Why it works: tent pole marketing provides a framework for marketing to your prospects before, during and after a targeted event that is expected to catch their interest and engagement.

You should consider aligning your 2020 marketing initiatives around one or more tent pole events. Let me explain why. Tent pole marketing enables you to sharpen the focus of your overall marketing, and you get to do it in front of a large audience of your prospects.

What is tent pole marketing?

Tent pole marketing or tent-pole marketing comes from Hollywood and refers to the predictable profits studios could expect from a franchise movie, such as anything from Marvel, Star Wars or the Fast and Furious franchises. Those profits make up for — or hold up the tent — the losses studios take during the rest of the year from other box-office duds or award-season niche films no one really ever sees. 

And for us marketers, the tent pole metaphor also works when you think about the marketing that comes before the event, during the event (when it is at its highest) and after the event.

What I really love about a tent pole marketing is that it can create a framework for your marketing initiatives throughout the entire year. It involves every team in marketing and sales, and should include everyone else in your organization, too. And it can often lead to some pretty awesome user-generated content that can be leveraged on the cheap. 

Don’t believe me? Keep reading.

What is a tentpole event?

A tent pole event can be any event or holiday that your customers and prospective customers identify with and rally around in some way. To get started, I believe there are two types of tent pole events: industry specific, and industry non-specific. Let’s begin with the latter.

When was the last time you were in your local supermarket grocery store? What did you see as you entered the store?

In November and December of 2019, you likely saw Christmas-related products or food products you would be cooking with during the holidays (so, lots of cookie ingredients). You also likely saw all sorts of Frozen 2 products promoted in time with the movie’s release.

If you went back to the store in January, you would see Valentines Day products, as well as foods associated with watching football games. 

Whether it is the Super Bowl, Back to School, or Black Friday, these are tentpole events that can make or break a year for many businesses and they are not specific to any industry.

And there can be tent-pole events that are more local to your community, but still not industry specific. Where I live in Portland, we celebrate the month-long Rose Festival that include events like Fleet Week, the Starlight Parade, the Grand Floral Parade and so forth.

Not so obvious tent-pole events can include the release or ending of a popular movie franchise or TV show. Look at what advertisers did turning May 4th into Star Wars Day, or how everyone was trying to capitalize on the Game of Thrones final season. Other events have included Y2K, the 2017 solar eclipse, or the passage of GDPR.  

And both B2C and B2B companies can take advantage of these events. 

As for industry-specific events, these can include business milestones and anniversaries. Have you been in business for 10 years? Are you expecting to sell your 1,000 or 1,000,000 gizmo or professional service? All of these can be perfect for tent-pole marketing.

An industry-specific tentpole event can also include the annual conferences or trade shows that everyone in your industry attends. You could be an exhibitor at such an event. Or you could be planning such an event, and want to make it into a tent pole marketing opportunity. 

A great example of tentpole marketing is how Marketo markets its Marketing Nation Summit, now called the Adobe Summit. They would start the year with a press release announcing the theme of that year’s event. If you read the release, you’d see some of the ways they would be marketing around the tentpole that is the summit.

For example, 2018’s theme was The Fearless Marketer. Session topics included The CMO of 2020, Culture of Empowerment, and Order from Chaos. They were also accepting nominations for their Revvie Awards. And they also had user-generated submissions for the Fearless 50 marketers, which has continued on into 2019 and beyond.

Jot down the big events for your business, including all the big holidays and seasonal peaks and valleys, and work backward on what you need to do to build a marketing campaign around it. Short of ideas or don’t have a big team? Reach out and we can brainstorm together.

Sidebar: Not hosting a 1,000+ person conference?

Here is a little tent pole marketing hack that anyone can do. I have a buddy who markets in the steel products industry, which likes to do things the way they’ve been doing them for decades. They have a couple of large events that buyers and sellers always attend, and the host locations are announced years ahead. What my buddy has done is create optimized landing pages for each of those future locations and slowly and steadily gets those pages ranked by Google higher than the event itself. What that does is annually drive traffic to his website, where they can help curate the conversations for each year’s event. 

What is the difference between tent pole marketing and newsjacking?

If you found this post from a Google search, you’ve probably also landed on a page that talked about the Oreo cookie viral social post from the Super Bowl a few years back. 

That was not tentpole marketing. That was newsjacking. There is a difference.

In tent pole marketing, you are creating an integrated marketing plan tied to one or more themes around a tent-pole event. What Oreo’s social agency did was create a plan to quickly respond to anything unusual from a tent-pole event (the Super Bowl). They can both work, but the former tends to be more profitable for the business. The latter can create a big buzz but tends not to move the revenue needle too much, if at all.  

