Experiential marketing can and should impact every interaction a brand has with people. When properly practiced, experiential marketing can transform inert experiences into interactions that elicit action. Today, experiential marketing is largely restricted to offline events. This limited vision of the concept stifles serendipitous opportunities to trigger affinity and advocacy from customers. The primary goal of experiential marketing is to turn customers into key opinion customers (KOC), which broadly lowers customer acquisition costs (CAC) and increases individual customer lifetime value (LTV). Viewed from this lens, the mechanics of experiential marketing should be incredibly important to every marketer.
Experiential Marketing Mechanics | Definition: a fundamental theory that deals with the inner workings of immersive brand experiences specifically designed to inspire the co-creation of sharable content by customers to increase general awareness and brand affinity.
Experiential Marketing Mechanics: Potentiality of an Interaction
Start by breaking brand touchpoints in the buyers’ journey into individual interactions that produce experiences. Each interaction holds the potential for an infinite range of possible experiences. However, a probability bell curve restricts an interaction to a likely range of experiences. When the customer and brand interact, there is a potentiality collapse, producing a fixed experience.
By intentionally designing the possibility of exceptional experiences at each touchpoint, a brand can shift the probability curve towards an increased likelihood of advocacy. Brands should map all points of interaction in the customer experience to discover arbitrage opportunities and strategize how to make more interactions exceptional.
There is an unknown dimension that dramatically influences the results of any brand experience. The unknown expectations of each customer shift the probability bell curve in unpredictable directions. However, it can be assumed that there are brand touchpoints where customers will have higher expectations that, in turn, will make it more difficult for the brand to produce relatively exceptional experiences. Therefore, focusing on touchpoints, where customers least expect an exceptional experience, will increase the likelihood of advocacy.
Creating exceptional experiences takes concerted effort and investment. Brands must take an active role to produce advocacy. Additionally, the actions any brand takes to create exceptional experiences will establish customers’ future expectations. Therefore, to continue surprising and delighting, surpassing expectations must be an area of innovation for a brand.
Case Study: Hiadilao Converting Customers into KOC
No other restaurant in China has mapped out the customer experience better than hotpot restaurant chain Haidilao. The brand has created a plethora of experiences that are perfectly designed to surprise and delight customers. For creating these experiences, a healthy portion of Haidilao’s customers become KOC and reward the brand with UGC serendipity.
Haidilao brand has gone so far as to introduce items like the “Douyin Style Beef Rice” to its menus, which was initially inspired by a recipe created by a customer and popularized on Douyin. Haidilao now regularly launches DIY recipe challenges that customers can order to create, capture, and share.
A few other customer experience favorites are getting a pedicure while waiting, watching a noodle stretching show, and sitting with a giant stuffed bear when dining alone.
Experiential Marketing Mechanics: Hacking Social Media
In the past, many Chinese social media networks lacked sophisticated content ranking algorithms. For instance, popular video platforms like Youku and QQVideo utilized human curation for the videos featured on the homepage. WeChat subscription account posts were simply ranked on a linear time series. For a long time, Weibo had one of the most advanced content ranking systems; however, it was quite rudimentary, only taking into account fan size, absolute engagements, and fees paid to increase visibility.
These early ranking methodologies had four main flaws:
- Human curation is susceptible to all kinds of manipulation and biases.
- Linear time series ranking turns distribution and consumption into a game of chance.
- Bots easily hack rudimentary algorithms based on account size and engagement.
- Pay-to-play rankings pay little credence to the quality or predilections of users.
These four flaws created venerabilities that those with insider influence, technical hacks, and bankroll could leverage. KOL dominance of the attention economy on social media is a by-product of content distribution manipulation mastery. That’s not to say that the content KOL created wasn’t desirable because it was and is. However, those in the know with resources had a massive advantage over naive.
Two social networks, Douyin and Xiaohongshu have changed the content ranking status quo. Though, each is taking very different approaches to create more fair and democratized ranking systems. Douyin relies on an advanced AI-powered user preference categorization and content ranking algorithm, while Xiaohongshu uses a search engine-esque approach combined with stringent monitoring of bot activity. Both of these content ranking approaches are changing the dynamics of distribution in one essential way, each post, no matter the source, has a more equal opportunity to go viral or have a high search ranking.
The more level playing field of content distribution found on Douyin and Xiaohongshu has created new challenges as KOLs are not guaranteed to generate the attention that large accounts are expected to create consistently. Additionally, the pace of churn and haphazard attention paid to any post makes social media distribution unpredictable and content initiatives riskier to scale on these platforms.
There are, however, opportunities as the hit-and-miss natural selection of differential virality means that an increase in the quantity of content can tip distribution symmetry in an attention ecosystem to the advantage of a brand. Differential virality is when videos of the same type must compete for user attention. This is where the application of experiential marketing mechanics can be utilized to breed Key Opinion Customers (KOC) that produce UGC at a tactical scale.
These new attention ecosystems driven by democratized ranking systems give less preferential treatment to individual content creators as each piece of content published has to stand more on its own. Increased creator diversity and content quantity lead to an increased chance of attention and virality. Brands with limited variety and supply have a smaller chance of being spread by platform algorithms compared to brands with greater content quantity and creator diversity.
Experiential Marketing Mechanics: Obvious Opportunities
Experiential marketing often requiring agile thinking and power structures that give employees, and even customers, the ability to act in the brand’s best interests. Package design is one of the most obvious areas where the experience could be altered in such a way that customers would feel compelled to share the brand experience.
Far too many brands put products in a glass bottle with a silver logo or use a shiny black plastic case with gold text. Even professional photographers struggle to make these product’s labeling visible. How much more difficult have these designs made it for customers to share these products with friends on social media?
Word-of-mouth (WOM) is the single most impactful form of marketing. However, a lack of consideration for the potential impact package design can have on advocacy is ultimately crippling organic decreases in CAC.
Case Study: Alibaba’s Message in a Bottle
Jack Ma’s special message in a bottle is one of the best examples of what a post-purchase experience could be and how it can compel customers to share the experience. The following video is of a gift sent to Alibaba’s staff for the company’s 20th anniversary. Though it was not the intention, this approach to surprise the receiver and enhance the product creates a share-worthy experience.
Alibaba’s message in the bottle is a perfect example of how a brand can turn the post-purchase experience into a special moment that compels customers to share with family and friends. This type of tactic has powerful potential for awareness amplification as customers become part of a brand’s marketing strategy and are happy to spread the word because it enhanced their experience.
Retention is the best customer acquisition strategy.
Brand marketers do not need another acronym; they need a paradigm shift in thinking. Key Opinion Customers (KOC) are often interpreted as Micro or Longtail-KOLs, and thus, many brands are developing strategies around a poor interpretation of a fundamental idea. Every brand has KOC. It’s what brands do or don’t do to leverage KOC that makes the difference.