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sizzle awards
Exhibitor: Derse Inc.
Creative/Production: Derse Inc., Milwaukee, 414-257-2000, www.derse.com
Show/Date: Healthcare Convention and Exhibitors Association, 2014
Budget: Less than $49,000
Improve the total number of leads collected over 2013.
Obtain five qualified leads.
Acquire one request for proposal.
Close one project attained through the show over the next year.
Gathered 52 leads in eight show hours, more than twice the number collected in 2013.
Netted 23 qualified leads.
Received three request for proposal opportunities valued at $300,000 annually.
Sold a project valued at $200,000 annually.

photos: Derse Inc., Exposures Ltd. Photography
Derse Inc. eschews mass marketing and employs the power of personalization and the handwritten word, appealing to an increasingly desensitized demographic and doubling its number of qualified leads. By Cynthya Porter
For five millennia, the written word has been one of the stanchions of mankind, having preserved legends, wooed lovers, and dragged nations to their knees. But as cursors replace cursive in classrooms, and the population slakes its insatiable thirst for speed with communication that now moves faster than the speed of light, the death knell is clearly ringing on the art of a handwritten missive. According to an aggregation of research, about the only person left getting mail written by hand is Santa, and even he has an email address now.

But the stroke of a pen on a piece of stationery evokes a sense of importance for the reader that an email or mass-printed mailing could never begin to match. It suggests effort that is rare in our digital-obsessed world, and few recipients would cast an envelope aside if a person, not a machine, had sent it their way.

For Derse Inc., a Milwaukee-based face-to-face marketing company, this premise formed the underpinning of an integrated marketing campaign that wowed Sizzle Awards judges and attendees at the 2014 Healthcare Convention and Exhibitors Association annual meeting. Rather than try to scream above the HCEA din with flashy giveaways or glossy marketing collateral, Derse took an entirely different approach to the event: It reached out to each attendee via truly personalized communiques before, during, and after the trade show. It was a feat that may have been inordinately time consuming, but was also enormously successful.

On a Personal Note
Dubbed Sincerely Yours, the campaign began with a long look at the state of health-care exhibiting and the players in it. Derse executives had felt the sands shifting rather volatilely beneath the industry for some time as government regulations mutated, funds dwindled, and people retired. Attendance at health-care shows was shrinking, creating a crisis that cascaded all the way to the show floor at HCEA and sent the industry into a freefall. More recently, the health-care exhibition world has righted itself, but what was left when the dust settled was a landscape with tighter budgets, younger faces, and more competitors vying for a slice of the exhibit-manager pie.

Those younger faces, says Derse marketing manager Susan Riese, belong to a generation of professionals that were raised in the digital age and are significantly desensitized to the impersonal mass marketing popular in years past. Bombarded by advertising messages at every turn, they deftly tune out the racket, reserving their attention for things that are specifically directed toward them. And according to Derse, it was a mindset that created the perfect platform for the Sincerely Yours campaign.

So in the weeks prior to HCEA, the team at Derse sorted the list of preregistered attendees to identify current clients and prospects, and they drafted handwritten letters to them all. The missives addressed each attendee by name and began with the text, "You are invited. Yes, you. (That is your name up there, right?)" The letter acknowledged the challenges exhibit managers were likely facing in an anemic health-care exhibition industry, and it promised to give them a personal gift and show them a better way if they visited Derse's booth at the trade show. "We believe that wherever there is room for personalization, there is room for hope," the letter told HCEA attendees.

Printed on thick parchment in elegant cursive, the letter was, for some, most likely the only entirely handwritten letter they had ever received. Show goers who did not fall into the current-client or hot-prospect categories received personalized letters as well, though the body copy was generated digitally. Letters were signed "sincerely yours," and mailed in hand-addressed envelopes a couple of weeks before the show.

By working with show management to obtain all registrants' names, Derse Inc. was able to have a personalized bottle hanging on the wall of its exhibit for every attendee at the show.

