hen “reality” TV rules the airwaves, advertising claims are routinely inflated, and every transaction is an “experience” (due in large part to Jim Gilmore and Joe Pine’s first book, “The Experience Economy”), people — more than ever — are digging deep to find kernels of truth, shreds of genuine emotion, and any signs of legitimate sentiment. That elusive authenticity, Gilmore says, is table stakes for today’s marketers. Corporate EVENT spoke with Gilmore about this authenticity imperative, and what it means for event marketers today.
Corporate EVENT: What does authenticity mean in a business context?
Jim Gilmore: Authenticity is the new quality — it’s today’s dominant consumer sensibility. In the past, criteria such as quality, cost, and supply were the dominant standards that most consumers used when contemplating a purchase. When our economy was still primarily agrarian, supply was the dominant purchasing criteria, and buyers made simple decisions based on availability. As our economy evolved into a manufacturing-driven one, cost became the dominant factor and consumer choices hinged on affordability. In our most recent economic shift to a service economy, quality became the prevailing mantra, and buyers purchased based on performance.
Today, we’ve moved to a new era that is increasingly about experiences. That’s when authenticity emerges as a criterion. Now, people buy based on experience, and they want it to represent something meaningful to them personally. In a business-to-business situation, it becomes, “I want to do business with a company that offers things I like.”
To quote author Virginia Postrel, today’s mindset is “I like that, I am like that.” So when someone is buying based on authenticity, he or she is buying based on conformity to self-image.
CE: So how does the desire for authenticity apply to events?
JG: If we think of authenticity as today’s prevailing sensibility, then it absolutely applies to events. These days, if anyone is still in business running an event, they’re running a quality show. Registration, the room block, the signage — that stuff’s all been figured out. So it comes back to self-image. “Does this event stand for something I believe in?”
Having a variety of phony-feeling fare doesn’t connect with participants. Take a user conference. Are you going to get an untold number of artificial and canned demonstrations and presentations, with insufficient time devoted to real feedback and people complaining — to each other and not to you — about what BS it was after the session? That’s not real. Honest, open, difficult conversation about real difficulties with software — that’s authenticity. That’s a real event.
CE: “Conformity to self image” is such a personal criterion. How do you build that appeal into a large event?
JG: Part of authenticity is the added fuel to the trend toward mass customization. The aim of mass customization, especially relevant here for larger companies, is to create unique value while leveraging economies of scale. If you have a mass-customization capability where you can produce individually unique experiences for customers, and if you give that capability directly to the customer, it can’t help but conform to their self-image.
Here’s one example. I work with a consultant in the cosmetic-surgery industry who serves Lasik eye surgeons. We’ve formed a salon called opticNerve that meets twice a year. At our inaugural event in Chicago, we guided the group on a tour that included a stop at Niketown. Before the event, we e-mailed $200 coupons and directed every attendee to go to NikeID.com (a custom shoe-design application) in advance, design a pair of shoes, and wear them to the event. It was fascinating to see how differently people designed their shoes, and it showed our participants that in a group of just 20 or so from a shared profession that every individual is unique — and to recognize this fact among their own customers.
With events, many marketers are still focused on customer “segments.” But any company that aggregates customers into segments, is treating customers as an average — not as unique markets-of-one. If an event does not allow individual customization, the sponsor is still trying to appeal to many segments or tastes. All that does is spawn variety, which is not equal to customization.
CE: In your book, you describe five genres of authenticity. What kinds of cues can event marketers take from your thoughts about each genre, and how they can inform corporate event strategies?
JG: The first, “natural authenticity,” means thinking about the environment or setting in which the event takes place, and how you design and stage your event elements. What are the materials you’re going to use? Will you meet outdoors or indoors? Even using the natural language of real people, versus brochure-speak, appeals to natural authenticity. Convey a straightforward sense of what’s really going to happen.
“Original authenticity” is the most straightforward genre — and also the most difficult to achieve. Original authenticity makes an appeal by being first of a kind. Take all the conventions of normal events and smash them. Change your language. It’s not a nametag: It’s an “admission pass.” Take a four-day event, and over the first three days get input from the participants to design the fourth day, then allow attendees to present to one another. At most conferences, people don’t generate any output — they suck in input and then go home. What about an event that generates output?
The third genre, “exceptional authenticity,” means doing things as if each participant is the only one who exists. What are the touches that will convey a true sense of personal caring? For example, at an event at which I speak, a meeting planner sends me a preview copy of the brochure to review. She includes personal cover notes indicating the exact pages I need to review. Even if they have 100 speakers, this makes me feel like I’m the only one. If you treat people exceptionally on the front end, you’ll get an exceptional return on the back end at the event.
“Referential authenticity” draws its power by connecting to people, places, or events that we already perceive as real, such as historical moments in time or iconic ideas in human thought. Theming is inherently referential — but theming needs to be done well. Too many events merely treat a theme as a tagline, one that reflects very little of what actually transpires. And events are rich in opportunity to have a great, inspiring theme as an organizing principle that defines everything you do. Don’t explicitly tell attendees what your theme is, leave it unstated and just let them experience it. Doing that well is a wonderful way to appeal to referential authenticity.
Finally, “influential authenticity” makes an appeal by seeking to benefit some greater good. I don’t think event marketers are doing rich enough thinking in this regard. Consider both individual and collective aspirations of participants. Individually, for example, you might dial in more solo time for attendees to reflect on a problem at hand, or on something they’ve learned. Formally pair people up in an intelligent, co-mentoring kind of way. Look for ways to truly participate in a cause that has resonance in your field. If you’re a paper company, involve your attendees in a literacy initiative. If you’re a window manufacturer, hook up with Habitat for Humanity and build a workday into your agenda. Saying that you’ll contribute $2 for every attendee to some cause is simply too easy; people no longer trust it. They want to actively participate in the cause.
CE: It seems that the process of making something seem authentic actually requires a great deal of work. Isn’t this kind of manufactured authenticity at odds with the whole concept in the first place?
JG: That’s the rub: How do you achieve authenticity without it seeming contrived? But it is contrived! Admitting that to yourself is a giant step in gaining perception of authenticity. Authenticity is not an inherent trait of any commercial offering; it has to be earned. So ask yourself: Which of the five genres do we think will appeal to our customers? Are some of those at odds with our heritage and who we are? How do we take steps to appeal as real? In the book, we call it “rendering commerce less commercial.”
It can be done. For example, avoid hype, which can backfire. Just look at the iPhone pricing fiasco. Instead, be real in how you talk about your products. Look at TV commercials today, and the attempt of ad agencies to render them more authentic. Instead of actors we see “real people.” Rather than having some executive speak, invite customers and employees to present.
CE: How can an event marketer begin to craft an authentic identity for a corporate event program?
JG: First, become a student of your event’s heritage. Go back to the first event you ever had and study the origin. What were the motivations and design criteria? Derive inspiration from what has unfolded since, and restore elements that have been lost over time.
Second, study the Real/Fake Matrix in our book. Is your event consistent with who you are? Does it live up to everything you’re saying about it? We live in a socially networked world, and people talk. Overstated claims are exposed very rapidly for what they are.
Finally, look at the five genres of authenticity, seeking to draw from them to help render your events more real. The right mix will vary based on who you are. For example, if you have a low budget, then be low budget! It goes to the heart of who you are. Look at what you’re spending money on. What are those items, like perhaps a celebrity keynoter, you’re spending money on that are actually causing you to be viewed as inauthentic? Stop. If you’re doing anything that is at odds with who you are, save yourself the money. Bottom line: start by asking where you are most fake, and take aim at rendering it real. e