Dana Tilghman, CMP, CTSM, senior trade show and events planner at Minitab Inc., has been in the events industry for almost 20 years, specializing in technology solutions. She has served on several exhibitor advisory boards for large international events, and develops strategies for Minitab's participation at 70 annual events.
Getting into the groove of a solid trade show program is distinctly different than falling into a rut, and a good exhibit manager can tell the difference. When Dana Tilghman, CMP, CTSM, accepted a position handling trade shows for Minitab Inc. in 2012, for example, it didn't take long for her to realize that the program she inherited was in a furrow so deep it made the Marianas Trench look like a pothole.
The 43-year-old statistical software company's exhibit-marketing approach was on autopilot. Because of decisions made by a previous manager, every year was a clone of the one before, with the same shows, booths, sponsorships, and product demos – even tired pen and bag giveaways had not changed in many years. There were no goals and no metrics to measure whether anything the company was doing was working, and as such, the program's budget was as stagnant as everything else about it. Company staffers wanted change, and they were glad to welcome Tilghman as the person with ideas to make that happen.
But before she could begin resuscitation, Tilghman needed to understand who Minitab was trying to reach and what those people wanted. So she began her tenure by attending several of the 60 or so academic and business-related shows the company was set to participate in, walking the exhibit halls, sitting in sessions, and studying the company's booth as attendees filtered in and out. She scrutinized Minitab's sponsorships as well as the shows themselves, asking the same question for each line item: "Why are we doing this?" Questioning those investments helped Tilghman tighten the reins on the trade show program and steer it in a more purposeful and effective direction. In fact, Minitab executives believed her tweaks had already transformed the program from stale and stagnant to efficient and on par with expectations. But Tilghman longed for something more – a big idea that would take the very dry world of statistical-analysis exhibiting and turn it into something captivating.
That idea was born when Tilghman was at a trade show, listening to the quality manager of a hospital present an educational session on using data analysis in health care to improve patient safety. As the presenter scrolled through slides, Tilghman realized that every chart and graph that he showed had been made using Minitab software. So in effect, one of her company's clients was showing a room full of prospects how he was using Minitab's products. "I thought gee, he's kind of doing our job for us," Tilghman says.
She made her way back to the booth after the session ended, her mind racing with thoughts on how to leverage client presentations like the one she'd just seen. Tilghman had a hunch that it could be a powerful way to attract new clients, and when she rounded the end of the aisle toward the Minitab exhibit, her hunch was fully validated. Fifteen people who had been in the presentation were at the booth asking for information.
Once back at the home office, Tilghman dug through old trade show programs looking for past workshops on statistical-analysis topics. Of the dozen that she found, all had been presented by her company's clients, and some even mentioned Minitab by name in the session descriptions. "You can't buy better advertising," Tilghman says.
With that in mind, Tilghman hatched a plan that All-Star Awards judges called "impressive and comprehensive" – one that would harness those presentations that were already happening organically and build on them to create the Minitab Client Speaker Program. In Tilghman's model, clients could present case studies at industry-appropriate shows about how they use the software. In exchange, she would provide a travel stipend, arrange registration, and handle all of the public relations. For clients, it would be a win because they would have their expenses offset for a show they were likely going to attend anyway, and presenting workshops would help clients position themselves as industry experts. Plus, they would have the brawn of Minitab's marketing efforts to promote their sessions. For Minitab, the obvious marketing win was having more workshops presented at various events that included the company's product information.
So Tilghman prepared a business proposal and a budget for Minitab higher ups and got their blessing. Then she began shaking the bushes for suggestions from her sales team for case-study presenters.
There was just one problem. Some of her salespeople felt like product demonstrations were a better tool than session speakers, so they were reluctant to participate. As a result, Tilghman had an avalanche of potential speakers from the company's academic branch, but none from its commercial arm.
