C-Suite Network™

Selling Services Instead of Products? Don’t Rule Out Experiential Marketing

Experiential marketing is all about creating opportunities to invoke your customers’ senses as they interact with your brand — seeing, touching, smelling, hearing and tasting your products. When executed well, customers walk away from an experiential marketing experience with a positive, meaningful memory of their interaction with your brand. But what if your business sells services that can’t be touched, smelled or tasted?

As it turns out, many experiential marketing tactics successfully employed by product-based companies work equally well for service- or other non-product-based companies. After all, service-based companies also aim to create delightfully memorable experiences to engage with their target audiences. Let’s delve into three ways service-based businesses can incorporate experiential marketing to attract customers and build brand loyalty.

1. Try a different take on product sampling.

Most of us are familiar with product sampling, typically at a store, tradeshow, festival or street corner. Brand ambassadors invoke our senses by talking with us and showing us their product, handing over a sample to taste (or smell) or letting us try something on. Then the ambassadors answer questions and offer a discount coupon or sample to take home.

You can employ this same tactic as a service business, either by performing a small service sample or by using enticing freebies to attract potential customers. For example, a physical therapy practice might offer free five-minute chair or foot massages and then a discount coupon for later use. A pediatric dental practice might attract families by handing out fresh-baked cookies, branded dental hygiene sticker reward charts and a chance to win a free dental cleaning. The cookies have nothing to do with a dental practice, but customers may remember how good they smelled and tasted.

Be sure to launch your product sampling campaign where your target audience is likely to be. Using our pediatric dental practice example, it should be somewhere parents of young children congregate, such as a parade, school event, soccer game, etc. The physical therapists should choose a location like a gym or a park where amateur athletes (who tend to get frequently injured) or patients recovering from joint replacement surgeries are likely to spend time.

2. Sponsor or create engaging opportunities at events.

Street fairs, town festivals, concerts, sporting events, tradeshows and conferences are teeming with people expecting to interact with multiple brands. Make yours stand out by creating appealing hospitality suites where attendees can take a break from the crowds, sit in comfortable chairs and enjoy a refreshing beverage or snack. Play brief, engaging videos demonstrating your service offerings that customers can watch as they relax. Entice them to enter a giveaway or give them a discount code to use later for your services.

Another wildly successful option for businesses of all types is to use cutting-edge virtual and augmented reality technology to create immersive experiences at events. For example, each year at the U.S. Open, American Express runs legendary tennis fan experiences, where fans can do entertaining things such as compete virtually against artificial intelligence opponents. Unfortunately, creating these memorable experiences comes at a hefty price and is out of reach for most businesses. However, smaller companies can host low-tech, affordable activities such as old-fashioned county fair games — think softball throws, beanbag tosses and dunk tanks. The essential idea is to create pleasantly surprising opportunities for your target audience to engage with your brand so they walk away with a favorable impression.

3. Plan stand-alone experiential marketing events.

Unlike a booth at an event where you’re competing with many businesses for attention, a stand-alone event or series of events may result in a higher ROI. State Farm ran a successful smaller-scale campaign to increase brand awareness in Florida years ago called “Get to a Better State Campus Tour.” During stressful midterm and final exam weeks, they sent brand ambassadors to four university campuses. To help students get to a more relaxed “state,” they hired yoga instructors to conduct short classes and took photos of students in front of green screens depicting dreamy vacation destinations.

Another example: In 2014, New York City-based TD Bank created three pop-up art galleries featuring 10 pieces of environment-focused art as part of a campaign to support MillionTreesNYC, an initiative to plant one million trees across New York City. TD Bank’s services are unrelated to trees or art, but the campaign was effective because it created positive impressions of its brand and increased awareness.

Businesses with more limited budgets can run less costly stand-alone events. For example, mobile vehicle tours and pop-ups (temporary tents or booths) are typically nimble, affordable ways to get your brand where your target audience is. Focus on creating authentic experiences that will be meaningful and uniquely suited for your customers and your brand. Handing out a free pen or tote bag is pretty ho-hum these days, whereas running a game or contest or providing a sample service makes a longer-lasting impression. For example, a dog grooming service could launch a pop-up near a dog park and perform free nail trims or other quick grooming services.

Final thoughts

It’s crucial to avoid gimmicky or inauthentic offerings or activities, or you risk having your campaign backfire. Consider your brand from your customers’ perspectives: How do your service offerings benefit them? Then design your experiential marketing campaign thoughtfully and creatively to deliver the right message at the optimum time and place for the best results.

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