Lessons on How Sponsors Can Sharpen Their Game to Engage Fans at Events

Despite the deluge of digital and social, there is no greater chance for exposure and engagement than that experienced IRL (in real life). But even those opportunities to come face to face with consumers in a welcoming environment, whether at sports events, festivals, or the like, are only as effective as the execution.

I recently had the opportunity to attend the opening event for the 2017 season of Formula Drift, a league for the DRIFT sport (cars drifting!), that boasts over a million fans around the globe and reaches tens to hundreds of thousands on a weekly basis. Their events also host dozens of mostly endemic sponsors that engage and activate and seek to drive value with, for, and from fans.

This up-and-coming generation of consumers have increasingly higher standards to engage, but they also recognize value when they see it. It’s always fun to learn from these events and how business execute. Here are ten lessons from Formula Drift’s event in Long Beach, where there were true connections and genuine engagement between fans and corporate partners.

Data exchange for free swag

There were tons of places giving out, well, free swag. And many of them had tablets mounted where fans waited in line to input their data in exchange for bags, t-shirts, hats, and more. And fans didn’t seem to mind the requirement at all. This is not an all-too-uncommon tactic, but the clear understanding of exchanging ‘x’ for ‘y’ was so evident that it stood out to me. It was organized, simple enough, and fans knew what they were there for — the (branded) swag.

Relevant swag – Adding value to experience, in exchange for data

Not all the free swag was relevant, but some of it went beyond token or knick-knacks to swag that fans wanted. Ford was giving away ear buds for fans that many have wanted to listen to the event commentary on their devices. There were also interactive photo ops to make memories (and digital content to share), and car accessories perfect for this crowd. There were lots of keychains, pens, stickers, and such, but the best are giving away relevant swag (related to the brand or service the partner produced or offered) and value-add swag and items (that added to the experience for fans at the event). Check off one of these boxes, check off both of these boxes – golden. And fans will gladly give data for that.

Methods – Tablets and paper [and spin to win]

Two common themes I noticed between sponsors at a NASCAR event and at the Formula Drift event – lots of opportunities to spin a wheel to win, and tablets to input information. The ‘try your luck’ element and the, well, fun of spinning a wheel with everyone watching attracts fans – and they’re willing to hand over some information for the opportunity. As mentioned previously, tablets were used by many – fill out the form and get some swag. Not only do the best have some relevant swag (see above), but they’re also mindful about what they’re requesting from the fans. The more fields there, the less likely it is fans will complete (or at least take care to complete it accurately). Many of these sponsors kept it simple and relevant – name, email, vehicle make/model/year. Some got even more targeted to their market. Some also asked for, frankly, a bit too much info – name, email, phone, street address, vehicular info, age, education. Choose wisely and make sure every piece of info asked is worth the ask.

Ambassador appearances

When possible, there is perhaps no better way to attract and engage a crowd than having the endorser or ambassador on-site. At the Formula DRIFT event, where fans can up close to the drivers and cars before the competition starts, sponsors were activating around them. This meant going lighter on the designated sponsor area, resting assured fans would come to see the driver and see their car. And they did. And when they did, they were exposed to the brand’s setup, too – with product on display, swag and data capture, brochures and on-site experts. Sometimes the bait, and the credibility it can lend, is the first and most important step.

Building brand with apparel

Just about every single brand at the Formula DRIFT event was endemic. They sold car parts, accessories, and stuff that I am not educated enough about cars to understand. But there was also a ton of apparel. Some even had apparel partnerships or full lines of t-shirts, caps, and hoodies to serve as a considerable part of the setup and a revenue stream. Just because you sell tires and suspensions, doesn’t mean fans won’t wear your gear. Perhaps the best way to create a visible brand is to create a visible brand.

Photo-ops and sick displays/cars

Visual appeal, sights that scream photo op, and a sense of feng sui can go a long way in getting fans to come your way. And there was plenty of that to go around among the sponsors at Formula DRIFT. It’s hard to resist the pull of an eye-catching, wow-inducing car (and to take a picture next to it). This not only drives foot traffic, but earned media as the brand is shared out. But wait, there’s more. There was incredible care with which stuff like exhaust pipes or steering wheels or mufflers were displayed. There’s an art to it and, fo the ones that take care and know what they’re doing and why, it can go a long way. It’s an all-channel, all-senses world (ok, maybe not smell so much; though there was an air freshener sponsors).

Premium areas

There were a couple areas that attracted the most stares – and they weren’t accessible to the public. A couple major partners had some fancy VIP areas, complete with big screens, buffet,decorations, and more. They were surrounded, too, by a typical setup with product and activations for the public. The VIP areas were special guests of the brand and the local retail partners that sold them. While it may not engage every fan that attends the event, there is intangible value gained not just from the eyeballs it attracts, but the credibility and repute it adds for the brand, as a Formula DRIFT partner.

Products on display and brochures, presentation

This is a pretty simple idea, but sometimes can be lost in the midst of activities and shiny objects and swag. Particularly for a brand endemic to the sport and of interest to the fans – they want to learn about what’s out there. They want to know about the top brands in the space and learn more about, well, how to make their own cars go faster and look cooler. Many also had brochures for more info and a handful had digital brochures and microsets on touch screens (tablets are for more than just form entry). The touch screens can be hard for any curious fan to resist and it offers an entry to engage, as well as an opportunity for the staffer on-hand to start a conversation.

Social media and earned impressions

Plenty of sponsors post hash tags and Twitter handles abound at events like these. (Including one brand that just promoted its YouTube and Pinterest accounts only). But, for some, there was a premium placed on social media impressions and gains. There were the straightforward ‘Follow us’ on social media for some free swag. One brand, however, had some pretty extensive instructions to share a picture in front of a specific standup via social, using a hash tag and tagging the brand, and following the brand – all to get a small knick-knack. The burden of effort was a bit too much for me, but it is clear social media is on the mind of many. The key just needs to be a focus on authenticity. If a fan is posting something on social media out of a sense of obligation or because someone told them they had to in order to get ‘x,’ the value of that so-called earned media is no doubt diminished.

Deep engagement and conversation

Especially at events full of big crowds and thousands in eyeballs and foot traffic, there can be a commitment to scale – reach as many fans as possible, but there is a lot of value in the quality of engagements, too. Fueled by the knowledge that there are a bunch of car fans here, sponsors on-site could approach with relative assurance there was a receptive audience of fans loitering and looking because they were genuinely interested. It can help to go beyond just thinking about conversions and consider conversation, where quality can trump quantity. In a world where we equate numbers with success, it’s important to appreciate not all consumer engagements and touches are equivalent. Value what’s valuable.

There is so much to consider when you have the opportunity to get a casual glance from a fan and a potential customer. Don’t just make it a data grab, but it’s okay to ask for it – just make sure it matters. And never take the attention and engagement with fans for granted.

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