Mike Stern and I have “an arrangement.” Every year, he takes off a couple days to attend the Lollapalooza festival in downtown Chicago – and I get a guest blog post out of the deal. And this year was no different. Mike, his wife Jules, and a bunch of their Chicago buddies make the trek to Grant Park to enjoy one band after another – the big names to the up-and-comers.
Usually, Mike’s “day after” post is about the music, the crowds, or a combination of both. But this year, his focus was on the event itself – its structure, and most importantly, how advertisers and brands are using festivals in new and novel ways. As radio becomes more event marketing-driven, there’s a lot to be learned about how to engage and stand out in the crowd. And from the organizer’s standpoint, how to ensure brands get the most for their money so they come back bigger and better next year.
Audience-facing events are changing. And while the action is still on the stages, more and more of the focus is turning to the fans. Mike plays that part well, and has some great observations in today’s JacoBLOG about the changing nature of festivals, brands, and fans. – FJ
It was early Thursday afternoon and Lollapalooza was just getting up and running when my wife and I decided to check out the lounge area behind the Bud Light main stage at the north end of the festival.
In previous years there had always been a VIP bar behind each of the two main stages. These weren’t available to everyone. Just people with certain passes including the “C3 Guest” passes we’ve been lucky enough to have most years. But no longer. Oh, there was still a lounge but it was only for Bud Light VIP’s.
Same thing at the smaller stage sponsored by Tito’s Vodka. Traditionally, there was a VIP viewing deck that provided a good view of this particular stage which happens to be the worst to see a show at. Not this year. The deck was there but it was only for people invited by Tito’s.
Overall, this was part of a wider trend across the whole festival: brands doing a great deal more to take control of their paid sponsorships and maximize the impact and return on investment through engagement and activation with fans. When you think about it, a festival sponsor is a lot like a traditional radio advertiser – instead of buying a bunch of spots and hoping they reach the right people, you hope the right people stop by your booth or exhibit and engage. As we know from our experience as both radio people and event attendees, it doesn’t always work that way – hence, a great emphasis on ROI via the fan experience.
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Another example was the Citi Viewing Deck. Set in the middle of the south field with a good view of two stages, it had tables and chairs, phone chargers, a bar and, most importantly a roof for shade and fans to help people escape the 95-degree heat.
Access to this oasis was only available to fans who enabled cash-less payment through their Lollapalooza wristbands using a Citi-issued credit card. To put the value of this perk in perspective, a week ago I had no idea my credit card was through Citi. Today, I not only am aware of the logo on my piece of plastic money, but am much more appreciative of the brand than I was before the festival.
There were activations like this throughout the festival. Some others I encountered:
- Dancing: In effort to demonstrate how their shoes are better, Asics had a DJ booth and dance floor set up where groups of attendees could show their moves. The more moves each dancer tried, the more perks they unlocked. And, of course, stills and video of the dancers were available for social media posting.
- Free Underwear: Promoting their new Everlight line, Fruit of the Loom was onsite at Lolla, literally giving away free underwear. It seemed more than a little odd at first, but as my wife wisely pointed out, “Underwear ain’t cheap.” So, for the price of an email address, we got freebies to take home and were entered to play their Human Claw game which mimics those retro arcade machines where people use a big metal claw to try and pick up prizes. However, their version involves suspending a person over a bouncy house full of balloons that each represent a different prize.
- Bandannas and music: One of the first companies to really activate their Lolla sponsorship was Toyota, who for years, has given away free Lollapalooza branded bandannas (I have a collection) to anyone who would register with an email address. Especially in hotter years you would see them worn as headbands all over the festival. Toyota also always had a small stage for live performances that you would only find out about if you walked by their set up. In past years, these had always been from smaller, mostly unknown artists. This year they upped the ante, booking artists who were playing the festival to also appear at their little stage. At least twice, I heard bands on a main stage promote their upcoming additional set at the Toyota Music Den. That keeps fans around their branded zone much longer.
- Serving the community: In addition to providing attendees with free WiFIi and phone chargers, State Farm set up several small “houses,” each of which focused on a separate way of helping people in need. In one house you could build a ukulele that would be donated to a school where the music program was struggling. Another revolved around raising food for local shelters. State Farm also had a database to help match attendees with volunteer opportunities beyond the festival. You’ve seen those odd sponsors – like insurance or window companies – at events. And you wonder – what benefit could they possibly derive from being at a street event or music festival. State Farm showed how it was done.
And this list only contains the sponsor activations I encountered. Toyota had two other areas, including a place where attendees could “glamp,” Jack Daniels had a “Wheel of Makeovers,” American Eagle featured a machine making custom denim pouches and a second-floor lounge for members of their VIP club. And there were many more.
It was, by far, the most interactive set of sponsor activations I’ve seen at the festival with a wide variety of goals: database building, product sampling, creating stronger affinity, and of course, engagement.
It is clear brands are demanding more than just “real estate” and presence at events, their name on a stage, or a logo in the program. The promoter is working with them to create unique, attention-getting Fan Experiences in an effort to help them stand out from the crowd. And in many ways, Lollapalooza was like a live version of Seth Resler’s “Content Marketing” novel, where brands have distinct goals they wish to accomplish at a gathering like this. “Exposure” is no longer a goal. Sponsors need to get more out of their event dollars.
All of which explains why more than ever, Program Directors are instructing their reps to do more for clients. And account executives are finding that sponsors want more than just a name and tagline in on-air promos. Clearly, a higher level of activation is becoming the standard. Keeping up with this rapidly expanding trend will challenge programming and sales teams to work together to generate opportunities at station events and via on-air giveaways that involve more than just mentions and liners.
It also is a lesson in what stations should aspire to when sponsoring someone else’s event. Don’t just accept a logo and a small booth in return for on-air promotion. Find ways to create value for existing listeners or entice new listeners to try your station. Create an FE – a Fan Experience – that’s memorable, lasting, and engaging. You might just grow your email database – or your audience ratings.
It’s time do more. It’s time to activate.
Three years with the company taught him a great deal about successful radio programming and helped him launch a career that included overseeing stations in Chicago, Detroit, Denver, Las Vegas, Milwaukee and Dayton. He primarily worked in Alternative and Active Rock, though he was also involved with Heritage and Classic Rock stations as well as Hot AC and the 80’s format.
After leaving his position as Vice President of Programming for Emmis Chicago, Mike began writing about the industry taking positions as News/Talk/Sports Editor for Radio & Records and Editor of Billboard’s Top 40 Update. During that same period, he also began consulting Arbitron’s Programming Services Team and helped launch their twice-weekly column Not Your Average Quarter Hour, which focuses on providing insights for programmers and helping them maximize the value they get from their ratings data.
Finding that he missed working with talent he also launched his own coaching business, Talent Mechanic, where he worked closely with hosts from across a wide range of formats and market sizes, as well as a large number of podcasters hosting shows about a wide range of topics. While looking for new ways to help hosts bring out their true personalities, Mike has taken classes in and performed both stand-up and Improv comedy where he discovered the differences between the two disciplines and how each applies to being on the air.