Pop-up event planning is big business. According to a 2018 survey by Harvard Business Review Analytic Services, 93 percent of business executives say their company prioritizes hosting events. And the retail pop-up market had an estimated value of $50 billion in 2016.
But pop-ups aren’t only suitable for companies with deep pockets; they work great for small businesses, too. The short time frame for venue rental and staffing, combined with the ability to drive traffic from specific target markets, means that pop-ups can offer outstanding ROI—both during the event and further down the road. In a 2016 survey by Event Track, 74 percent of consumers said they were more likely to purchase products promoted at a live event.
Pop-ups use exclusivity, novelty, and fun to create experiences both shareable and memorable. They generate consumer excitement that can be wide-reaching (including people who were not at the event itself) and long-lasting. Pop-ups also provide fantastic opportunities for market research, brand engagement, and product awareness.
From dining to dog toys to handicrafts to banking, pop-ups can work for almost any industry. Use these 6 tips and examples to plan a successful pop-up event that stands apart and makes an impression.
1. Make the event goal very specific
The number one key for pop-up success is developing a clear and specific event goal. Understanding the pop-up’s hyper-targeted goal informs the creative design, the venue, and how you measure the event’s success.
Your pop-up goal will likely overlap some with broad business targets, such as:
- Increasing product awareness or brand awareness
- Gaining new customers
- Providing an experience people will gladly pay for
- Conducting market research
But the most memorable, shareable pop-ups get even more specific. Consider the Japanese company Dohtonbori, known for its signature dish Okonomiyaki—a traditional savory pancake that the company makes with organic vegetables. The company wanted to position itself as a healthy fast-food option, but research showed customers didn’t know Okonomiyaki had nutritional value.
To raise awareness, the company opened a ‘Fast Food Aid’ pop-up shop in Tokyo, where the staff—dressed in pharmacist white—accepted fast food receipts and exchanged them for pill vials containing the nutrients missing from the meals. Huge clear tubes on the wall held a year’s supply of supplements, showing customers the volume of nutrients missing from most fast food, but not from Dohtonbori’s offerings.
The marketing agency posted a short film about the shop on YouTube, where it got more than a million views in its first few days. Nothing was sold in the pop-up shop, but the message was striking, memorable, and effective: traffic at Dohtonbori increased by 125 percent.
Examples of pop-up events with crystal clear goals:
- Online retailer Wayfair opened pop-up shops to understand more about customer demographics, shopping behavior, and desires.
- BarkBox dog toys opened a pop-up ‘BarkShop Live’ store, where dogs played with toys while wearing an RFID-equipped vest that tracked the time dogs spent with each toy. Owners could buy their dogs’ favorites, and BarkBox decision-makers could see what was most popular with dogs and their people.
2. Make the pop-up event easy (enough) to reach
Pop-ups need to reach their target audience—so meet them where they are! In the Dohtonbori example above, the company placed the pop-up in a Tokyo neighborhood known to attract young people who frequented fast-food spots.
Think about the habits of your target audience or customers: where they work, where they eat, where they relax and socialize. Are they professionals who walk through the business district during rush hour? College students who visit a stretch of eateries just off a college campus at lunch? Parents of young kids who go to storytime at the library? Locate your event in the midst of—or near—their regular routes and favorite activities.
At the same time, many pop-ups have an exclusive feel—often because they are a limited-time offer. For ticketed events, the exclusivity of the experience is also part of the ticket price. A pop-up dining event, for example, isn’t just charging for the food: people will shell out more for an interesting experience that isn’t available to everyone. (To encourage RSVPs, one pop-up dining organizer suggests sending out three times the amount of invitations as there are tickets. When those tickets are sold, the event is sold out.)
So a ticketed event may be slightly out of the way, or it may be held at a secret location revealed to ticket holders on the day of the event, but the location itself should usually not present an active impediment to attendance.
Examples of pop-up events that found their audience in unique ways:
- Solve, a Minneapolis-based ad agency, took a traveling pop-up ‘5-minute internship’ to colleges—complete with a miniature open-air office and reception area—to increase applications to their internship program. Applicants who excelled at the mini-internships were invited to interview for the real thing on the spot. Interesting, memorable, and effective: the company tripled its internship applications.
- A pop-up’s location can be inconvenient IF it’s for a great, goal-oriented reason. Extreme sports clothing maker 37.5 (the ideal temperature of the human body, in Celsius) opened the ‘World’s Most Remote Pop-Up Shop’ 300 feet up the side of a sheer cliff in Colorado. The shop gave free gear to about 70 climbers, and the Work in Progress ad agency and 37.5 drew a lot of attention.
3. Brainstorm business and community partnerships to expand your audience
Consider a pop-up partnership if your client’s target audience overlaps with another business, and they are not direct competitors. For example, when planning a pop-up for a business that offers sports massage, an event offering five- or ten-minute massages at a local gym offers value to both companies and to their customers. If the business is geared more toward wellness-based massage, consider the same type of event before and after classes in a yoga studio, and offer people herbal tea and a blanket while they wait.
