Welcome to our three part series on pitch ideation. During this trilogy, we’ll walk through the ways in which experiential marketers can work as a team to cook up inventive solutions to client challenges. Later on, we’ll explore techniques for brainstorming, but before we get to that, we’ll begin with the prep. Here are our top 10 steps for researching an incoming RFP.

1. Use It or Lose It

This strategy is listed as number one for a reason. There’s simply no better way for wrapping your head around a new brief than to use the product in question. Reading about it isn’t enough; we want to play with it, watch it, listen to it, eat it — whatever the client’s recommended means of consumption.

Actually using the thing is a great way to springboard your understanding of why this product exists and what consumers are going to love about it. It might also inspire insights into how consumers will interact with the product on site at your activation. So it’s especially important to focus on the details. What does using the product make you feel? What makes it memorable?

For a new album, you might take note of catchy lyrics. For a TV show, you might want to track character quirks and recurring locations, props, and activities. When handling a physical object, what’s simple and delightful about using it? When handling an app, observe the layout, the experience flow, the color scheme, the functionalities — all the small details that make this app dynamic and unique.

2. Stare At the Target Till You Go Cross-Eyed

Once you know what you’re selling, you’ve got find out who’s going to be buying. Some RFPs will include elaborate sections profiling their targets and giving them cool names — most will focus on age, sex, ethnicity, region, and income. It’s your responsibility to do the detective work of finding out what makes your target tick.

As detective work goes, this can be a walk in the park — sometimes literally. You don’t need to hunt down and stalk your targets; they’re all around you. They’re your parents, your siblings, your children, your spouse, your neighbors, coworkers, or bosses. They’re the people who grab the Corn Puffs while you grab the Cheerios, the people who steal your parking spots, who serve you lunch, who — you get the point.

If people-watching isn’t your thing, get online and read what they read — or what they write. You’re not only looking for their opinions about your product here; you’re also looking to discover what sorts of movies they watch, cars they drive, and politics they align with.

The better you understand them, the better you’ll be able to sell to them.

3. Nerd Out

Having gotten a tight closeup on the product, it’s time to pull back and get a wide view of what this is all about. What is the product’s context — what’s the history behind it, the ecosystem in which it exists? What does Wikipedia have to say? What are the terms of art?

Developing a broader understanding of the field will not only help you to better appreciate the product’s purpose, but it will also elevate your interactions with your client and targets. Because you’ll know the history and speak the lingo.

4. Size Up the Other Guys

Now that you know what you’re talking about, it’s time to learn about the other major players. The goal here is to discover the client’s positioning — why this product exists, what sets it apart, and why consumers ought to choose this product instead of another. It’s important to get a sense of both the competitors’ strengths and their weaknesses, so that you can hone in on what to play down, what to play up, where to defend, and where to attack.

Competitor websites, literature, and ads are great for this stage of competitive analysis, and so are articles and reviews that articulate consumer perspectives.

5. Keep Up With the Joneses

The competitive research you’ve just done was about your client’s competition. Now it’s time to find out about your competition. What sort of activations or stunts have the other brands in this space pulled off? You’ll need to understand what those other experiential marketers were doing if you want to put them all to shame.

You’ll also want to tune into the things that have worked in the past, so that you can use your competitors’ discoveries as your starting point. This is especially true if you’re planning to exhibit at an annual convention where there will be plenty of data on what previous brands have done to break through the noise.

This is a great time to start a romance with Google. Photos, sizzles, feature articles — these things will all help you better understand what you’re up against.

6. Prepare for Life Undercover

Part of understanding your client’s positioning is understanding their voice. What kind of copy do they use — is their language flashy and set in sans serif or do they prefer a conservative tone and a Roman font? Are their ads composed of a few long takes or do shots cut quickly? What are their brand colors and what do those colors communicate? Does the brand emphasize youthful innovation or mature reliability?

The deeper you wade in, the better a job you’ll do speaking for and even to the brand. On the receiving end, your client may feel most comfortable with a proposal that looks and sounds like it was written by one of their own. Alternatively, if the RFP’s indicated that the client would like to make a dramatic shift, then it’s important to have a deep understanding of what it is they’re trying to distance themselves from.

7. Analyze the Types

While experiential marketing is a growing field that attracts new brands every day, for many of your clients, this will not be their first at-bat. So before you lead them back onto the field, it’s good to get into some post-game strategic analysis: how has this brand activated before? What’s worked and what hasn’t? What sorts of activations do they like? Maybe they lean toward digital activations, immersive engagements, or stop-and-stare stunts. Maybe they like to get cute or maybe they like to play things edgy. Do they put a premium on hired talent? Do they go mobile?

Just as with Step 4, this process will allow you to get smart about what previous strategies you’re rejecting and what you’re utilizing. You can recycle and reshape what worked; diagnose and treat what hasn't.

8. Give 'Em the Third Degree

By now you’ve got a good a great sense of what this product is all about. But we’ve been working in the realm of theory and, as we know, experiential is all about getting hands-on. A great deal of good can come out of real life engagements. That’s why we recommend that you interview fans, users, or experts. Your goal here won’t be to gather large data sets, but rather to glean a few individual perspectives.

Talking to real life targets and specialists can often reveal important information or demonstrate that the things you thought were important aren’t really.

Advertising a TV show? You might know the plot, but real fans often reveal surprising favorite characters and reminisce about particular moments. They can also tell you why they’ve stopped watching or what keeps them coming back.

The same goes for techies, pet owners, world travelers, and sneakerheads. A short conversation can offer insight into what sort of event could make their weekend, what sort of premiums they’d value most, or what they need to hear from a new brand before converting.

Again, you don’t have to reach out into the ether to have these conversations — just call up a friend or family member who fits the demographic.

9. Don't Draw A Big Picture – Draw Five

You’re swimming in knowledge now, so it’s time to sift, sort, and compartmentalize. Take some time with a whiteboard, flashcards, or post-its to start identifying patterns and themes. It’s a rare product that only has one way in. After all this research you’ve probably got a wide variety of angles to work from.

Consider what you’ve learned about the brand from interviews and articles, and what the brand says about itself. Consider the context and history around the product, and the qualities that set this one apart from others. What you love about it, what’s worked in the past and what hasn’t. And use that information to identify and label discrete ideas and questions.

All told, you should start seeing a few different directions in which to head. In future installments, we’ll see how this categorizing of information will make for great brainstorm facilitation.

10. Buy a Poncho

Of course the final step to wrapping your head around a brief is to bring in the team. So warn the office that a storm’s coming!

Next month, we’ll get into the details of how to make that brainstorm a successful one — from filling the room to briefing it. And later we’ll cover our top 10 rules for inspiring top-flight ideas. Stay tuned!

The michael alan group is a full-service experiential marketing agency & event production company. Check out our work and our team, and drop us a line to chat about brainstorming ideas for your next experiential campaign.