Photos: Padgett and Company Inc.
Late last year, the marketing department at Impact XM looked ahead to the upcoming EXHIBITORLIVE
conference and felt a small tremor of worry shoot up its collective spine. It had been less than a year since the Dayton, NJ-based experiential-marketing firm formed via a merger between Impact Unlimited and Aura XM in February of 2015. While Impact Unlimited had attended and occasionally exhibited at EXHIBITORLIVE
since the late 1990s, Impact XM found itself effectively starting anew – and needing to reestablish brand awareness. "Despite 43 years of experience as Impact Unlimited, it was 'year one' for the newly merged company," says Charles Sanchez, Impact XM's director of marketing. "This was our chance to come out, guns blazing, so we wanted to establish a powerhouse presence."
But making the kind of impactful impression that remains long after the show is a challenge that, for many exhibitors, rarely becomes easier whether they've been in business for a year or for decades. "We brainstormed ideas that would not just give people a reason to visit our booth, but would also make our message stick," Sanchez says. "We asked ourselves: How do marketers really connect with audiences in meaningful ways? What is it that sets them apart? How might we make our messages resonate – and remain in attendees' minds?"
The answer to Impact XM's predicament, in part, lay with an old Native American proverb that had circulated around the company in the previous months: "Tell me the facts, and I'll learn. Tell me the truth, and I'll believe. But tell me a story, and it will live in my heart forever." The ancient maxim encapsulated the company's latest approach, which it called "Making Stories Matter," to help its clients tell their own brand stories to customers. "We saw that we could adopt and expand this approach for our own use," Sanchez says. "Celebrating the idea of stories themselves could be our own most powerful marketing weapon at EXHIBITORLIVE."
The concept of using stories to sell its services wasn't just a feel-good "kumbaya" of marketing blather. There was, in fact, more science to back it up than you could shake a copy of "Aesop's Fables" at. A story – that is, a sequential narrative, either true or fabricated, intended to interest or instruct an audience with vivid and emotional imagery – activates and engages parts of the human brain in a way typical marketing messages can't. Research from Emory's Center for Neuropolicy showed significant neural changes occur in people experiencing a structured story (one in line with the definition given above), suggesting that reading a novel, watching a movie, or listening to a raconteur can transport you into the body and soul of the protagonists. In other words, the audience's brains literally mimic the emotions, thoughts, and even physical experiences of a story's characters.
Further research from the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University shows stories trigger blooms of oxytocin in the brain, a neurochemical that increases empathy and induces what's known as narrative transportation – the experience of losing yourself deep in a plot, where, again, spectators' brains respond as if what happens to the story's characters is happening to them. "When we're watching a movie or reading a book, we might know the story is fake, but that doesn't stop the unconscious parts of the brain from processing the story line as if it's for real," says Jonathan Gottschall, author of "The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human." "That's why the audience for a horror film cringes in their chairs, screams for help, and balls up to protect their vital organs. That's why our hearts race when the hero of a story is cornered – and why we weep over the fate of a pretend pet like Old Yeller. Stories powerfully hook and hold human attention because, at a brain level, whatever is happening in a story is happening to us, too."
A Likely Story
Impact XM had, as mentioned, distilled down its general marketing concept for EXHIBITORLIVE
to a repurposing and extension of its "Making Stories Matter" approach. But a one-line description is no more a marketing strategy than "Stubborn man refuses to ask for directions" is "The Odyssey." Like all good story-tellers, Impact XM knew its plan had to have an organized structure – chapters, if you will – with a beginning, a middle, and an end that would hook its audience early and hold their attention throughout with engaging content and appealing surprises.
Impact XM's pre-show mailers included "Storigami," a version of children's cootie catchers that imparted marketing insight instead of personal fortunes.
The company decided it would introduce the audience to the general story-centric concept before the show opened through emails, direct mail, and a social-media campaign. Next, it would flesh out the middle part of the story, where the tale typically expands, in its booth. Using customized presentations, bold graphic elements, and an almost disorienting audiovisual component, Impact XM would explain in depth how stories could prove to be a potent marketing weapon. Finally, the company would weave all the various threads together in the climax, which in this case would be an evening event.
Impact XM's goals for its exhibit were no less ambitious than a publisher's goals for the next J.K. Rowling tome: 80 new qualified leads and $1 million in new sales within 12 months of the show. For its event, the company hoped to attract at least 30 guests.
In the Beginning...
Four weeks prior to EXHIBITORLIVE
's opening, Impact XM emailed save-the-date invitations to a nighttime affair called the Beds, Bonfires & Barstools VIP Event, which would be held during the show at the Delano Las Vegas hotel. The mailer went to 123 of what the company called "qualified preregistrants" (essentially, preregistered attendees deemed prime prospects based on Impact XM's target-audience criteria). Simple in form, the mailer came with just the location, date, and time of the event, and was accompanied by a riveting photo of the Las Vegas skyline snapped from the venue itself.