If your client’s audience is families, consider sponsoring a free swim-and-live-music night at the local pool. This pop-up gains exposure for your client’s business and builds positive associations as parents relax and their kids have a great time. Set up a tent and hand out logoed items popular with kids like lollipops, water bottles, lip balm, pencils, squishies, or industry-specific giveaways. (A plastic piggy bank for a credit union is one example.)
Examples of buzzworthy pop-up event partnerships:
- Mega-brands Louis Vuitton and Supreme collaborated on a set of highly anticipated pop-up stores worldwide, and the locations were only officially announced two hours before their opening.
- Singer Drake partnered with the city of Houston for the playfully acronymed Houston Appreciation Weekend (HAW). The entertainer sold his brand and his merch at a special pop-up store, but Houston was also a winner—to earn tickets to Drake’s concert, people had to do volunteer work first.
4. Consider the logistics of your pop-up early
Once you decide on your venue or location, shift your focus to logistics. It isn’t the most exciting part of the planning process (unless your venue is 300 feet high), but pop-up logistics can be complex, and forgotten details can undermine your event.
First, research municipal requirements, such as permits, insurance, and licenses, and make sure all your paperwork is in order well before the event.
Then consider event-specific needs like power, WiFi, lighting, sound, projection, decor, and payment systems. Make sure your event will comply with ADA accessibility guidelines for parking, building entrances, and other reasonable accommodations. If you will have food and beverage service, know the requirements for keeping food and drinks in food-safe areas and at the proper temperatures.
Existing venues like hotels and cafes are a big help here because they have ADA compliant spaces with power and F&B infrastructure already. Logistical headaches are reduced when a pop-up holiday craft fair is held in a hotel ballroom with one table outside to bring in foot traffic vs. holding the entire event outdoors.
With their ability to roam and their food-safe setups, food trucks are a boon to pop-up events. But talk with food truck owners and check municipal regulations: in some locations, food trucks are highly regulated and they are often prohibited from operating within a certain distance of brick-and-mortar restaurants.
Examples of pop-up events with well-managed logistics:
- To promote its new pyramid-shaped tea bags, Lipton Tea installed 25-foot high mesh pyramids in several malls to demonstrate the roominess at the bottom of a pyramid (for tea leaves to unfurl). Inside each pyramid was a large trampoline where kids could jump while parents sipped cups of tea. The malls offered indoor space (no rain date required) and accessible wiring for electric kettles and handheld mics.
- ‘Dinner in the Sky’ offers chef-prepared dinners with wait service at tables lifted 150 feet off the ground by a crane. The events take place around the world, and organizers must be incredibly familiar with local licensing requirements for F&B, heavy equipment, insurance, and more.
5. Spread the word with (and beyond!) social media
Conventional wisdom says that social media is key to pop-up success, and there’s no doubt it’s necessary for getting the word out and driving interest. Schedule save-the-date social media posts and teaser images in the leadup to your event. (Make these pictures and their captions mysterious if the pop-up incorporates an element of surprise.) Establish your pop-up as a location on Facebook so that people will be able to check-in on event progress. And don’t forget to create a memorable hashtag.
Notify the press of the event as well through press releases and local contacts, and provide complimentary tickets to reporters if it makes sense for the event goals.
And don’t forget about other forms of traditional, offline marketing. Pop-ups are often local, and you want to grab the attention of people who could become your customers. Post flyers at stores and coffee shops frequented by your target audience, and consider leaflets and sandwich boards on the day of the event to capture foot traffic.
Examples of pop-up marketing ideas that create excitement:
- While not a pop-up, take a page from Coachella and create Snapchat geofilters for your pop-up event. These customized filters help give your event a one-of-a-kind vibe. There’s a fee to create the filter, and you need some lead time since there’s an approval process.
- Online retailer Grammar used social media to build buzz about three new shirt styles they designed for the opening of the company’s first pop-up in New York City.
6. Keep the momentum going
In 2019, more than half of B2B marketers say that “extending beyond the live experience of an event is imperative to the success of their strategy.”
That means reaching people who can’t get to your event in person. Provide Instagrammable visuals and a concise, relevant hashtag. If you’re planning to live stream you need to intentionally design memorable, eye-catching visuals, and check them out on mobile and laptop screens.
At the event, gather the email addresses of your attendees at check-in or when they make a purchase. Then nurture these contacts with targeted post-event campaigns. Share pictures that capture the ‘feel’ of the event, and spell out opportunities to continue engaging with your brand or product—either at upcoming events, online, or brick-and-mortar locations.
You can also keep your client’s company, product, or service on people’s minds with take-homes. Pencils and pens are useful to everyone, but are there inexpensive items popular with your audience in particular? Custom tattoos or stickers? (These don’t have to be a whopping big logo; make it a design that appeals to the audience and attendees will remember on their own where it came from.)
Examples of pop-up strategies that keep the momentum going:
- Frozen food maker Birds Eye opened a pop-up ‘pay by picture’ restaurant—attendees paid their bill by Instagramming some Birds Eye menu inspiration.
- Check out the custom temporary tattoos Tattly has made for clients like S’well, Brit + Co, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. These will keep the event in mind for attendees and customers well after they’ve gone home.