by Cheryl-Anne Sturken | November 01, 2017
The role of marketing departments is undergoing a fundamental shift in the corporate world. A driving force: The explosion of social media has created enormous transparency and put power directly in the hands of customers. Precisely because chief marketing officers can no longer control their company's brand conversation through traditional advertising campaigns, marketing executives are increasingly responsible for every aspect of the customer touch-point experience -- and that includes live events.

In fact, one-third of CMOs expect to set aside 21 to 50 percent of their budgets for brand experiences, according to the 2017 Freeman Global Brand Experience Study, released earlier this year by Dallas-based global event firm Freeman. That includes events, trade shows, sponsorships, exhibits, permanent installations, virtual- or augmented-reality experiences, and/or pop-ups. Even more telling, 59 percent of those CMOs, out of 1,000 B2B and B2C marketing professionals polled across North America, Asia and Western Europe, said brand experience was important to formulating ongoing relationships with their core audience.

As the reach of marketing's long arm grows, so too does its budget. In the 2016-2017 CMO Spend Survey, based on responses from 377 promotion professionals in North America and the U.K., the Stamford, Conn.-based digital marketing and research firm Gartner for Marketing Leaders reported that companies expect to allocate 12 percent of their total revenue to the marketing expense budget. Put another way, the average $5 billion company now has a $650 million marketing budget to wield.

For Lyana Blokhina, above, an independent meeting consultant with Miami-based LBrightEvents, an affiliate of American Express Meetings and Events, marketing brings a whole new set of challenges to the planning table, already fraught with logistical details, budget restraints and procurement oversight. "When I work with the CMO, they have a really great idea and understanding of the message they want to convey and what they want to achieve with a particular meeting," she says. "But they don't understand logistics and the details. Sometimes they are just throwing out requests because they have to move fast, and that creates delays, because they back up against procurement, and I have to wait for a new directive."

Jennafer Ross, CMP, founder and CEO of JR Global Events, which manages and produces over 100 meetings and events around the world, also is working more directly with marketing teams. "We have recognized the shift in power player from procurement to CMO and marketing," Ross says. That shift, she adds, has changed how her corporate clients measure their ROI.

"For years it's been 'heads in beds' as a solid benchmark for ROI," Ross says, noting that today, ROI has new meaning. "Now it's did we create an appealing program? Increasingly, we are asking, did our marketing efforts reach our target audience, and will they tell a colleague or friend and come back?"

The New Role of Marketing
While customer experience does not by any means depend solely on the CMO or the marketing team, the CMO usually creates the vision, sets the tone and leads the way. Ultimately, CMOs are responsible for a brand's success. Armed with greater spending power, they're looking to see just what their marketing dollars generate across all platforms.

"CMOs want to be the bridge from big events, which are sometimes held just for the events' sake, to actually driving customer behavior and bringing the CFOs along with them, because we have to show how our marketing spend impacted the business," says Bryan Parker, chief marketing officer for DoubleDutch, a San Francisco-based event- data and technology company that, since its launch just over five years ago, has signed some 2,000 clients. "When you consider that a CMO is controlling the bulk of a company's biggest annual spend, then of course they want to be able to measure and access what is happening at their live events, because they are the ones measuring the corporate brand and culture," Parker notes.

That's exactly what San Francisco-based StubHub, the enormous online ticket-supplier marketplace, had in mind in January of this year when it launched StubHub Live, a new marketing strategy aimed at doubling down on the customer experience at live events. "The live industry continues to evolve alongside a new experience economy, which places a premium on connecting to one-of-a-kind experiences and sharing memories with each other," said Scott Cutler, president of StubHub, in a statement announcing the company's new marketing initiative.

One of those new experiential marketing events was the company's two-day Houston Huddle, held this past February on Super Bowl weekend. The giant tailgate party, billed as a "Texas-Size Pre-Game Experience," was StubHub's private fete for football fans who purchased tickets through their platform. The 6,000 fans who attended the inaugural event got to rub shoulders with NFL players, ride mechanical bulls, have their faces painted in team colors and chow down on complimentary barbecue from award-winning pit masters. The event even provided complimentary shuttle service to Houston's NRG Stadium for the game between the Atlanta Falcons and the New England Patriots.

