Evan Bailey’s first ever gig was one for the ages.
“Nirvana, on Halloween, I think it was ’91 or ’92 in Akron, Ohio,” he smiles. “They all dressed up – I remember [bassist] Krist Novoselic dressed up as Barney. Kind of a legendary show.”
It wasn’t, however, the one that changed the trajectory of his life. That honor goes to his first ever electronic music show, which he witnessed in Springfield, Ohio, one New Year’s Eve in the late-’90s
“I go to this party, and there's [legendary DJ and producer] Paul Johnson up there – Paul was in a wheelchair, and he had a special riser. And [he was] just rocking this party. He was a true master. I remember being 18 or 19, and it shattered a lot of my preconceived notions about what raves were about. It blew my mind. He was a big catalyst for what I do now.”
What Bailey does now is work as Vice President with famed electronic dance promoter Disco Donnie Presents, the company with which he’s spent the past two decades.
In 2023 Disco Donnie will stage more than 1000 club shows and anywhere from four to eight major festivals, including Lights All Night and Sunset – the lineup for the latter’s 2023 incarnation was announced four days prior to this interview, and features the likes of AC Slater, Odd Mob and Wax Motif.
Even though Disco Donnie Presents have more than two decades’ experience at marketing and promoting events, they’re still finding new ways to generate excitement – case in point was their strategy for Sunset.
“We wanted to do something special for our fans who have been with us a while,” explains Bailey. “The event is I think in its 13th year, so we decided we were going to offer fans who've been with us [a while] a $99 two-day ticket, which is coincidentally the price of the two-day ticket 10 years ago.
“The $99 promo was kind of a contest, we only had 500 of them available. People signed up for that, 500 winners were selected, and then we moved into a presale. I was surprised to see that of all the people that signed up for it, I think 99.9% of them went through with it."
Here, Bailey discusses the evolution of event marketing budgets, the most impactful use of video, the staggering rise in festival costs, the importance of SMS marketing, and much more…
Given some of the obstacles currently facing promoters – rising costs, iOS 14 and the issues with Facebook advertising – have you had to rethink how you're marketing festivals and events this year?
Yeah. From the marketing perspective, we've had to look at third party companies to help improve our tracking and understanding of our audiences, and the data associated with the audiences.
We're squarely focused on platforms like TikTok and Instagram more than ever. And that means video, and thinking about what that video looks like. In many cases it's less polished than you might think. I think Gen Z has an appetite for authenticity, they want to see people behind the brands, they want to see footage that looks real and less of the corporate, slick stuff we saw even a few years ago related to festivals.
Even the way we sort of package stuff – traditionally, we've always shot horizontally, and we're moving to more portrait based for mobile phones.
Also thinking about what content goes on socials versus what goes on paid media, and more delineation between those content types, not only to help breathe life into the brand narratives related to festivals and their brand architecture and their voice characteristics, but also to work with the platforms. So there's a lot going on in terms of how we're changing our approach, quite literally even this month.
"We're squarely focused on platforms like TikTok and Instagram more than ever."
What’s the main difference between the content you might use for paid media as opposed to organic socials?
Throughout a marketing timeline we often have a lot of nuts and bolts stuff. We need to tell fans that payment plans are going from four payments to three payments, or wristband shipping ends Friday, or the early bird prices are ending.
And while those are important pieces of strategic information to get out, they’re not necessarily the things you want your socials full of on the organic side. They don't necessarily tell a brand story. So that's one of the areas we're looking at, where paid media is doing most of the lifting in this area anyway.
So why not use this opportunity from an organic perspective to tell the story of the event, show the experience and some of those things that younger audiences want to see, which is authenticity and less of the sort of sales approach. And I think the algorithms tend to agree with that, too. So that's a big area.
How powerful is TikTok in terms of leading to conversions?
I don't think initially it was a big conversion medium for us. But I think that's probably going to change. I also think it takes a lot of research.
TikTok has its own culture, so to play meaningfully there you have to be native to it. I think many TikTok users would probably admit they spend hours potentially a day on that. So I think to really have a meaningful presence there, it has to be authentic, and has to be guided by people who live on there.
Which channels are more effective at the moment in terms of leading to direct ticket sales?
If you're looking at the modern 2023 event marketing budget, Facebook, or Meta, the Instagram budget is still a very big budget. However, tactics change a little bit.
So Google ads might be a little bit more in play than they were a couple years ago. I think the way ads are optimized might be a little different than they were.
And I think you start to see those TikTok spends increase too. It kind of reminds me of what I used to see with the print budgets – while they were changing, they were still present, right? And then eventually they were almost not present. So there's definitely some change going on in how those funds are allocated.
So you're seeing the spends go perhaps a little more into TikTok, while not getting rid completely of Facebook and Instagram?
Yeah, I think that's accurate. And I think you're starting to see – I can only speak for us – people spend a little bit more on Google than maybe they did a couple of years ago.
