By Tim Hayes []

Standing on a slim steel beam, 50 feet in the air, strapped into a harness and told to jump, isn’t exactly my idea of a fun day at the office.

Yet there I was, with about 10 trade publication editors gazing up at me.  I could have sworn I head a snicker or two, but don’t quote me on that.  After a quick, silent Hail Mary, I jumped – and was caught safely by the harness, just as planned.

So what was a confirmed old acrophobe like me doing in such a potentially perilous perch?  Experiential marketing, my friends.  Using a personal experience to convey information about a product, service, cause, or person.  It’s not so much show and tell, it’s more like tell and show.

My wife and I recently attended a local benefit gala, which included a live auction of various trips, sports ticket packages, autographed gear, and so on.  But the final item on the auction was for a rare fox-red Labrador retriever puppy – which was at the event, and could be held, petted, played with, and, well…experienced.  A stroke of genius by the organizers of the event.  You’ve never seen so many well-to-do women in thousand-dollar gowns melt in one place since Vesuvius blew its top.

Bidding began at $2,000 for this little rascal, and was fairly brisk in the early going.  Once only the serious players remained in the game, though, the auctioneer’s strategy changed.  With each new bid, the dog’s breeder would take the puppy away from the person whose bid was just topped, and hand it to the person with the high bid.

The look on each respective lady’s face when that lab had to be surrendered to her bidding competitor was priceless.  I found it fascinating to watch, because you knew two lines of thinking were in play between the final bidders.

The first, the intellectual line of thinking, said that the funds raised would go to a very deserving local cause that helps at-risk children get a better education through solid adult supervision and a sense of true love and respect.

But the second, the emotional line of thinking, fairly screamed, “This puppy is sooooo cute!  I must have him!”

The dog went for close to 10 grand.  More proof that people evaluate purchases intellectually, but decide to purchase emotionally.  The effect of experiential marketing on that auction scenario cannot be understated.  Holding that puppy, having it nuzzle each lady’s diamond-and-pearl studded neck?  Hell, in that situation, money’s no object.  The sale is complete.

Which brings us back to yours truly leaping off 50-foot steel girders.  My client manufactured safety harnesses, and I had coordinated a media tour of safety and construction trade editors to visit the plant, see how the harnesses were made, and actually wear one to test it out.

As host of this event, I volunteered to go first.  Once the editors saw the harness work, they couldn’t wait to put theirs on, climb the ladder to the top of the company’s testing site, and make their leaps.  They had fun, but more important, they believed in the product from that point on.  In the end, we generated more short-term stories and ongoing coverage than we ever anticipated.

All because we didn’t rely solely on us telling the story.  We helped our audience experience it for themselves.  Tell and show.

Copyright 2010 Transverse Park Productions LLC