Two weeks later, Impact XM sent a supplementary direct mailer to the same list of preregistrants, plus approximately 10 additional prospects. When recipients opened their 10-by-10-inch lidded white boxes, they discovered tissue paper in Impact XM's pumpkin-orange corporate color cradling a paper fortune-teller (aka cootie catcher), whose origami-influenced folded flaps contained destiny-revealing secret messages.
Dubbed "Storigami," the fortune-teller was a vivid reminder to its adult recipients of an age when ghost stories and urban legends felt as real as homework and bedtime. The creased-paper construction contained multiple messages on the exterior folds that opened up to even more messaging inside. For example, "Stories must be shared" opened to "Exhibits produce sharable moments," while "Stories create connections" unfolded to "Environments bring people together."
At roughly the same time the fortune-tellers went out, Impact XM aimed an email blast at 750 more preregistered attendees. "Impact XM wants to give you the story of your life," the message read in a large-size font. The tagline carried a dual meaning. First, it hinted that the company's exhibit might make an indelible impression on attendees. Second, it suggested Impact XM could tease out a company's story the way Greek muses Calliope and Melpomene could spark writers to fashion comedies and dramas. The email also initiated the company's social-media campaign by asking recipients to explain why stories matter to them in five words or fewer, and then post their pithy explanation on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn using the hashtag #makingSTORIESmatter. Later, Impact XM would pick three winners from the entries at the show, rewarding each with a $150 gift certificate to the restaurant-reservation service Open Table. The prize, it felt, was fitting, considering how eating and storytelling have traditionally gone together at meals no less than forks and knives.
Even as EXHIBITORLIVE opened late last February, Impact XM never let its foot up from the narrative pedal. It placed in attendees' show bags a two-sided insert repeating the "Impact XM wants to give you the story of your life" email communique of a couple weeks before. Attendees who filled out the insert with their contact information and brought it to
the booth could win a one-year membership to Ancestry.com, the genealogy site whose databases and genetic tests reveal thousands of heartwarming – and heartbreaking – stories of individuals' ancestors braving Atlantic tempests to come to America, perhaps, or homesteading the Wild West.
Centered on the theme "Making Stories Matter,"
Impact XM's marketing effort for EXHIBITORLIVE
included a visually stunning 20-by-30-foot booth.
Printed in huge letters across the overhanging ceiling was the exhibit's primary message: "Stories capture imagination and loyalty ... are what people remember ... are what people buy."
Staffers qualified attendees at three touchscreens set in orange counters. Booth visitors' answers to exhibitmarketing questions took shape on an infographic template titled "My 2016 Brand Story."
What's Your Story?
An 18-by-11.5-foot LED screen located at the rear of the exhibit alternated between displaying text messages and seven touching video stories.
Primed by the pre-show mailings, social-media campaign, and bag inserts, the hundreds of attendees who flocked to Impact XM's booth on the show's opening day discovered a 600-square-foot exhibit as bright and bold as the cover of a comic book. A trio of touchscreens was set in internally lit counters, along with a dramatic 18.3-by-28-foot overhead ceiling that swooped over the booth like a 747's wing. Positioned in the rear of the exhibit was a massive 18-by-11.5-foot LED screen.
Emblazoned across the ceiling was the exhibit's raison d'être: "Stories capture imagination and loyalty ... are what people remember ... are what people buy." The LED screen was angled at about 60 degrees toward the back, making it look like it was almost toppling over. It constantly ran a mini-movie that alternated between eye-catching text messages ("Stories move hearts and minds. Stories create connections. Stories must be told.") and seven affecting video vignettes: a couple sharing an intimate moment, a young boy reading by flashlight under the covers, a craftsman creating clay art at a potter's wheel, etc. Throughout the week, the screen also ran photos of the #makingstoriesmatter winners alongside their entries, such as "Stories connect industries to influencers." Besides spotlighting the haiku-short efforts on the LED screen, Impact XM posted them on social media to extend their reach. The names of the winners of the Ancestry.com membership (about 65 attendees came to the booth spurred by the show-bag insert) were broadcast on the screen during the show as well.