Does your marketing approach differ depending on the sub-genre of the event you're promoting?
We do see some differences in how we promote.
A great example is that some artists are a good match for radio, for instance, whereas others aren't. And you kind of see similar things go on with paid media.
For instance, some of these artists broke on TikTok, so you'd be remiss to not have a presence on there – acts like Disco Lines, for instance. Sickick. Whereas maybe some acts that are tried and tested, maybe a Paul Oakenfold or something, you'd probably be remiss to not have it on Facebook. There's a sort of older audience associated with that.
So the short answer is, it depends. But yeah, you do see some differences in how you approach things.
Where does your mailing list fit into your marketing plan?
We are noticing that people are not opening their email as much. And I think this is a Gen Z thing, potentially.
So, SMS is actually becoming more important, and there's a lot of considerations with that – annoyance, legality, just how you format your text, or when you use it, etc. So email’s definitely still a big part of the campaigns, but SMS has become important.
"SMS is actually becoming more important..."
What’s the key to an impactful SMS in terms of timing and content?
I think this is also a little bit true with Facebook and Instagram, is that typically you want to have sort of a short, sweet call to action. So, often we'll start things with action verbs – ‘reserve’ your seat at whatever today, or ‘lock in’ discount pricing now. As Mark Twain famously said, ‘If I had more time to write, I'd write less.’ And that's the art.
If something's going on sale right now, or something's happening, that's often how we use [SMS], for that immediacy. Whereas email, maybe we'll use it for something that can sit in somebody's inbox for 24 hours and still be quite relevant.
How do you use each event to help promote the next event?
We just finished Lights All Night. So we follow up with fans with news they can use – event photos, lost and found information. But often in there, we will include something in our comms about the next event, and maybe it's a discount to, say, Ubbi Dubbi, which is in the same city in four or five months.
So that's pretty common. But also, the ambassador pools often grow – people are accruing rewards that they can cash in at the next event, for instance. So, there's definitely some power in that. It's definitely part of how we think.
How do you structure your ambassador programs?
We have a couple different ambassador programs.
I would say five, six, seven, eight years ago we realized that a lot of what motivated people to be ambassadors were socially based rewards – it sort of aligned squarely with, at the time, this millennial mindset. Like I'm collecting experiences rather than dollars.
So we developed one pillar of program that considers that – skipping the line, meeting artists or promoters, things of that nature that aren't necessarily high dollar to us, but we're providing access for those people.
And those programs tend to be a little bit more like a torrent in the sense that you're getting a lot of people involved. And, you know, hopefully amplifying the event’s presence online. So that's one pillar.
The other pillar deals more with people who are motivated by money. And these are sometimes superstar sellers. Often these are people on the streets that sell hard tickets, and they’re very organized people who can organize teams, and turn in their tickets and money on time. And some of these people move a lot of tickets.
And we're happy to graduate somebody from a socially based program to a more hard ticket program. But you have to prove that you can move more than five or 10 tickets or something.
Can you give me an indication of just how much the cost of putting on a festival has risen over the past few years?
Looking at events or festival budgets holistically, I wouldn't be surprised if costs are somewhere in the 40% higher range, which is significant. Because this is a low margin, high risk kind of business.
We’re seeing it even with paid media. I often have to explain to people why paid media is more, and it's a lot of things – it's tracking, it’s ad space. It's probably debatable to some degree, but once we went to this digital world during the pandemic, ad prices went up essentially. So it's a confluence of things. But it's a big deal.
And I think one of the patterns we're going to see over the next year, especially if we fall into a recession, or we're already in a recession, is people still want to go to events, but they're going to be choosy about where they go. And they're going to look for very special events.
They’ll dig into their pocket, but it's got to be the right talent, it's got to be a special experience. I'm not sure the nights of popping up a million club shows with random headliners in random cities is really what the next six to 12 months will look like. People are looking for special things.
So, you know, promoters like ourselves are balancing these costs with what the audience want [and] how to market this stuff. It’s definitely challenging at the moment.
"Looking at events or festival budgets holistically, I wouldn't be surprised if costs are somewhere in the 40% higher range..."
I imagine you can't just up the ticket prices by 40% – how else do you absorb the cost?
I think it's closely looking at talent, closely looking at your budget. One of the things I've been doing is looking at like, okay, if I book photographers all year or print my wristbands all year with the same person, how can I save?
So, we're looking at experiments with marketing, essentially, A-B splits that are looking at, okay, well, what happens if we do this, and what happens if we do that, to kind of understand how we can be more efficient there. And tech comes into that, too.
In some cases, you are going to probably see ticket prices increase a bit. Not necessarily with our events, I think we've remained pretty competitive. But I just have to think a lot of people are potentially passing on some of these costs, because I don't see how you have a margin if you don't. But there's ways you can tackle it. It's not all on the consumer.