust their brand enough to know that a flop is an anomaly.

Creative Mornings is not marketing a product or a service, so their morning lecture series doesn't necessarily fall into the realm of experiential marketing. Nevertheless, they're reaching and engaging with a large audience across the world, and they're doing it consistently; any organization, regardless of size, industry, or experience with hosting events, should take a few plays from their playbook.

Here's what I like most about Creative Mornings and the top takeaways for experiential marketers:

1. CREATE CONSISTENCY, BUT DELIVER THE UNEXPECTED.

How CM does it: Creative Mornings has a structured framework from which they do not stray: each city's event takes place at the same time on the last Friday of each month, and the events all hold to the same format.

But each month they also feature a new speaker, at a new venue, in front of a different audience. By pairing consistency with the curiosity that comes with learning from a speaker with a different perspective, CM makes me feel like I know what I'm getting myself into while simultaneously allaying fears of boredom.

Takeaway for marketers: You don't necessarily have to do anything crazy to get the attention of a millennial audience. The pairing of the familiar with the unexpected holds weight for a generation of people accustomed to the inconsistencies of reacting to whatever comes across their Twitter feeds or floods their inboxes.

There's even evidence that this is part of the psychology behind what makes something popular. In Hit Makers, a book that uncovers the psychology behind why we like what we like, author Derek Thompson writes: "Attention doesn't just pull in one direction. Instead, it is a tug-of-war between opposing forces... the love of new versus the preference for the old; people's need for stimulation versus their preference for what is understandable."

That doesn't mean that you should follow the exact format CM has in place. Most organizations will not be able to host events on such a consistent basis, but events can and should play a more regular role in marketing campaigns. Once you set up a cadence for how you promote your event, the format of your event, and how frequently you host them, your audience will become more comfortable with and understand what to expect from the logistics of your event—which will, over time, help them focus more on the actual substance and content that your event offers.

2. SUPPLEMENT THE EVENT EXPERIENCE WITH ONLINE CONTENT.

How CM does it: Creative Mornings records the talks at all of their events and uploads them to their website. They also have a blog and a podcast that features content similar to what you'd hear at one of their events, and they create email campaigns around all of their content to consistently engage with their audience and stay top-of-mind.

Takeaway for marketers: Most organizations already have an online presence that marketers should fully leverage to bridge the gap between online and offline content.

Since digital marketing channels have become the mainstay of most organizations, marketers often think of experiential campaigns as one-off events and don't fully integrate them with their other marketing efforts. But when marketers start thinking of experiential as part of their holistic marketing strategy, they get more out of both their online and offline campaigns.

The team behind HubSpot's INBOUND—an annual, multi-day event that hosted over 19,000 people last year—has realized the power of marketing initiatives that leverage both online and offline channels. During last year's event, the team launched INBOUND Studios, a campaign in which they hosted 15-minute Facebook Live interviews with featured speakers. The live interviews not only helped the INBOUND team further engage with attendees, but also helped them reach a larger virtual audience. 

Once the event ended, they continued the INBOUND Studios initiative by frequently posting interviews to their Facebook and YouTube pages, helping them keep the annual event top-of-mind throughout the year. "It’s become a way to engage with our own social network groups and one that we can use to grow the engagement there, and grow the presence of the event in people’s world beyond just those four days," Laura Moran, INBOUND's PR Manager, said.

Your event doesn't have to be as big as INBOUND to pull off a similar strategy. Bridging the gap between online and offline content will consistently keep your brand and experiential initiatives top-of-mind, especially for a millennial audience that spends a significant amount of time in front of screens.

3. CONSISTENTLY CREATE HIGH-QUALITY CONTENT.

How CM does it: Creative Mornings invites a new speaker each month to present on a different universal theme—like "Happiness," "Connect," or "Chance." Each speaker approaches the theme from her unique perspective and within the context of her specific creative discipline. But because of the universality of each theme, the talks remain applicable to an audience with a wide array of interests, and each talk combines the specific with the universal in a way that consistently results in high-quality and engaging content.

The takeaway for marketers: You can apply a specific lens to a universal theme for any discipline or type of content, and doing so often helps you offer a new perspective to a conversation that might be getting old. Rather than contributing to an echo chamber of ideas, create in-event content that contributes to a larger, relevant conversation in a fresh and interesting way. An honest and unique perspective will go a lot further than the reiteration of ideas that are already floating around online.

4. CREATE A LOCAL COMMUNITY THAT FEELS CONNECTED TO A LARGER ONE.

How CM does it: Each month, all 175 of the Creative Mornings chapters adhere to the same universal theme, but the speakers at each event offer perspectives that often stem from their experience as part of their local community. As part of their online campaigns, Creative Mornings features talks from around the world, allowing their worldwide audience to compare how different communities approach the same universal topics.

Takeaway for marketers: Don't be afraid to celebrate the city in which you're hosting your event. Social media platforms make it possible for people across the world to connect with one another, but even millennials have reacted to the acceleration of globalization with a desire to celebrate their own community.

Whether you're hosting a traveling roadshow series or a one-time event in your own headquarters, tie your event to the community in which you're hosting it. Invite speakers or panelists who work locally, source catering from businesses founded in the area, or host the event in a well-known venue unique to the city. A millennial audience will appreciate feeling connected to a smaller community while discussing ideas that apply to a broader one.

5. GET THE RIGHT PEOPLE IN THE ROOM.

How CM does it: The Creative Morning attendees are all connected through their broader interest in creativity, but everyone's specific interests and disciplines vary widely. CM attendees are able to meet and interact with people who get excited about the same big ideas that they do, but each attendee approaches that broader interest through their own lens. In other words, the group is diverse enough to spark stimulating conversation, but similar enough to keep the conversations focused.

Takeaway for marketers: Getting the right people is important for two reasons: making sure your attendees can glean interesting insights from their conversations with each other, and making sure that your audience makes sense for your larger business goals. (To learn more about how Event Farm's platform helps event marketers get the right people in the room, click here).

A millennial audience will especially appreciate being in a room full of attendees with whom they are excited to interact. They may spend a lot of time online, but that doesn't mean millennials they prefer screen time to stimulating in-person interaction. If you can gather a group of people that feeds off of each other's energy, you'll create a loyal audience that will want to come back for more.

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