StubHub also has taken its visionary customer-experience events to BroadwayCon in New York City and Austin's annual South by Southwest music festival, where this past March it held its own three-day sponsored event dubbed StubHub Live: Soundstage, featuring performances by 27 indie artists.

"The role of brand experience continues to increase in scope and importance as audience expectations evolve," says Chris Cavanaugh, executive vice president and chief marketing officer at Freeman, adding that audiences spend more time with a brand at a live event than a 15-second commercial. Steep competition and more sophisticated audiences, he says, means that "Now, more than ever, marketers need new approaches." Because audiences spend more time with the brand at live experiences vs. a 15-second TV or online commercial, Cavanaugh says, "It's really an opportunity to deliver the company's point of view on the market."

At San Bruno, Calif.-based Dynamic Signal, an app-based corporate communications provider, CMO Joelle Kaufman has made strategic events and content a cornerstone of the company's marketing approach. Since joining the company this past August, Kaufman has increased the marketing budget, doubled the size of the marketing team and brought onboard an in-house meeting planner, who will be responsible for creating company-owned events. 

"I am seeking higher-quality events with fewer exhibitors, where the focus in on creating a great experience for the attendees and exhibitors," says Kaufman. "I have to have a voice so that my brand can break through, and I believe that producing our own events is a way to manage the value of the environment."

Capture That Data or Lose
As electronics steadily advance the intelligence-gathering game, CMOs are plowing more of their marketing budgets into technology, especially that which tracks and delivers financial metrics. Gartner for Marketing Leaders' CMO Spend Survey found that 27 percent of marketing expense was allocated to technology. So, while CMOs might not be executing every component of a brand's campaign, they are aggressively spending on tools that give them visibility into how their marketing dollars are performing.

"Marketing has taken on more responsibility outside of the touch points that marketing has traditionally owned and controlled," says Jake Sorofman, a research vice president at Gartner, in a recent statement on the report's findings. "It often encompasses aspects of customer experience and digital commerce, and we see marketers taking on sales responsibility."

In Blokhina's experience, the marketing department comes to the planning table armed with powerful data to back up their creative vision for the meeting. It is something, she says, that can be a double-edged sword. "They have a lot of data about what worked in the past and what didn't, and what they want to change, so the value they bring in that regard is tremendous," says Blokhina, who works on more than 15 major meetings per year, 60 percent of them on the international front. "What marketing did before or after a meeting, though, is now taking place during the meeting, with blogging, live broadcasts and social media updates. Things can go really wrong, really fast."

For Bryan Parker of DoubleDutch, the days of just throwing money at big events are over. CMOs want answers to back up their event spend, and incorporating analytics into an event to better capture and shape their future marketing spend and customer experience is pure common sense. The end result of all this data collection, says Parker, is the ability to plan smarter meetings.

"If you are hosting a customer day, which many companies do, you better not wait two weeks to circle back afterward if you find out that an important client gave you only a two-star rating on your event," says Parker. "You want to reach out to them immediately, during the event when you have them there, because otherwise not only can you lose them, they have the power to sway potential clients that you never even got the chance to touch."

DoubleDutch event mobile-app technology currently captures 75 unique signals including speaker rating, which attendees bookmarked a particular session and who actually showed up for it. Now, the company is getting very close to capturing real-time, subtle attendee signals that can help marketers and meeting planners create smarter events. "It's no longer just about capturing data and analytics. Today it's about thinking of your event as getting smarter over time and making your marketing organization smarter over time," says Parker.

Dynamic Signal's CMO, Joelle Kaufman, says bring on the data. She wants nothing to do with big events, citing San Francisco-based SalesForce's annual Dreamforce convention, which she believes initially was a brilliant concept but has since grown so fast it has gotten too unwieldy for meaningful and lasting business opportunities.

Kaufman is looking to take part in strategic events that have the data to back up lead generation and client retention. "I am not looking to attend a party," she says. "I want events that build physical in-person opportunities. 

"If you aren't using data to create intimate business relationships and facilitating matchmaking, then you are just hawking," Kaufman adds. "I expect my in-house meeting planner, and anyone who is going to work with her and my marketing team, to be relentless about tracking and collecting insights and making data-driven decisions, because you won't get me twice at an event if you don't."