Visitors who lingered were greeted by any of the eight staffers on hand who took down their contact info. Staff invited qualified leads to participate in an interactive program called Your Story. Using either a Surface Pro tablet or one of the three large touchscreens, staffers led prospects through a series of six questions, such as "What are the three greatest challenges your program is facing in 2016?" and "If you could strengthen one thing in your events program, what would it be?" As attendees chose their answers from the options provided, an infographic template with Mondrian-like rectangles called "My 2016 Brand Story" began to form on the tablet or touchscreen. The interaction allowed Impact XM two ways to connect with booth visitors. First, the insights gleaned during the information-gathering process enabled staff to follow up on the spot with a complementary program called Our Story that highlighted the capabilities and case studies most relevant to the attendees' stated needs. Second, Impact XM extended its show presence by emailing the completed infographics to attendees after the conclusion of EXHIBITORLIVE
A Night's Tale
With the booth awash in a tsunami of traffic, Impact XM kept hurtling toward the culmination of its story at the invite-only Beds, Bonfires & Barstools VIP Event, which took place at 7 p.m. on the second day of the show. After invitees rode the Delano Las Vegas hotel's elevator up to the Skyfall Lounge on the 64th floor, they stepped into an awe-inspiring, 180-degree view of Sin City, whose neon-soaked charisma and coarseness have been immortalized by skilled storytellers from Tom Wolfe to Hunter Thompson. Staffers escorted the guests to a registration desk where a gentleman stood waiting. The man greeted them with impish warmth: "Hello and welcome to Beds, Bonfires & Barstools – a night of mischievous storytelling! Now you're probably thinking 'What the heck have I walked into?' Well, we brought three of the most iconic storytelling locations into our event to encourage you to craft silly, funny, or risqué stories." The gentleman went on to explain that guests would be placed on Team Bed, Team Bonfire, or Team Barstool, and together they would spin tales using magnetic word tiles and a whiteboard.
Impact XM emailed save-the-date invitations to a nighttime affair called the Beds, Bonfires & Barstools VIP Event held during the show at the Delano Las Vegas hotel. The mailer went to 123 of what the company called "qualified preregistrants." Impact XM's nighttime event let nearly 50 guests – divided into three teams – spin wonky tales that proved the power, allure, and memorability of stories.
Members of Team Bed lounged atop a mattress.
Team Bonfire spun its stories around a faux campfire.
Members of Team Barstool congregated around pub-like accoutrements.
Staffers then assigned guests to their teams. (The prospects were grouped with friends, colleagues, and, when relevant, their Impact XM sales reps.) Each team had its own area featuring iconic objects related to its particular theme: Team Bed had a bed to lounge on, while Bonfire had a campfire with faux flames to gather around. Barstool offered, not surprisingly, bar stools like those found at a neighborhood watering hole. Once inside their areas, guests snacked on hors d'oeuvres and sipped themed drinks reflecting each storytelling location. Guests on Team Bonfire drank S'mores Martinis, those on Team Bed toasted Between the Sheets Martinis, and participants in the Barstool group enjoyed a variety of beer and wine.
In each of the three areas stood a 3.3-by-7.5-foot magnetic board featuring a trio of classic openers from stories written by everyone from Geoffrey Chaucer to Stephen King: "Once upon a time ...," "It was a dark and stormy night ... ," and "I remember this one time ... " With their fellow teammates – and the custom cocktails – fueling their inspiration, group members opened the tap on their imaginations. For three hours, they composed tales on the fly by stitching together often random, sometimes ribald sentences into Silly Stings of stories, such as one that riffed on "A cat's adventure through the city for a job interview." Lobbing ideas back and forth at Formula One speed, the guests continually cracked each other up as if the room had been pumped full of nitrous oxide. At the end of the night's activity, a group of Impact XM executives read off the phrases on each board, awarding glass plaques to the individuals they deemed winners for the best contributions. As loose as belting out "I Will Survive" on a tipsy karaoke night, the event underscored that when it comes to sheer addictiveness, potato chips and cigarettes have nothing on stories.
Happily Ever After
"The answer is always in the entire story, not a piece of it," wrote the late novelist Jim Harrison. The complete story of Impact XM's effort came to a satisfying conclusion with fairy tale-like results. From the pre-show mailers, snail-mailed invites, and emailed communications to the booth's design and lead-qualifying elements, social-media efforts, and after-hours event, Impact XM brought to mind a circus performer spinning dozens of plates high in the air. The results, in the hyperbolic language of bestselling books, however, were blockbuster.
Aiming for 80 new qualified leads, Impact XM more than doubled its goal, reaping 180. The company's goal of $1 million in new sales proved to be unduly modest, as it accumulated $1.6 million in revenue opportunities. Even more impressive, Impact XM not only exceeded its sales goal by 60 percent, but also achieved that metric in just 30 days, or in about 8.5 percent of its self-appointed one-year time frame. And the evening event drew 52 guests, practically double the pre-show goal.
Sizzle Awards judges were impressed by the resulting metrics and captivated by the remarkable campaign. "This concept aligns perfectly with the brand," said one judge. Another expressed that "The 'Stories Matter' theme is not only memorable, but also absolutely true.
Stories do matter, and the success of this campaign proves it." "When we want a meaningful emotional experience, we go to the storyteller," said Robert McKee. Hundreds went to Impact XM's booth and the after-hours event for a storytelling experience offering a deeper connection than sales spiels and collateral literature can supply. And the proof of that was plain to see in the kinds of results that any reader of "Snow White" or "Cinderella" would recognize as a true storybook ending. E
"Best 'I Fell Off My Stool' Story" was just one of the awards presented to the team with the most inventive magnetic-tile story at the Beds, Bonfires & Barstools VIP Event at the Delano Las Vegas hotel.