The best practices for experiential brand activation measurement

Editor’s note: Dara St. Louis is the EVP, founding partner at Reach3 Insights.

Despite the evolution from guerrilla marketing to a multibillion-dollar category, measuring the ROI of experiential brand activations remains an industry-wide struggle. To address the challenge, industry experts advocate for three pillars of testing and discrete norms. 

Remember guerilla marketing? Those stunts started the phenomenon of going “viral.” The core objective was to drive word-of-mouth publicity. Anecdotally those activations were a huge success, but measuring ROI was limited to traditional measures like “media impressions” making the long-term impact impossible to quantify. Why? Because it was all they had. There simply was no other way to measure the impact of those activations outside of traditional broadcast metrics. 

Fast forward to today and those edgy, close-your-eyes-and-hope-for-the-best campaigns have matured into the multibillion-dollar category of experiential brand activations. Budgets have boomed but marketers still struggle to present a unified set of metrics that demonstrate ROI. Getting this right is now more important than ever.

According to a 2023 study by Reach3 Insights and The Keller Advisory Group, 69% of consumers say they like brand experiences, compared to just 48% who like traditional advertising. Once consumers engage with brand experiences, they find them to be more relevant than traditional advertising, with 51% saying so compared to 25% who feel traditional advertising is more relevant. 

The research also showed that 80% of people have engaged or are interested in engaging with brand experiences, with younger respondents more likely to have done so. Brand experiences were viewed to be more “unique” than traditional advertising, more exciting, more apt to make people them want to try or use the brand and feel positively about it. Brand experiences also outperformed traditional advertising in terms of generating feelings of emotional connection with 56% of consumers saying they feel an emotional connection to a brand through experiences, as compared to just 16% who say the same about traditional advertising.

It’s clear that an effective experiential activation can have a massive impact on a brand. The challenge is, as an industry we have struggled to align around key metrics and accurately demonstrate ROI. Most brands still take a bubble gum and duct tape approach to the measurement and metrics. Understandable, given that quantifying the impact of experiential can be tricky for a few key reasons.

1. Siloed and fragmented data

The ultimate objective of experiential brand activations is to enhance brand perception, drive engagement and influence purchase decisions. A combination that makes its attribution challenging because they are measured in discrete ways and on discrete channels. Generating a complete picture requires cobbling together data from different silos.

2. Success is ill defined

Lacking clear goals and metrics makes success elusive. Vague objectives lead to generic metrics like foot traffic, offering limited insights into business impact. 

3. After-the-fact metrics 

Unlike traditional advertising, experiential activations have a short life span. And because marketers rely on conventional metrics like foot traffic and social impressions, direct feedback tends to be collected in exit surveys and other sources of after-the-fact metrics. Capturing the qualitative aspects of the experience – the emotions, the connections, the brand sentiment days, if not weeks, later.

Experiential brand measurement reimagined

The bottom line is that metrics, KPIs and norms that are designed to measure the performance of traditional television advertising don’t work well for experiential activations. They’re a mix of KPIs collected from a variety of stand-alone measurements that are not integrated or predictive. The system needs to be simplified and unified. Experiential activations require norms of their own.  

With that mandate in mind, Ed Keller, co-author of “The Influentials” and one of the foremost experts in word-of-mouth, influencer marketing and consumer insights worked with us to analyze the results of our research and reimagine how brands can effectively measure and predict the success and impact of experiential brand activations. 

Three foundational pillars of experiential measurement 

1. Pre-testing leads to success

With longer lead times and many moving parts there are more opportunities to dig in and understand the potential to engage, motivate sharing on social and influence brand impact. It is key to move beyond concept and A/B testing and look for ways to predict engagement, shareability and brand impact early in the development stage. The potential of pre-testing is often overlooked yet can have the biggest impact on overall success. The key here is to test before you build to reduce risk and enhance the likelihood of delivering a winning activation.

2. Capturing respondents in real time

Experiences are a powerful way to engage consumers with recent research revealing they are more likely than traditional advertising to be beneficial to the brand, motivating trial, boosting positive feelings and emotional connectedness. By leveraging mobile chat-based technology and advanced conversational research techniques brands can engage participants in-the-moment, on their mobile devices to understand first impressions, emotional connectedness and cultural relevance. Connecting with participants in key moments on their mobile devices taps into System 1 thinking and makes it easier to collect video feedback, uncovering rich, contextual feedback full of emotion and color.

3. Post-event reflection

In many ways this is where the rubber hits the road. Yes going viral is an exciting proposition, but the ability to connect your activations to an increase in revenue or brand lift is what will keep your budget intact. Using the methods above, a global soft drink brand was able to show that one out of three consumers who participated in their last experiential activation purchased more of their product. That is meaningful ROI. By recontacting on-site attendees at future dates, you can understand the activation’s residual impact on their subsequent behavior and brand equity. Ultimately this is the measure your C-suite is going to want to see. The ability to predict the impact and link those predictions to post-event behavior will have a transformative impact on future activations.

A new set of norms for a new medium 

Norms provide a benchmark for comparative analysis in terms of viewership, engagement and consumer behavior. Traditional broadcasts have a robust set of norms and are used to assess the performance of traditional campaigns. Unfortunately, broadcast norms do not work for experiential campaigns. They are a unique medium that consumers engage with in a unique way. Experiential activations require a discrete set of norms. Norms that can be relied on to benchmark the performance of activations by your company and in your category coupled with diagnostic feedback that highlights where your experience is most compelling and where it may fall short in the hearts and minds of consumers.