Much has been written about experiential events, those that strive to bond attendees with the corporate brand or event organization by immersing them in fun, engaging experiences. But, there is more to experience creation than delivering fun. To truly connect with an audience, the event has to plumb the depths of human emotion by addressing four key drives: acquiring, bonding, learning, and defending. It may require some new thinking about what attendees really need and how to give it to them.
The four-drive theory was developed by Harvard Business School’s Paul Lawrence and Nitin Nohria and articulated in their 2002 book, Driven: How Human Nature Shapes Our Choices. It was recently revisited by Mary Beth McEuen, former vice-president and executive director of The Maritz Institute, who used it to support her presentation at PCMA’s EduCon on a next-generation approach to leadership development. A Convene magazine interview of McEuen provided readers with her perspective on the relationship between emotion and event design:
“All of these drives are underpinned by emotion, and that is where the real richness comes into play for the [event] designer — so much of what you are trying to design is an emotional experience of the event. People are bonding with each other, laughing with each other, building relationships, building trust, generating new thinking and new ideas, and there is cooperation and even wonder, awe, and curiosity. The more you have those types of emotions throughout an event, [attendees] will leave with a distinctly different memory.”
What types of activities and programming can event planners implement to address the four drives? Here are some ideas.
Humans, according to Lawrence and Nohria, not only want material possessions, but also nonmaterial things like status, power, and influence. Association conferences do a good job of elevating the position of attendees (primarily members) in these key areas through awards (Planner of the Year, Rising Star, 20 Under 20, etc.), advisory boards, and speaking slots on the conference program. There are other types of takeaways and recognition that planners of all types of events can also consider:
Conferences, trade shows, and meetings are tailor made for fomenting relationships and facilitating interaction with people. Some traditional standbys for helping attendees bond include sporting events, such as golf tournaments or 5K runs/walks, corporate social responsibility campaigns (building houses or stuffing backpacks with school supplies), and the all-purpose networking event. But in the new world order of experiential events, there are plenty of other bonding experiences that planners can employ at events:
Practically every survey ever done about why people go to conferences renders the same answer; people go to meetings to learn. So it makes sense that planners would dedicate the lion’s share of their programming efforts to delivering compelling, new, and evocative content. But Lawrence and Nohria define learning as exploring new areas of life, practicing new skills, and satisfying new curiosities, which for planners, can be a license to bust the doors of in-event learning wide open, for example:
Even Mary Beth McEuen admits that event planners should prevent the drive to defend from being activated in attendees because it’s a stressor. Planners can take some action to protect their attendee customers and reduce their need to defend in a number of ways:
Emotion, exemplified by the four key drives is an integral part of experience design. It triggers memorability which results in behavior change—returning the following year, buying a brand’s products, using more products from exhibitors, more often, etc. Event planners looking to create more compelling experiences need to embed all four elements in the design of their events. When they do, according to the four-drive theory, attendees will not only attend, but they will actively seek out events that meet their needs.
Christine Otsuka is a seasoned writer and editor with a passion for the events industry. She's spent the last seven years creating print, digital, and live content for event planners, managers, and marketers. She works as Customer Marketing Lead at EventMobi, supporting the Customer Success and Marketing teams.
View all posts by Christine Otsuka →