Finally, one name trickled in, that of a gentleman who was excited about the opportunity to speak and had a worthwhile topic on using data for an upcoming show. Tilghman got him on the agenda and promoted the session. And when the day came, he gave a standing-room-only crowd his presentation. After it ended, he paraded to the Minitab booth with a trail of prospects behind him. "In the exhibit, the client turned around and started working the crowd using a presentation on a screen in the booth, and my sales manager was off to the side grinning ear to ear," Tilghman says.
From that point on, referrals from the sales staff were no problem. In fact, the windfall of clients who wanted to present made it necessary for Tilghman to create an application and interview process to manage them.
Before being accepted to the speaker panel, each applicant was vetted with regard to his or her speaking abilities and references, as well as the overall message, presentation takeaways, and goals. The topic had to be on point for a particular show – and appropriate for attendees and the company's target audience – but it also had to feature Minitab's product sufficiently to warrant the company's investment in the speaker.
During its first year, the speaker program drew so much attention that clients were approaching Minitab to ask for slots on the speaker roster. Other presenters, however, were just stumbled upon by Tilghman. In one such instance, she was at a mathematics conference when a young man and his professor approached her in the Minitab booth. The student, a junior in college, was scheduled to present a workshop, and his computer had crashed. His presentation, which had been prepared using Minitab software, was an analysis of how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop, statistically speaking.
Using a laptop courtesy of Minitab, the student shared his analysis with a full house, including Tilghman. The tongue-in-cheek approach to statistics had made the topic fun, and Tilghman knew she had a future star for her speakers bureau.
After securing the school's approval, Tilghman arranged for the student to present his findings at a mathematics convention in Montreal, and she mounted a full-scale Twitter attack to make sure the world knew he would be there. A series of several dozen tweets leading up to the show teased, among other things, the presentation that would solve the age-old Tootsie Pop question, even picking up a retweet by Tootsie Roll Industries along the way.
Tilghman followed that up with an insert in 6,000 show bags that drove the message home with the real deal – a Tootsie Pop, along with a card that read, "How many licks to the center of a Tootsie Pop? Many scholars have tried to answer the elusive question over the years. Join Cory Heid as he shares his methodology using DOE and other statistical techniques to analyze experiment data. Would Mr. Owl agree? Come and learn for yourself."
The student presented to a crowded conference room with an audience of more than 100 people. In addition, 225 attendees stopped by the Minitab exhibit for more information about the study, and the student was invited to share his work in an international science magazine.
Minitab's speaker program attained such notoriety that the Lean Six Sigma consultant for crayon maker Crayola LLC called to ask how the iconic crayon company could be involved in it. He wanted to give a presentation on quality improvement using Crayola's case study as an example, and Minitab's software as his primary tool. That request led to 3,000 show bags with boxes of crayons and another standing-room-only presentation, except this was at the World Conference on Quality Improvement, and it was presented by a quality-assurance professional.
As it had with the Tootsie Pop presentation, having Minitab featured prominently in the Crayola workshop created a stampede to the booth and a windfall of leads. In fact, at shows where Minitab is sponsoring a speaker, leads increase by as much as 50 percent. In addition, developing a speaker bureau has allowed the company to partner with some of its most significant global clients in a way that All-Star judges appreciated. "I've heard of speaker programs before," one judge said, "but this is a true partnership because Minitab has actively worked with speakers to create something that benefits both parties involved."
Now at the end of its second year, the Minitab Client Speaker Program has accomplished everything Tilghman hoped it would and then some. Besides increasing leads and deepening its relationship with clients, the approach has been a springboard for other efforts, including an in-house training event in which Minitab will use its own roster of speakers to teach other clients how they are maximizing the software.
In fact, turning clients into promoters has become a strategy that vaulted Minitab out of the doldrums and into the limelight, garnering Tilghman a 25-percent budget increase in the process, not to mention an All-Star Award. She now has 20 speakers in the program, many from powerhouse companies, and her speakers bureau has become a go-to resource for associations looking for keynote presenters. And as if that weren't already an embarrassment of riches for her efforts, Tilghman's speaker-centric strategy also unearthed the answer to a decades-old question, which is 417 licks, give or take a few.