atching an image take shape is a captivating experience. Whether it's a caricaturist sketching in a mall, a painter trying to capture the precise color of a sunrise over the Tiber, or a graffiti artist tagging the underbelly of a New York bridge, passersby can't help but stop and marvel at the creative process. But in addition to making the general public stop and stare, seeing art in action can force trade show attendees to stop and engage.
At EXHIBITOR2013, Livonia, MI-based live communications company EWI Worldwide created an integrated program built upon this same fascinating experience. Based on visitors' responses to one of several "getting-to-know-you" questions, graphic recorders (artisans that transform ideas into symbols and images) brought attendees' answers to life on paper — creating whimsical caricatures and inventive imagery. And just as one might pause to watch an Italian artist capture the Ponte Vecchio, attendees couldn't help but gape as their own ideas sprang to life in the company's booth.
However, EWI's inventive in-booth activity and accompanying marketing campaign collected far more than open-mouthed stares. Dubbed the StoryBoard Experience, the initiative also helped EWI meet its goals for post-show client meetings, exceed its lead objectives by nearly 50 percent, and score a Sizzle Award.
Tracing an Outline
EWI's whimsical integrated program was actually born of some serious strategic-marketing decisions dating back to 2008. That's when Exhibit Works Inc. was rebranded as a live communications company dubbed EWI Worldwide.
"In 2008, we switched our focus from being an exhibit house to acting as a live communications firm with capabilities ranging from exhibits and events to social media and digital engagements," says Angie Heiple, executive director of marketing at EWI. "At EXHIBITOR2008, we launched the brand and the tagline, 'Your Story. Alive.' That tagline is still with us today, as it conveys the idea that we communicate our clients' stories via compelling live communications strategies."
When the recession bared its ugly fangs in 2009, however, marketing clients the world over tightened their purse strings — and EWI redistributed the bulk of its marketing budget to fund company growth and expansion. "We decided to back off and take some time to build our capabilities in digital media, retail, international, events, etc. so that we could eventually create a stronger, broader foothold in the marketplace," Heiple says. So while the company continued to attend EXHIBITOR Show and host educational sessions at the annual event, from 2009 to 2012 it was a "no show" on the trade show floor.
But near the middle of 2012, EWI management sensed a shift in the industry. "We felt that budgets had begun to loosen across the board and a strong business wave was coming," Heiple says. "We wanted to catch that wave and use it to help us increase our own momentum. We had spent four years building our capabilities and establishing the 'Your Story. Alive.' message, and by going back to EXHIBITOR Show as a reinvented firm, it would be like placing the last piece of the puzzle in our long-term strategy."
Thus, after a four-year absence, EWI decided to return to EXHIBITOR Show in 2013. But rather than focus on a hard sell, the company felt that a relationship-focused soft sell was the most effective way to drive business. Granted, it still set a goal of capturing 100 leads, but its strategy focused on building a personal connection, not obtaining a bowl full of business cards that may or may not turn into a sale. "Business is best accomplished up close and in person," says David Bean, corporate president of EWI.
"The best business relationships involve a personal connection. So EWI wanted to generate awareness and establish relationships first, knowing that the sales would follow."
In addition to its relationship-based approach, EWI also hoped to enlist multiple touchpoints throughout its program. "I used to work in broadcasting, and they always say that people need to hear a message seven to 10 times before it starts to 'stick,'" Heiple says. "So in our marketing campaigns and those of our clients, we try to touch attendees with a key message at least seven times per show."
So for EXHIBITOR2013, held March 17 – 21 in Las Vegas, EWI began brainstorming for a multi-touch strategy that would focus on building relationships and allow the company to show off some of its more intangible products and services — e.g., social-media integration, creative capabilities, digital-media execution, etc. "Plus, we wanted to eat our own dog food," says Katie Slattery, EWI's manager of marketing and communications. While "dogfooding" usually means that a company uses its own products to demonstrate their quality and reliability, EWI wanted to employ its own creative talents, services, and products to create and execute its entire program — a tactic that would demonstrate its intangibles and prove their effectiveness in one fell swoop.
During their brainstorming, then, the marketing team fell upon the idea of graphic recording as an effective storytelling experience. With this process, artists document a conversation's key ideas on visual media such as flip charts, digital-communication tools, or white boards to help people literally see their ideas more clearly. In the past, EWI used ImageThink, a New York-based graphic-recording and -facilitation firm, to capture and organize ideas from a brainstorming session.
