Storytelling for events: don’t be afraid to have fun and be bold


Engaging content is about storytelling. Since humans gathered around the fire stories have fed people’s imagination and whoever tells a good story is sure to capture her or his audience. But how do you tell the story of your event? We asked Sarah Gaffney, Senior Marketing Manager at UBM, who runs a content marketing campaign for ‘Sleep’, an annual event for hotel design. The campaign was both surprising and wondrous. Sarah told us how she used storytelling to increase audience engagement and attendance for her event.

The power of storytelling

What is storytelling and how important is it for event marketers?

Storytelling is a way of keeping your audience engaged over time, and event marketers can use it to good effect in a number of ways. You can pick out a key feature, conference session or overall benefit of your event and use this to craft a story over time or if your event has a theme then you’re in a great position. Event marketers can use this theme to start a story and tell it through the course of the show campaign, across a number of different channels. It’s also a way to tie all your channels together and make them feel integrated. Telling the same story, or different elements of the same story over the various channels can be a really good tool for keeping your audience engaged and ultimately attending the event.

How easy or difficult is it to create compelling content?

If you think about the people you market to as people – rather than a segment of a database or an email address – then it can be easily achievable. And if you plan ahead! For Sleep, the hotel design event held in November, we planned to tell a story over time for one of the key features – The Sleep Set design competition, where 5 design practices design and build a room set at the show. The theme for the competition last year was Wonder Tales and this gave us ample opportunity to tell stories and produce a compelling content marketing campaign.

Firstly, we asked the designers to submit concept posters teasing their designs, and we drip-fed this content out via social media. Then we ran Q&As with the designers – publishing them on the blog, letting our audience into what makes them tick, and what their design inspirations are. Lastly, we created a video highlighting how the room sets came together at the event and released this post-show. By planning it this way we were able to give the story a beginning, a middle and an end – keeping our audience engaged throughout.

Can you recommend any tools you have used for content creation and amplification?

We work with a number of video agencies for producing video content at the shows, and creative agencies help with our theme and creative each year on the events. We tend to use the traditional marketing channels available to us to distribute our content marketing – social media and PPC play a big part in driving people to the website and we rely heavily on email marketing too. For the KBB Birmingham event, which happened in March, we created crowd-sourced content in the form of the ‘Research Series’ – highlighting the key findings from the sector on key issues like materials, professional learning and ecommerce which were gathered via a simple survey issued to our database via Survey Monkey.

How can storytelling techniques help with conversion?

With event marketing, getting people engaged enough to register is easily achievable once you have the right data and the right channels in play. The challenge comes in getting them to covert to actual visitors. We used storytelling in the Sleep event to keep our pre-registered database engaged with the features and content of the show over time – through a series of automated emails and teaser campaigns, weaving a story towards the show and culminating in the ‘wonder tales’ installations once there.

We closely monitored the results, too – watching how many people were coming back to the website, opening and clicking on emails, responding to remarketing banners, re-tweeting and liking our posts. This analysis allowed us to forecast our event attendance and identify any ‘risk’ people who might not be so engaged with the show and may not attend. From there we were able to use different messaging and other channels such as telesales to engage them.

Events have a key benefit in that they bring people together under one roof for a shared experience – and where possible, event marketers should try and tap into that human element of their show and really tell that story to their pre-registered visitors. It’s one of the best ways to get people away from their desks, workloads and lives, and into your venue when the time comes.


What has been the biggest surprise or learning point in the Sleep campaign?

I think the biggest surprise is always how much work it can take to juggle all the different elements of an event! No matter how much you plan ahead there’s always more you could be doing. So this year, we’re automating even more and adding in some layers of complexity to our email campaigns. We are segmenting people into new campaign sequences based on their behaviours and the content they are engaging most with, ultimately telling people the story they want to hear. Another learning is that having a theme or central hook really helps you think creatively and tailor your content in a way that makes it more compelling, and this is something we’ve repeated for Sleep this year too – going with the theme ‘The Science of Tribes’ for 2016.

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