Message in a Bottle
At HCEA, Derse's 20-foot in-line display was dominated by a back wall filled with 200 perfectly spaced, ribbon-tied, miniature bottles. Stuffed with a rolled piece of parchment, each bottle bore the name of an attendee registered for the show. Derse even worked with show management to obtain the names of on-site registrants, ensuring that there was something on the wall for everyone.

When show goers arrived at the exhibit, they were invited to scan the wall to find the bottle with their name on it – an activity that came as a surprise to many who didn't expect Derse to have something just for them. But the entire mission of the campaign, Riese says, was to include a personalized touch at each turn, invoking a friendlier, connected approach that the folks at Derse hoped would cut through the comparably generic marketing clutter.

The small scroll stuffed in each bottle featured instructions for attendees to write professional and personal goals. Text also explained the personal gift that Derse promised. Reps from the company would send those same goals back to recipients at some point to serve as a barometer for progress.

On the opposite side of the paper was a message crafted as a letter to oneself with the salutation "Dear Future Me" and the encouragement "You're smart. You're ambitious. You can achieve anything you set your mind to." Beneath that, the first field asked attendees to write three personal goals they hoped to accomplish within the following three years. The second field requested three professional goals for that same period. "I'll check back in with you from time to time to see how you are doing," the note promised, along with the text "Sincerely yours" and a space for the attendee to sign his or her name.

One end of the exhibit had an 8-foot-long, hand-hewn, wooden table where pens and paperweights were available for writing on the scroll. Next to the table, a black chalkboard wall bore thought-provoking quotes hand-drawn by a chalk artist. One of the quotes read "Dear HCEA, Change is the process by which the future invades our lives," while another stated "The industry has changed forever. The opportunities have not. What will your future be? Sincerely yours, Derse."

Those who completed the notes earned a $5 Starbucks gift card on the spot from staffers. But the notes also provided booth workers a launch pad for conversations about attendee obstacles and how Derse might be able to help them break down some of their perceived barriers.

Something to Write Home About After the show, each attendee's goals were uploaded to FutureMe, a website that allows users to schedule messages to be sent at a future date. Derse opted to have the goals mailed back to each attendee 45 days before HCEA 2015, also inviting them to share their progress on the objectives they had outlined the year prior.

A scroll inside invited attendees to jot down their goals for a future letter to themselves.

But Derse retained a copy of the goals submitted by attendees as well, giving staff the opportunity to touch base from time to time and on a much more personal level than that of a standard sales call. Staffers followed up with clients and prospects to offer encouragement, even if there was no imminent business available from that company. Developing a personal relationship before trying to create a sales relationship was a strategy that Derse marketers hoped would position the company to understand its prospective clients better as well as to have the opportunity to bid on future projects. Sizzle Awards judges applauded the depth of integration in Derse's program, but also the overall marketing strategy that created it. "At a show this small, every exhibitor should be doing something as personal as this," one judge said.

Of no surprise to judges, Sincerely Yours was a mammoth success, building relationships and opening doors for Derse like never before. The company gathered 52 leads in eight hours compared to 24 at the entire show the previous year. Of the 2014 leads, 23 of them met predetermined criteria, making them "qualified." That number bested the goal of five qualified leads several times over.

Judges were particularly impressed that the $25,000 Sincerely Yours campaign generated three new request-for-proposal opportunities (Derse had set a goal of netting one), and resulted in one deal estimated to be worth $200,000 annually. Derse staffers also met with seven clients and 22 prospects at HCEA 2014, exceeding its goals in both of those areas as well. Not related to its metrics but equally gratifying for Derse was winning the HCEA 2014 Best Booth Award for 10-by-20-foot exhibits, as well as an Exhibit Design Award from EXHIBITOR for its eye-catching, bottle-filled back wall.

Through its success, Sincerely Yours demonstrated that a well-executed marketing plan had the power to cut through the mélange and reach its intended target audience. But perhaps more importantly, it proved that, however impersonal our expanding digital universe is, the people in it really do want to be connected to one another. And a handwritten letter still has the power to do just that.E

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