"We were captivated by the drawing/recording experience, and could easily see how this concept could be adapted as a traffic builder and engagement tool," Heiple says. "Graphic recorders would stop attendees and get them to interact with us on a personal level. That would launch the relationship and generate awareness. And based on this fun, creative activity, we could devise multiple touchpoints to surround it and to demonstrate our intangibles." Thus, EWI had roughed out a strategy; now it just needed to shade in the spaces with a stellar execution.
That execution, which was driven by EWI and Detroit-based design and communications firm Lovio George Inc., started two weeks before the show. That's when the team sent select pre-show registrants a 3-by-6-inch mailer featuring ImageThink's hand-drawn text and graphics.
The front of the card included a quote from radio personality Ira Glass: "Great stories happen to those who tell them." Meanwhile, the back offered the headline "What's Your Story?" along with text extolling the powers of storytelling. Additional copy invited attendees to EWI's booth for a StoryBoard Experience, and hinted at the company's soft-sell approach with the words "We'll start small and see where it leads."
But instead of targeting the show's audience of more than 5,000 people, EWI focused on just 135 attendees. "We want to place the right message in the right place at the right time," Heiple says. "So we targeted those people with which we were most interested in forming a relationship." Specifically, EWI reached out to attendees with domestic and international exhibit and event programs with medium to large budgets.
During that same time, EWI launched several other more public tactics to "touch" attendees as many times as possible before the show started and ultimately lure them to its booth. The company sent a press release to various industry publications announcing the StoryBoard Experience, encouraging people to visit the booth at the show, and promoting two educational sessions company execs would host at EXHIBITOR2013.
In addition to the press release and mailers, EWI's pre-show touchpoints included Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn promotions, which directed people to the booth for the StoryBoard Experience. The firm also promoted its educational sessions and the booth activity via its "Your Story. Alive." blog, and its bimonthly electronic newsletter, "Livewire," included a link to the blog posts.
So with seven touchpoints already in action — i.e., the mailer, blog, electronic newsletter, and press release, along with three social-media campaigns — EWI staff and two graphic recorders from ImageThink headed off to Las Vegas to launch the face-to-face portion of the integrated program.
The Drawing Board
Once in Sin City, the team erected a 10-by-20-foot booth featuring graphics with the same type of whimsical drawings found on the mailers. The top of an attention-getting header attached to the back wall towered 14.5 feet above the floor and featured the EWI logo and a company descriptor (i.e., "A Live Communications Company"). Providing a touch of color and fun, the wall also included a few charming watercolor brush strokes in blue, green, and orange hues, and an illustrated rocket that seemed to soar off toward the ceiling. The exhibit's vinyl-graphic flooring displayed a similar watercolor-based background along with hand-drawn images of a sun, some clouds, a couple of parachuters, and a city skyline. Large photos of a man and a woman that seemed to jump for joy appeared on the right side of the flooring.
The rest of the exhibit was divided into two parts. The right side of the space featured two 2-foot-wide paper scrolls upon which the graphic recorders would eventually work their magic. Each scroll was attached to the back wall roughly 7 feet from the floor, and the paper was unfurled downward and connected to another roll affixed to the bottom of the wall. Thus, at the start of each drawing, recorders pulled down the paper to reveal a blank slate, while previous drawings eventually disappeared from view and onto the roll at the bottom.
Meanwhile, the left side of the space served as the main communication zone. Here, attendees found a waist-high internally illuminated white desk along with three chairs, which offered attendees a place to relax while they viewed EWI's looping capabilities presentation on a monitor mounted behind the desk. Showing a time-condensed video of a graphic recorder's hand illustrating narrated concepts, the presentation explained EWI's storytelling capabilities in regards to exhibits, events, and retail.
As attendees approached this somewhat fanciful space, an EWI staffer intercepted them on the aisle and simply opened a conversation — rather than launching into a sales pitch. "We asked people what brought them to the show, or we merely made eye contact and smiled," Heiple says. "More often than not, the conversation quickly turned to the graphic recorders, as attendees wanted to know how they could participate in the activity."
Once an attendee expressed interest in the graphic recorders, a staffer asked him or her to select a 6-by-2.5-inch white card from a bowl. While the cards were identical in shape and color, there were 11 different versions of them, each offering a unique query or fill-in-the-blank-style question. Questions covered everything from business topics, such as "What goal would you like to accomplish this year?" to more personal and somewhat comedic subjects, such as "If I could time travel, I would go to _________."and "My guilty pleasure is _________."
According to Sizzle Awards judges, the provocative cards were a subtle yet effective way to open a personal conversation. "They gave salespeople a topic to discuss that immediately told them some-
thing about attendees," judges said. "Starting a conversation with, 'What superpower would you most like to have?' is much more personal and memorable than, 'How many shows do you do, and what's your budget?'"
