“Nostalgia – it’s delicate, but potent. Teddy told me that in Greek, “nostalgia” literally means “the pain from an old wound.” It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone.” – Don Draper, Mad Men

B2B marketers today have many arrows in their quiver to drive growth — from email automation to display advertising, direct mail to web personalization. However, since our industry has fooled us into believing that brand marketing does not have a place in the B2B growth equation, many marketers discount what could be one of the most powerful tactics in our war chest: nostalgia.

According to Dr. Alan Hirsch in his report, Nostalgia: A Neuropsychiatric Understanding, nostalgia is “a longing for a sanitized impression of the past, what in psychoanalysis is referred to as a screen memory — not a true recreation of the past, but rather a combination of many different memories, all integrated together, and in the process all negative emotions filtered out.” You see, the hidden power of nostalgia is not rooted in the appreciation of memories past, but rather, one’s emotional recollection of an era (or specific timeframe) absent of any negativity.

Think back to a time in your childhood and lose yourself for a moment in that memory of blissful ignorance and freedom to dream. You there? If you were able to truly meditate on that feeling of childlike joy and wonder, you might have noticed that any painful memories or scars from the same time period were forgotten, if only for that moment. It doesn’t make the pain from our past any less real, but in that brief moment of nostalgia, they were absent.

Eight months prior to our fifth annual industry conference (called Pulse), we brought the team together to brainstorm how we could make the conference more special than the last. For the first time in our young history, we’d be hosting the conference in the same venue as the previous year. 2016 was a model year for us (save a few WiFi issues, of course) and our conference NPS validated that feeling. The risk of a me-too event was way too high, and so, we wanted to do everything in our creative power to innovate in 2017, rather than just iterate on 2016.

So the ideas began to cycle. We learned that our venue was conveniently only a short drive from a WWII era aircraft carrier available for private events. We decided that the way we would make 2017 better than the previous year was to (a) find an incredible band and (b) have them preform on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier as our official afterparty for the conference. Makes sense, right?

Several brainstorms and weeks of negotiation later, we had our answer: we should get The Backstreet Boys. This part is actually a true story, but I’ll fast forward through the details (skip to end of post to read more about BSB) to get to my point:

We landed on a 90s theme for the entire conference.

The 90s were an incredible period of time. With millennials now representing more than 35% of the American workforce — the largest segment (and growing), the 1990s were actually the most significant decade of many of our lives. If you’re paying attention to popular culture today, you’ll notice that brands are realizing the 90s are making a comeback – from fashion to media, Fuller House to CNN’s “The Nineties” original series on TV as we speak.

Why is this the case? Were the 90s a unique era of global peace and tranquility? Quite the contrary, but the psychological principle of nostalgia pushes us as humans to block out the negative and recall blissful accounts of bleached hair, punk music and chain wallets.

So we made the decision to go all in and billed our fifth annual Pulse conference as a nostalgic retrospective on the first five years of the Customer Success industry. We told the audience that we are using this milestone year to look backwards as a community to learn from how far we’ve come, as an indicator of where we are headed. It made sense from the content perspective, but our dedication to the 90s theme was apparent in all the details spread throughout the conference:

  • Our stages and room names were designed after famous venues in 90s TV shows such as Jerry’s Apartment, Wilson’s Fence, Uncle Phil’s, or my personal favorite, Central Perk. We also used various TV theme songs for presenter walk up music on stage.
  • We hired a lookalike cast of “Friends” to perform a lost episode in front of our keynote audience, “The One Where We Find Out Chandler’s Job.” Spoiler alert, it turns out he was a CSM.
  • Vanilla Ice surprised the crowd at 9:00 AM on a Wednesday for a high energy performance of Ice, Ice Baby.
  • Each room (12) played a dedicated soundtrack of 90s hits prior to every session, and screens displayed music videos in the hallways reminiscent of Carson Daly and TRL.
  • Oh, that aircraft carrier? We hired a KILLER 90s cover band who played a three hour set of 90s hits. Those in the know mentioned to me that they were much more entertaining than what The Backstreet Boys would have done. In order to protect my ego, I chose to believe them 🙂
  • SWAG was ‘off the hook’ – fanny packs, slap bracelets, and staff t-shirts that mimic’d the early 90s MTV culture.
  • We even slimed our CEO and GM EMEA on stage!

You can get a better sense of the theme was executed by watching the recap video from the conference below.

Now you may be thinking, “this is cute and all, but, I’ve got my pipeline target to hit this quarter. What’s the point of all this and how does nostalgia tie back to growth?”

When we closed our survey for the conference, we were surprised to find that without dispute, the recurring promoter feedback was not on the 150+ sessions, 200 speakers and community involvement (although respondents did value those things), but on our 90s theme! We took a closer look at those comments to extract how it could possibly be the case that a theme could have such a compounding effect on event NPS. Here were the conclusions we drew:

1) Nostalgia powers better networking. We created space for our audience to get to know each other as people rather than business cards, and as a result, they had more authentic conversations which led to genuine connections. From a brand perspective, this audience has a better appreciation for Pulse (and therefore Gainsight) as the community of record for our industry. Don’t take market leadership for granted when you’re in a competitive deal cycle down the road.

2) Nostalgia powers information retention. We created a light mood in and around each keynote and breakout, so that our audience was more engaged when a speaker was onstage. As a result, depth of content ranked high in our survey, and our attendees felt like they were able to learn more than previous years. Since our content is “early stage” in nature (about the job rather than our product), this translated into strategy definition for a more mature market of prospects now in a better position to buy technology.

3) Nostalgia forgives the sins of operational mistakes. Event production is very complicated, and those have done it before can appreciate that the inertia of conference planning is towards something going wrong. We had our share of mistakes this year that our survey respondents were not shy about pointing out — WiFi continued to be a challenge, we outgrew our venue, our mobile app had issues, etc. But we found that many of the issues from the first day of the conference were forgiven by day two, when we started the day with Vanilla Ice and ended the day on an aircraft carrier. Plus, since 70%+ of our customers were in attendance and conference NPS is highly correlated to net retention, happy attendees = more revenue.

We feel like we hit on something unique, and our story above is only one application of nostalgia within the context of event marketing. How are you leveraging the power of nostalgia within your marketing campaigns? Let me know in the comments below.

Oh, you want to know more about the Backstreet Boys thing?

Like Icarus, even the most ambitious marketers can fly too close to the sun with an idea and have their wings melt as they come crashing towards the earth. In this case, we just couldn’t take the risk on our event P&L to commit the Backstreet Boys to perform at Pulse and pulled out of the process in the eleventh hour.

That didn’t stop us from filming an awesome announcement video that never saw the light of day, that is, until now:

Anthony Kennada

Anthony Kennada is Chief Marketing Officer at Gainsight, building and leading the Customer Success Management industry. He is passionate about creating new market categories, scaling thought leadership programs, and (obviously) customer-centric marketing. Prior companies include Box, LiveOffice and Symantec.

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