Marketing Matters: Data Driving Deals?


If you’ve engaged in jovial bar conversation with a group of pilots, eventually the favorite joke, “enough about my plane, let’s talk about me,” elicits knowing smiles, laughter and easy banter. However, the joke falls flat when it involves the financial success of your air show or act because you crafted it based on your personal preferences rather than your audience.

ICAS has created spectator surveys over the last two decades that consistently report the favorable demographic background of the air show audience, as well as the preferences of an educated, affluent audience. Preferences? Yes, fans have strong opinions and preferences whether it’s a sports team or flight team. Many members post the desirable demographics on their website or marketing material, yet gloss over, or worse, ignore what the data keeps screaming about what people want.

My Experience

An air show fan wants shade, good food, easy parking and a unique experience or access.

“Air shows have such an unbelievable passionate following with a strong network of events, fans and everything in between, but the focus on the experience has not been as central as it could be,” says Ryan Kunkel, Co-CEO of Red Frog Events. “Elevating that experience will have tremendous impact on all aspects like increased attendance and passion for the industry.”

Kunkel and his brother in-law founded the Chicago-based Red Frog Events which produces innovative, fan-focused events including the Warrior Dash obstacle race series, Firefly Music Festival, and American Beer Classic. The Northeast lacked a major musical festival, so Red Frog created Firefly, a four-day event featuring 120 different concerts. Similar to EAA’s AirVenture, thousands camp during the event, but Kunkel and team elevated the experience and increased monetization by offering “glamping” where fans paid a thousand dollars for a beautiful air conditioned space with power to charge a phone, rest room trailers, showers, easily accessible ice and concierge service. “Who knows if they would even come to the event if it didn’t fit their needs.”

Gasoline Gene

Collecting data from a website, events, social engagement and survey data convinced Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) Chief Marketing Officer Jiri Marousek the aviation audience shared parallel lifestyle traits with sailing, motocross, travel, cars and adventure.

The gasoline gene.

However, research shows a distinct generational gap where people born before the 1980s are satisfied with being a spectator at a show or game. The millennials want to be involved and engaged first and a spectator second. “Regardless of age, the gasoline gene wants to touch,” says Marousek. “However, they are also a lot more critical of what it delivers, so it has to be great.”

Consumers want to get close to the action but also want to know it’s an authentic, attainable lifestyle. Marousek believes civilian aerobatic pilots have the advantage over the military jet teams because aerobatic pilots have unique personalities and directly engage the audience. “Don’t let them be just spectators. NASCAR would be a really boring sport if all it truly offered was cars running in circles. It’s the personalities.”

An engaging experience includes parking, gates, restrooms, tickets and all the touch points along the way. For example, at the Firefly music festival, Kunkel bought hundreds of hammocks to hang in the woods as a comfort area for attendees. This simple addition generated an incredibly high impact for fans looking to escape the sun and chill out.

“Our philosophy is, if you don’t see a single band at our festival, you’ll still have the best day of your life. If you don’t see a single airplane, you should still have a great experience,” explains Kunkel.

The experience starts with understanding your core audience and working backward from there. With a slightly older audience, shuttle buses may become essential to the experience or accessible options for handicapped fans or parents with strollers.

Other basic experience factors include the buying process for tickets and parking. Many events have a labyrinth of ticket and credential options, which generally creates unnecessary confusion for the user. It should be simple, easy and effective.  This can mean having the right number of scanners on site, reliable internet and methods to retrieve tickets for guests who have forgotten to print or bring a physical ticket.

A lack of shade and quality food options always finds itself mentioned in the spectator survey as the items most desired by air show fans. Kunkel believes the enhanced experience evolution can be dramatically impacted by not only the quality of the food but the environment in which it’s served. “In Michigan, we tested a custom vintage diner concept with a full breakfast, comfortable seating and an unexpected experience beyond typical fair food.” After a successful test program, Kunkel expects to roll out a full food vendor program in 2016.

Data Mining

Once personal preferences are securely stashed away, it’s time to scrape data from sources such as ticket sales, web traffic and social insights. Whether we like it or not, we’re constantly being tracked by rights holders and brands to customize the information and ads we see in traditional and digital media.

“The consumer will trade away privacy if they get something for it,” says Marousek. “The first time they turn off [their internet browser’s] cookies, ultimately they’ll turn it back on because the experience dramatically changes. That ad is always going to be there but it’s going to be more or less relevant.”

More events and brands are creating content, campaigns and sponsorships that resonate with the consumer through targeting. Matt Rogan, CEO of Two Circles, says general and unfocused campaigns are almost a waste of time. “Cookies on a website transform digital data into transactional data for specific messaging to different customer segments.” How you segment your audience or customer base creates a more personal experience for them and valuable data for your sponsor.

Transactional data is the information gleaned from ticket sales whether it’s tagged online or embedded with a tracking code on the physical ticket. Digging a little deeper, you can start to build a profile of your air show fans based on where they live, gender, age and more.

Combining transactional data with Google analytics provides an even richer view of your fan base and what drives traffic. However, Jim Snyder, principal with the research and marketing group, Empirical Path, says it’s even more valuable if you can assign value to specific attributes.

“There might be eight different ways someone heard about the air show: newspaper, blog post or TV ad for example,” says Snyder. “It’s tough to credit a specific element without spending money on fancier tools that can provide more detailed attribution.” Even with more robust analytics, Snyder encourages clients to still survey people allowing you to gauge data in one place.

The next level is Customer Relationship Marketing (CRM) integration which gives your data a more robust color as to who is doing what and segmenting the audience even more. For example, Snyder executed Search Engine Optimization (SEO) for graduate schools like Georgetown and The University of North Carolina (UNC) online programs. “They want to understand when people applied to UNC, did they first go to U.S. News World Report? We would attach a lead source to their marketing efforts and identify them through CRM. You can give a little more color as to who is doing what.”

“Our digital budget is a testing budget. We can try something for a month and then switch on a dime if we’re not seeing results,” says Marousek. “Historically, we’re guilty of measuring very little but what we’re working towards is a much more top to bottom analytics.”

Marousek also adds surveys to their data tool box, but has changed the way AOPA approaches them. “We would ask the consumer to marry us on the first date with a 50 page survey,” he says. “The only people who answered were already in the aviation lifestyle. Let’s not ask them to over-commit. We’ll spoon feed and learn more over time in this upper funnel of the relationship. We want it snackable in smaller increments.”


Red Frog is also a data heavy organization, as well, capturing who the customer is and how they can interact with them year round. “Post-event surveys tell us how to make the best events even better, and stretching dollars as much as possible, but spending where it matters,” says Kunkel.

If you’re spending money to market your event or act, use data to direct your path for improving whether it’s ticket sales, sponsor Return On Investment, or enhancing the fan experience. Katie Pribyl, AOPA Senior Vice President, Communications, says “Do something memorable. We have to engage and interact with people in a way they expect and want. As an industry we have forgotten about the customer. We lost focus on that.”

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Deb Mitchell
Deb Mitchell is a former broadcast journalist who ran the NAS Oceana Air Show in Virginia Beach, Virginia for several years and helped create the Air Show Buzz website.