After attendees formulated their answers, staff led them to the graphic recorders, who then began to turn their answers into illustrations. For example, to illustrate one attendee's question and response, a recorder wrote the words "If I could have dinner with anyone, it would have to be ... Bono from U2." She then drew a bunch of musical notes along with a shades-clad rock star that seemed to be holding a microphone.
While activity participants looked on as their answers sprang to life, passing attendees stopped in their tracks, riveted by the colorful images and words taking shape in front of them. "People were drawn to the live recorders just to see what was happening," Heiple says. "While some people wanted to complete the activity themselves, others simply watched and chatted with staffers. They asked us who we were and what EWI provided. So instead of us trying to engage attendees, they engaged us — creating a role reversal of sorts that led to the perfect in-booth exchange."
Once each attendee-inspired illustration was completed, a booth staffer stepped in to photograph the person standing in front of, or sometimes even feigning interaction with, his or her illustration. In the preceding example, the female attendee posed so it looked as if she were holding the microphone along with Bono. After each photo was downloaded to one of two iPads, staffers helped attendees input their email address into the iPad, and a software program instantly emailed the participant his or her photo and uploaded it to another one of EWI's touchpoints, the ThinkEWI app.
Available through iTunes and promoted in EWI's pre-show media outreach, blog posts, and social-media tactics, the ThinkEWI app delivered information about the trade show as well as photographs of EWI's work, case studies, contact details for the sales team, and of course, photos from the in-booth StoryBoard Experience. After collecting the attendee's email address, the staffer — who stayed with
the same attendee from the moment he or she walked into the booth until departure — explained the app and gave him or her a screen-cleaning cloth silkscreened with a Quick Response (QR) code. Once scanned, the QR code directed recipients to a website where they could download the app. For those attendees that wanted more information immediately, EWI also distributed USB drives with video case studies and a copy of the presentation that was playing on the back wall of the booth.
"We created the app not only to demonstrate our intangible offerings and create a place where attendees could quickly obtain more information about EWI, but also to extend the in-booth experience beyond the show," Heiple says. "The app captured attendees' moment in time with us and paired it with company info, both of which attendees could share with people back at their offices after EXHIBITOR2013."
Thus, at the end of the StoryBoard Experience, attendees walked away with a screen cleaner and a QR code linked to the ThinkEWI app (and/or a USB drive), as well as a memorable encounter. What they probably didn't walk away with, however, was the feeling that EWI was out to sell them something. "Rather, the experience was all about us getting to know people first," Heiple says. "We learned a little about them and offered them a whimsical activity, and in turn they got to know a bit about EWI's personality and capabilities."
A Work of Art
Following the show, EWI didn't just send its leads a thank-you postcard and call it a day. After all, a generic postcard doesn't exactly say "personal relationship." Instead, each lead received a personal post-show email or phone call from the very staffer that walked him or her through the in-booth experience. "At some point down the road, that staffer might introduce the lead to someone better suited to handle his or her project, but initially we kept that personal connection going from the show floor straight into the post-show conversation," Heiple says.
EWI also sent all the leads an email that invited recipients to check out the "Your Story. Alive." blog, which featured show-related content, and it added all leads to its "Livewire" distribution list. Meanwhile, it sent hot leads, i.e., those people who requested immediate contact from the company, a lacquered box containing a full set of the 11 question cards used during the in-booth activity, along with a personal note from the staffer that had guided them through the experience. EWI figured the keepsake cards would bring back fond memories of the activity; plus, recipients could use them as tools to guide their own "getting-to-know-you" moments with friends and co-workers.
And with that last piece of personal communication, EWI finally stopped to assess its work and gauge its effectiveness. As it turned out, the soft-sell approach resulted in some hard figures. The company hit its post-show meeting goal of five spot on, and even though it didn't set a goal for requests for proposals, it scored four RFPs as of August 2013. EWI also bypassed its original lead goal of 100, as it actually gathered 150 leads during the show.
What's more, the company successfully executed more than 12 touchpoints, compared to its original goal of at least seven, and the strategy attracted 178 unique visitors to its blog, increased Twitter followers by 5 percent, and upped pre-show website traffic by a respectable 10 percent. And of course, the exhibit program, which judges hailed as "well integrated," "highly personal," and "captivating," took home a Sizzle Award to boot. So it just goes to show that sometimes, drawing on your personal skills — instead of sketching out a study in hard-core sales — is the best way to create a successful business outline.