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Understanding Events: The Psychology Behind Experiential Marketing


The event industry was hit hard by the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, but live experiences will continue to be an effective marketing channel after the threat of COVID-19 has passed. In this blog post, we delve into why the experiential channel is so effective, the underlying psychology behind these tactics, and how we as marketers can use them to our advantage.

Savvy marketers know that experiences are one of the most powerful marketing tools at their disposal. But why do they work? Experiential marketing is fun, it engages with people, it makes people remember your brand (hopefully in a positive light... we're looking at you Snapple), and if you’re lucky, it will yield a healthy number of future customers. All things considered, experiential marketing campaigns can be an excellent way to build brand awareness and customer loyalty, while simultaneously being a whole lot of fun to execute.

Planning a lucrative marketing campaign is easier when you understand why your customers think in a certain way, or make the decisions that they do. If you’re hitting up a specific target audience you need to know who is most likely to buy your product. If you’re writing a new blog post you need to know the content that will connect with your readers. The more you understand the reasons why people gravitate towards an experience, the easier it is to create one that they’ll struggle to forget.

Experiential Learning

Why do we remember some experiences and not others? For an emotionally significant or shocking event, it makes sense that we wouldn’t easily forget it. Since the 1970s, psychologists have been using the term flashbulb memories to describe what happens when we think we remember an experience in great detail, even several decades later. People around the world can likely still recollect exactly where they were, what they were doing and who they were talking to when they first heard about 9/11 or the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. Although it’s been proven that flashbulb memories are unlikely to be as accurate as we think they are, or in some cases even completely inaccurate, the shock of the experience can render the essence of the memory to remain locked in our minds, forever.

In 1984, educational theorist David Kolb published his experiential learning theory “Learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience” (Kolb, 1984). In a nutshell, it means to ‘learn by doing’. Physically experiencing something new can help increase the chance of us absorbing and retaining that information. We can use this concept in experiential marketing. Creating an experience that evokes an emotional response may subconsciously encourage consumers to feel a connection to our brand. By interacting with our target audience in an engaging physical setting, we can leave a lasting impression on potential customers and improve the likelihood of them remembering us in the future. The more we can learn about the experiences that are likely to stick with our target audience, the better marketers we can become.

The Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon

The Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon is that thing that happens when you experience something for the first time, like a word you haven’t come across before, and suddenly you hear it everywhere. It was there the whole time, only you didn’t notice it until you noticed it, and then you really started to notice it. The frequency of the word didn’t increase, but your awareness of its existence did. As experiential marketers, we can try to recreate this phenomenon in our campaigns. After stumbling across your activation, a prospect notices your brand name for the first time. Later, they keep seeing your brand everywhere. It might be that you’re retargeting them (smart marketing), but it also might be the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon in action; they didn’t notice you until they started to notice you. Either way, now that you’ve got their attention you definitely want to maximize it.

The key here is connecting your events and experiential marketing to your other marketing channels. You can only really do this well if you’re successfully capturing data from your live events, so make sure you have a process and software in place to do this. A good place to start is by following the Experiential Digital Maturity Model. It takes you through connecting experiential to your other marketing channels, and how you can use event and experiential data to better understand your customers and improve your campaigns. By utilizing all the marketing channels at your disposal, you can ensure that prospective customers who interact with your experiences don’t forget you even after they’ve left the event.

The ‘Cool’ Factor

What makes some marketing campaigns inherently cooler than others? According to CMO.com ‘...consumers know what is cool when they see it, even though they can’t explain why.’ Red Bull may not be everyone's drink of choice, but nevertheless in 2012 millions watched as Felix Baumgartner successfully jumped back down to our planet from a height of 39,045 meters. Watching the jump might not make them want to drink Red Bull any more than they did before, but many have probably never forgotten that experience, and equally never forgotten its connection to the company that sponsored it. It’s brand awareness at its finest.

So who decides what makes something cool? Experiences that are deemed to be cool can drive intense interest and attract people even when they don’t have an affinity with that particular brand. Not everyone is a fan of ice cream, but after coming across the Museum of Ice Cream website, many might be inclined to check out their installations the next time they find themselves in New York. Who wouldn’t want to jump into a swimming pool full of sugar sprinkles?

The ‘cool’ factor is subjective and it changes over time, but when an experience has that special little spark of intrigue it can hold enough power to attract thousands. If you can find that elusive factor and bring it to your experiential marketing campaigns, you might just encourage people that would never normally have noticed you to gravitate to your events. And if it’s cool enough, they might even tell their friends to come too. 