OK, so now you know what is tentpole marketing and what is a tentpole marketing event, let’s now discuss the steps for creating your tentpole marketing strategy. 

Here are the steps for creating your next Tent-Pole Marketing Campaign

  1. Identify
  2. Marketing alignment and inclusion of event
  3. Content mapping
  4. Plan
  5. Execute on the plan
  6. Review, revise, repeat

Identify your audience and tent-pole events

It always comes back to knowing your audience, doesn’t it? Same here. Your audience will tell you, maybe not in so many words, what are your tentpole events.

If your head of sales dictates what are your tentpole events, then you’re plan is destined to fail (although CRO’s and others in your org are sources you should tap into for their input).

The events and audiences have to match up. This is one of those tree-falling-in-a-forest-and-no-one-hears-it things. You could have a potentially awesome tentpole event to work around, but it is all for naught if your buyer isn’t interested or doesn’t engage with the event. 

Get your team together for a lunch meeting, possibly over beers, and begin reviewing who is your audience and brainstorm what events matter to them.

Similarly, you want to identify tent-pole events that are relevant to your business and your culture. Sure, Dreamforce may be the perfect tent pole for you on paper, but your business doesn’t have the resources to execute a plan around it. You’ll need to find a smaller (cheaper) event.

Once you have a starter list of events, have the team do some additional research on any similar events. I really like the idea of having folks noodle on something for a week or two. That is when creativity happens and you may discover a hidden gem that could be this year’s tent pole event. 

Marketing alignment and inclusion

As you develop your list of potential tent-pole events, ask your marketing teams for their input on how they can participate. Too often, I see marketing teams have no idea what their other teams are doing or how those activities are aligned with the overall business goals.

Now, a lot of folks would suggest that is where Agile Marketing can help. Conceptually, yes. In practice, no. As you can tell I’m not entirely sold on Agile. We’ll tackle that another discussion in another post on another day. 

Give everyone a week or so to think of three ways they can market around your top three tentpole events. 

That could be the content team proposing eBooks, optimized blog posts, or to video livestream the event. It could be demand gen developing a webinar series or a new segmented email nurture track. Comms/PR could identify media and other influencer sites to pitch thought leadership pieces. Product marketing could work with engineering to reprioritize the product roadmap to time releases with the event; as well as enlist partners to co-market the event. You get the idea.

Everyone should be thinking about how they can help. [There are countless research articles and books about the organizational and business benefits to rallying around one thing

Tentpole content mapping 

As your team identifies potential tentpole events and develops marketing tactics around those events, you should begin to see what content you’ll need.

In many cases, you may already have the content you need, but you’ll want to update and customize it for the event. That’s what Marketo did for its Rizzies awards, which added a few new categories to match its 2018 Fearless theme. 

You’ll also see what new content you’ll need to create. Doing this now means you have time to create an explainer video that really explains your business, or create a user-generated content contest, and so forth. [It is also a good time to reach out and book me and my team for your content creation. Our calendars fill up quickly. Likewise, if planning a video, you want to be able to schedule your shoot dates for the best times for weather or a specific seasonal “look.”].

In addition to recognizing what content holes need to be filled, you will also want to think about the ways what Jay Baer calls “spin off” that content or leverage it into new content. For example, LinkedIn has done this with its The Sophisticated Marketer’s Guide to campaign. There are Sophisticated playbooks for content marketing, thought leadership, LinkedIn ads, and so forth.

And, finally, you want to be able to think of all the ways you can deliver relevant content leading up to your event, during the event, and after the event. 

The Search Engine Marketers of Portland (SEMpdx) does this well for their annual Engage conference (full disclosure: I am the former SEMpdx board member and director of the conference). The conference typically has about 30 session and keynote speakers. Leading up to the event (while they are still selling tickets) they release interviews with each of the speakers. After the event, they release videos of the sessions for attendees, as well as a way for them to register for next year’s event. 

So, what are the ways you can be talking about your tentpole event long after the event and still be engaging and relevant to your audience?

And in what ways different from the event, can you be leveraging those themes? For an example to this, I quote Joe Pulizzi from Content Marketing World 2017, who said the Star Wars movies before The Force Awakens pulled in about $5 billion, and the licensed merchandise pulled in about $12 billion (Best business deal ever? Expecting the first Star Wars movie to be a flop, George Lucas made a deal with Fox studios to forgo an additional $500,000 in directing fees in return for keeping licensing and merchandising rights for himself).

