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Alison Jenks

Alison Jenks

SVP, Marketing

FreemanXP

What B2B Event Marketers can learn from Comic-Con International.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock over the last week, you’ve probably seen a lot about Comic-Con International in San Diego. Comic-Con started in 1970 as a one-day “minicon” devoted to creating awareness of, and appreciation for, comics and related popular art forms. Today there’s nothing mini about it. The conference receives attention from all over the world, attracts the biggest names in entertainment and draws over 130,000 people for the four-day event in America’s Finest City.

Most of the high-profile entertainment brands at Comic-Con could easily tap into their own established and widespread distribution networks to reach such large audiences. And yet, they prioritize a big showing at Comic-Con — underscoring the global trend toward experiential marketing as a key pillar of effective promotion. In its coverage of the conference, global digital media outlet Mashable explains why brands are investing in great experiences to connect more closely with fans: “We live in an always-on culture that can inform hundreds of nations in a single tweet, bridge thousands of miles through an Instagram post. Plugged in, live streamed, we think ourselves everywhere at once. But there's still something to be said for the in-person approach, for events that connect to the emotional brain via all the senses.” 

And connect it did. The very nature of Comic-Con lends itself to a passionate attendee base, and brands were able to tap into that devotion to amplify their messages like never before. However, these fans arrive with enormous expectations. Here’s how Comic-Con and its participating brands created experiences to remember, plus a few tips for putting these ideas into action.

Know Your Audience

Yes, the casts of Game of Thrones, Walking Dead, Star Wars, Hunger Games, etc etc were all there. But beyond the big stars, hundreds of smaller breakout sessions celebrated the unique culture that is the foundation of Comic-Con. In addition to the A-Listers like Star Wars and GOT in Hall H, these smaller panels covered everything from storytelling, film production, toy collecting, cosplay and, of course, comic books. Alas, I missed the “Nerd Living With Nerds In LaLaLand” session, but it was by far my favorite session title!

B2B Event Marketer Tip: Use the smaller format of the breakout rooms to connect birds of a feather who share deep-rooted passions – enabling your community to meet and join together.

Get Them Involved

Brands used Comic-Con to put attendees right in the action. Zombie fans could recreate scenes from Walking Dead, including the revolving door and the food truck (YIKES), while Ubisoft promoted its “Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate” with a huge obstacle course and maze that recreated the game’s London-based setting.

B2B Event Marketer Tip: Transform your audience from observers to participants by creating experiences that enable them to jump in, get involved and do.

Leverage Technology

Comic-Con brands really pushed the envelope with innovative technology, from Virtual Reality headsets to 360VR and 4D. Syfy Channel gave away cardboard VR headsets to build buzz for The Expanse in advance of its December release, and TBS offered a similar headset that put viewers on the Conan O’Brien set. TNT's The Last Ship also provided an Oculus Rift experience. Meanwhile, the Nickelodeon booth used facial-recognition software to transform fans into SpongeBob and other characters. Throughout the show floor, brands attracted with big screens that engaged attendees and showcased media properties.

B2B Event Marketer Tip: New technologies can bring products to life in innovative ways. But although the latest gadgets are fun, make sure your content and message deliver.

Focus on Social Experiences

Comic-Con embraces and empowers its community, and as a result, the messages spread beyond physical attendees to reach a massive global audience. Comic-Con does this in several ways:

  • Attendees that shine: Some of the real stars were found on the tradeshow floor, not the stages, with crazy elaborate costumes. The appreciative Comic-Con community celebrated this  great cosplay with tons of selfies, making Comic-Con the place to see and be seen.
  • Up close and personal: From Jennifer Lawrence to Batfleck, Channing Tatum and the casts from just about every hit entertainment property, Comic-Con gave fans the opportunity to get closer than they’ve ever been to their favorite celebrities. Hall H was absolutely lit up with smartphones during every session. Cue the social buzz!
  • Never-seen-before unveilings: Comic-Con provided plenty of unique content and behind-the-scenes moments that fans won’t find anywhere else. Stan Lee epic Superhero selfie anyone? Who wouldn’t want to brag about being there for these once-in-a-lifetime moments?
  • Participatory photo moments: MTV gave fans recordings of themselves wielding faux bloody knives at the Scream exhibit (SHUDDER).

B2B Event Marketer Tip: Plan experiences that tap into an audience’s care-abouts in order to make it into their carefully curated online personas.

Surprise Them

It's easy to assume that any Star Wars session would be huge with this fan base, so Lucasfilm could easily have phoned it in with a standard Q&A panel and called it a day. But the panel for Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens amped up its fan base to the extreme with share-worthy surprises.

In a master storytelling session, the panel rolled out over time, beginning with director JJ Abrams, Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy and writer Lawrence Kasdan. Next, the new Star Wars actors joined the panel (delighted applause). Then Carrie Fischer and Mark Hamill walked on stage (more delighted applause). THEN Harrison Ford (ooh-ahh). But with a nod to the late Steve Jobs, there was one more thing…

All 6,500 people at the session were invited to walk down the street to the Embarcadero for a private open-air performance of John Williams' Star Wars soundtracks, performed at dusk by the San Diego Symphony. Everyone was given light sabers and the evening was punctuated by fireworks, creating an ambiance that was described as an"intergalactic rave.” Brilliant.

B2B Event Marketer Tip: Build suspense for your audience as you tell them a story. Then give them that one more (amazing) thing.

Utilize Branded Artifacts

In addition to incredible, shareable experiences, many brands at Comic-Con created exclusive and limited edition items that were only available at Comic-Con, creating a huge draw to their booths and opportunities for a lasting brand reminder.

B2B Event Marketer Tip: Extend your messaging and bring your brand to life through unique, hard-to-get artifacts that audiences can’t wait to get their hands on.

Widen The Net

Comic-Con drew an inclusive crowd of all types. The ratio of women to men has been growing steadily for the past several years, and this year seemed to continue that trend. There were also plenty of families and kid-friendly activities (anyone up for petting Beagle puppies?), enabling Comic-Con to stay connected to its future audiences. Today’s GenZers are tomorrow’s top buyers – and they will be Comic-Con attendees.

B2B Event Marketer Tip: Hopefully your gender ratio is more than covered (and if not – 911: time to fix it, pronto!) Look for ways to introduce younger audiences into the mix, such as scholarship programs, unique content tracks, mentor programs, or other specific content.

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