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Using Design Thinking to Create Powerful Brand Experiences

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Angie Smith

Guest Author


Lisa VanRosendale

Senior VP, Business Development


The missing key to happy attendees and happy sponsors

As an event marketer, do you struggle to think differently and find solutions to your event challenges?

After all, there’s so much noise competing for your attention, as well as ever-tightening budgets and the need to deliver immersive innovative experiences to keep your audiences coming back year after year.

But event marketing doesn’t have to be an impossible task if you have the right tools.

Enter design thinking.

In a nutshell, design thinking has the potential to turn the traditional event planning process on its head, by focusing first on who the audience is and what it is that they want, not just from one event, but from many events to come.

How does design thinking work for events?

First of all, design thinking is strategic.

Traditionally, marketers would plan events and then figure out how to get attendees and sponsors interested. Design thinking does the opposite. It requires that you first develop a deep understanding of the people you want to attract:

  • Who are these people?
  • What did they enjoy from past events?
  • What are they looking to take away from the next event (and the next one after that)?
  • What do they want to learn?
  • How do they want to feel?
  • Who do they want to meet?

Once you have a clear understanding of the needs of sponsors and the needs of attendees, that’s when you can start planning how you’re going to meet those needs and create a deeply memorable experience.

Let’s dive into the details for each group.

What Makes a Memorable Attendee Experience

To apply design thinking to the attendee experience, two things must be top of mind: the event story and the attendee journey.

The Attendee Journey: To understand the attendee journey, we need to first understand the attendees. By gathering and analyzing the data on attendees from past events, we can begin to understand what attendees want from the next event:

  • What topics are important to them?
  • Do they want more networking opportunities?
  • Are they entry-level learners or sophisticated experts?

You can use this insight to develop a crystal-clear event message, which brings us to our next part: the event story.

The Event Story: What is the narrative or message behind the event? This should be a common thread connecting every aspect of the event, and so tight and clear it could be summarized in a tweet.

With the attendee journey and the event story as touchstones, you can then implement the message in creative and exciting ways:

  • Engage all five senses to create an immersive experience
  • Inspire and engage, drawing attendees into the conversation and making them part of the event
  • Capitalize on the overall space instead of just the standard exhibit areas
  • Showcase innovation instead of featuring booths-as-product-catalogues
  • Create shareable, “WOW!” moments that spark emotion and connection

With the attendee experience firmly in hand… what about the sponsors?

What Makes a Memorable Sponsor Experience?

Mastering the attendee experience is crucial, but so is the sponsor experience. As with attendees, design thinking can provide a clearer picture of what sponsors need and want out of events and a clear process to make it happen.

However, it’s also important to understand that what sponsors want has changed dramatically in recent years as several new trends have emerged:

  • Rather than selling standard sponsorship “levels,” sales teams are now more apt to work with sponsors individually, creating fresh opportunities that directly meet the sponsor’s needs. As a result, sponsorship sales have grown.
  • Smarter approaches to direct mail, higher-quality mailing lists, and more targeted attendee campaigns have made it easier for sponsors to reach attendees. Armed with better attendee data, marketers can offer more attractive outreach opportunities to potential sponsors, sweetening the deal.
  • Increasingly, sponsors are aligned to the business or lifestyle needs of the attendees, even if they aren’t directly connected to the specific industry of the event. An example would be a power tool company sponsoring an RV show. These “non-endemic” sponsors may be unexpected, but they fulfill a direct need for audiences.

These trends are upending traditional sponsorship sales.

Normally, potential sponsors might only be wooed by associations and events that have direct relevance. Computer manufacturers, for example, might only receive sponsorship pitches from computer technology shows.

Now, computer companies are receiving very attractive sponsorship offers from lifestyle shows ranging from women in business events to sales software conferences. This leaves our computer technology show facing stiff competition for sponsors they may have previously taken for granted. It also, however, opens up the idea of seeking out new and exciting sponsors who may be a great fit for the attendees.

So how does design thinking help with developing sponsorship strategies?

Again, it comes back to knowing the audience.

Building a sponsor community allows you to develop a deep understanding of what sponsors need. Gathering that data and then using it to steer their planning results in sponsorship offerings that offer real value.

In addition, by conducting regular SWOT analyses, you can stay informed about what is working and what is not, instead of relying on assumptions that may no longer apply.

Strategy = Success

The event industry is more competitive than ever, and both attendees and sponsors are looking for more than “just a show.”

Get started now by understanding the needs of sponsors and the needs of attendees. Review the data you’ve collected from past events to better understand your audiences’ needs. Use that to inform the narrative you create around your event — the connective story is so concise, it could be summarized in a tweet.

To succeed in this new world of event planning, event marketers need to avoid thinking, “If we build it, they will come.” Instead, by using design thinking to strategically craft shows that meet the needs of attendees and sponsors, marketers can boost their success and their brand, year after year.

Discover more strategies to improve your brand experience. Download our guide.

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