The tentpole marketing plan

Congratulations on the work you’ve done so far. Let’s recap: 

  • You’ve reconnected with your audience
  • Identified potential tentpole events
  • Engaged the entire marketing team
  • Mapped your content to the event

Now, it is time to make your campaign plan.

By now, you have a lot of what you’ll need for the plan. The first thing to do is finalize on what will be your tentpole event for the year. 

Note: If this is your first time with tentpole marketing, then I suggest you stick with just one event. If you follow this post’s steps, you will be successful and get a raise. Attempting to bite off too much the first go around could be problematic.

Once you’ve finalized your event, it is time to start mapping backward from the event and seeing what needs to be done.

As we’ve mentioned, there are three phases to tentpole marketing: 

  1. Pre-event marketing
  2. During the event marketing
  3. Post-event marketing

Your pre-event marketing will generate buzz and plant the seeds for later harvesting. Your event marketing will amplify the buzz. And your post-event marketing will continue to amplify the buzz, as well as harvest the fruit of that earlier work. 

Sidebar: Activating your org on social media

Social will be part of your tentpole marketing. During the event, get inspired by how Drift promoted a new product release on LinkedIn. The Friday before the release, they had their usual company-wide stand up meeting where marketing explained what they wanted to do (have everyone create their own videos about the launch and share it on LinkedIn) and why they wanted everyone’s help. They had been an active team at these stand ups in the past, effectively marketing to their internal audiences, so they already had buy in from other departments. On the day of the launch, more than 100 employees created and shared videos on the channel. The result was the most traffic they ever received to their website. Lesson here is to get your entire org involved in your tentpole event.   

Another reason I love tent pole marketing so much is that it also gives you an opportunity to leverage what is already working. For example, your pre- and post-event marketing should include email nurture campaigns. Well, email was ranked the best way to nurture leads in the 2019 B2B Content Marketing benchmarks survey. And events were ranked the best way to convert those leads.

So, none of this should seem new to you. In fact, I recommend following the 70-20-10 principle: 

  1. 70 percent of your tent-pole marketing activities should be tried and true tactics
  2. 20 percent are incremental changes to those tactics that you’re testing
  3. 10 percent are off-the-wall innovation

The model allows you to mitigate risks to time, budget and other resources that come with asking yourself and your team to “think outside the box.”

Executing your tentpole plan

Congrats on all the work you and your team have done so far! The next step may be the hardest and that is successfully executing and implementing your tent-pole marketing plan.

The first step is to create a Google spreadsheet and enter in all the tactics your team suggested during the brainstorming phase. 

The next step is to organize those tactics by marketing category (advertising/paid search, social, PR, email and so forth).

You also want to assign the team and individual that will be responsible for the initiative (as well as reporting on its progress to the larger group). And you want to add a couple of columns for estimated results from those tactics, as well as actual results.

You’ll also want to categorize the tactics by when they would occur: before the event, during the event, or after the event.

And you will also want to note the time, costs and other resources required to perform the tactic. For example, it could take a week to write an email nurture program, but another week for the marketing ops team to create the campaign in your marketing automation tool. Or you will want to account for the cost of the video production, and then add any costs required for promotion. 

Getting this down in a spreadsheet or on a whiteboard allows you to get a big-picture view and see where you may have any holes or redundancies.

You next want to create a timeline flowchart that maps all those initiatives, along with links to status, budget, and the responsible team rep.

Measuring the results of your tentpole strategy

As Peter Drucker is incorrectly attributed to saying, “you can’t manage what you can’t measure.” He never said, but let’s think he did for our purposes. You won’t know whether your tentpole marketing campaign is a success unless you measure it.

But what should you measure?

Everything always comes back to leads and revenue. But you will also want to measure your campaign’s cost to acquire those leads; how quickly they became leads; the quality of those leads; and how quickly they closed/won sales. You will want to also compare those with the same KPIs if you’d chosen another initiative instead of the tentpole marketing strategy. 

For example, you believe an email nurture campaign built around the event will result in 4x more sales qualified leads (because you’ve invested the time to better understand your audience, their pain points, and how this event and your initiatives around the event would help them). When it is all said and done, you want to measure whether the leads you have met or exceed those estimates and what was the cost of acquiring those leads and compare those costs if you had done something else or nothing at all.  


The get maximum results, you should start the conversation now with your team. You need to identify the tent pole event or events that make sense for your business. Next think about how you can leverage content you already have around the event, as well as what content you could create for leading up to the event, during the event, and after the event. And remember the three cardinal rules to a tent pole marketing strategy: make it about your audience; align and integrate your initiative across the team and org; and think of ways to leverage the efforts beyond the event (remember the Star Wars licensing deal).