FOMO and the Principle of Social Proof

We’d argue that most people have, at least once in their lives, felt the familiar fear of missing out on an experience that someone else is having. This phenomenon has only intensified since the dawn of social media. According to a report by EventTrack, 98% of consumers capture content at live events and 100% of those who capture content share it on social media. 

Before anyone had even coined a term to describe this fear, we had social psychologist Cialdini and his Principle of Social Proof. In Dr. Robert Cialdini’s 1984 book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, he explained the techniques that persuade people to take certain actions. His 6 Principles of Persuasion are still being used to increase conversions in marketing campaigns today. The idea behind social proof is that we as humans are more likely to do something if other people are already doing it. When crowds of other people buy a popular product (like AirPods) or attend a popular event (like Coachella), it makes us feel like we have to do the same or we’re missing out. This social proof is often referred to as the wisdom of the crowd. In experiential marketing terms, if we can create an experience that makes the people who are not there jealous of those who are, then we’re doing our job as marketers well.

We regularly see Cialdini’s social proof principle being used in online marketing (join 25,000 others that downloaded this ebook etc.), but the wisdom of the crowd concept can be particularly effective in experiential marketing. By capitalizing on the common fear of missing out on what others are doing and creating experiences that people naturally want to share on social media, you can develop a winning experiential strategy that could be exponentially beneficial.

The Principles of Reciprocity and Scarcity

In Cialdini’s first Principle of Persuasion, Reciprocity, he explores the idea that humans are more likely to treat others as they themselves have been treated. If someone does you a favor, you are more likely to want to return the favor in the future. This technique is also commonly used in online marketing campaigns. When you regularly offer your reader content that is informative and beneficial to their lives, but ask for nothing in return, you’re hoping that they are more likely to become a customer in the future, or at the very least a subscriber to your blog. 

In experiential marketing you can offer your target audience something for free and hope that at some point in the future they might become a paying customer because they feel indebted to you. Whether you let them try out your product in a physical setting or offer them a sample to take home with them, you’re providing an experience and building brand awareness without asking for anything in return.

In another Cialdini classic he tells us that people are more likely to want something when it’s in short supply. The idea behind the Scarcity Principle of Persuasion is that products or experiences suddenly become more attractive when they are limited, something that we see regularly on travel websites. When you’re trying to find a hotel room or searching for a plane ticket and you see that there’s only 1 room or only 1 seat left, this is scarcity in all of its glory.

By creating experiences that are invite-only, have a limited guest list or have a small number of sample giveaways, you can play on the psychological principle of scarcity and entice people to come to your event before they lose their only chance.

The Propinquity Effect

In psychology the propinquity effect is the idea that the more we are exposed to someone through close physical proximity, the more inclined we are to like them. In marketing terms, when we are familiar with a brand we are more likely to feel connected to it. 

We can maximize this effect in our experiential marketing campaigns. When consumers interact with our brand in a physical setting the propinquity effect makes them feel like they have built a relationship with us. People don’t want traditional advertising when they can experience brands on their own terms. Consumers expect to interact with their preferred brands and products in unique and captivating ways, so the more opportunities we give them to interact with us, the stronger the connection to our brand will become.

Experiential in a Post-Coronavirus World

Although future experiential campaigns are unlikely to be planned in exactly the same way as they were before the coronavirus pandemic, they will continue to be an effective marketing channel. As technology changes and we factor in additional measures to ensure the health and safety of consumers at our events and experiences, we have the opportunity to plan experiences that engage our target audience in a safe and memorable way.

The future of marketing will be defined by the generations that have grown up with the internet and social media at their fingertips. As the spending power of Millennials continues to rise and Generation Z enters their prime spending years, these are the consumers that will determine how we as marketers interact with them in this decade and beyond. Technology that hasn’t been invented yet will change the way we market, and as that happens consumer expectations will mirror those changes. As virtual and augmented reality become more commonplace, consumers will expect more interaction, more personalization and more unique flavours to their experiences than they ever have before.

By considering the psychology behind experiential marketing when you plan your campaigns, you’ll be able to create amazing experiences that your target audience will scramble to be part of. Gaining a deeper understanding of the reasons why experiential marketing is so effective should help you to amplify your strategy as you navigate through the fascinating marketing landscape of the future.

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