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case study
ILLUSTRATION: JOHN S. DYKES
SongDivision Changes its Tune
SongDivision retools its exhibiting program and deploys a two-part engagement strategy that results in a 750-percent return on investment. By Brian Dukerschein
Self-Promotion
Exhibitor: SongDivision
Creative/Production: SongDivision, Las Vegas, 702-682-6213, www.songdivision.com
Show: IMEX America, 2016
Budget: $20,000
Objectives: Increase the memorability of in-booth engagements and boost brand awareness, particularly among VIP attendees.
Tactics: Demo a new custom songwriting service called InstaHits and share the performances on social media. Host off-site "Back Seat Karaoke" sessions with industry leaders.
While there isn't a magic formula for crafting a hit song, practically every chart topper from the past 70 years has had one thing in common: a clever hook that makes the ditty irresistible. Whether the earworm is lyrical (Aretha Franklin's spelling lesson in "Respect"), instrumental (the opening guitar riff to Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water"), or an arena-shaking beat (Queen's "We Will Rock You"), this elusive element can catapult a musician to superstardom. The same could be said of exhibiting at trade shows, where companies with 10-by-10-foot booths can make a big-league impression – if their strategies manage to capture lightning in a bottle.

Producing catchy content is all in a day's work for SongDivision, an experiential music agency based in Las Vegas. The company's playlist of services includes music-based team-building activities (e.g., lip-sync and battle-of-the-bands-style contests, songwriting sessions, etc.), live entertainment, and music production for conferences, internal corporate events, and marketing campaigns. Rather than boost employee morale with trite trust falls or announce a new product line to sales reps via a banal PowerPoint presentation, clients such as McDonald's Corp., American Express Co., and HP Inc. contract SongDivision to create one-off engagements that turn participants into modern-day Rodgers and Hammersteins with help from professional musicians who have played alongside the likes of David Bowie and Rihanna.

SongDivision may have been boosting its clients' cool quotient for years, but its trade show presence was more Glenn Miller than Goldfrapp. An exhibitor since 2004, the company appears at a small roster of trade shows that attract meeting and corporate event planners, including IMEX America. The company's past IMEX exhibits featured little more than a couple of high-top tables and chairs and a small counter with a monitor that played a looping 60-second sizzle reel of SongDivision's services. This teaser, along with a smattering of brochures and an iPad loaded with event-specific videos that reps could play for interested prospects, was pretty much all the booth had to offer.

IMEX was a reliable source for leads, but in 2016 Marsha Sharpe, SongDivision's executive vice president, suspected the company was missing the beat in regards to leaving a lasting impression with showgoers. "Our video content was certainly effective at showing attendees proof of the quality of our services," Sharpe says. "However, there are thousands of videos playing in the exhibit hall, so it was a stretch to think that booth visitors would remember ours months after the show."

Seeing as how SongDivision is in the business of staging memorable experiences, Sharpe wanted to get the company's exhibiting strategy in tune with its brand messaging and increase engagement. So to help the company find an indelible hook that would strike a chord with both general attendees and VIP industry folk, she turned to one of the oldest tactics in the exhibiting playbook – an in-booth product demonstration – and found inspiration in a viral YouTube sensation.


Changing Keys
SongDivision had a new offering that Sharpe felt was ideally suited for a show-floor showcase: InstaHits. Based on the wandering minstrels of the Middle Ages, InstaHits are roughly 60-second custom songs that SongDivision musicians compose virtually on the spot for individual trade show or corporate event attendees. Sharpe's idea, then, was to have some of the company's virtuosos on hand to write songs for IMEX booth visitors and perform them in the exhibit, killing three birds with one stone. "It was clear that this would be a great way to attract attention to the exhibit, offer an unforgettable souvenir for attendees, and be an avenue through which people could experience firsthand the quality of our world-class musicians," Sharpe says.
IMEX American Idol
To strengthen its relationship with meeting and event executives at IMEX America, SongDivision hosted "Back Seat Karaoke" sessions inspired by the popular "Carpool Karaoke" segments on "The Late Late Show with James Corden."
Giving booth visitors such a memorable in-booth encounter checked a key item off Sharpe's to-do list, but she then set her sights even higher. Although SongDivision boasted an enviable list of Fortune 500 companies as clients, its modest patch of exhibit-hall real estate and bare-bones budget (approximately $20,000 was allocated to IMEX) meant the company didn't have the show-floor presence or access to the kind of sponsorship opportunities that might boost brand awareness. Like many small exhibitors, Sharpe needed a hook that would have everyone humming her company's tune – especially the movers and shakers of the meeting and event industry – but one that could be gotten for a proverbial song.

Sharpe found her solution from the unlikeliest of sources: "Carpool Karaoke," a recurring segment on "The Late Late Show with James Corden" in which the titular host chauffeurs, interviews, and leads sing-along sessions with music superstars in a video-camera-equipped vehicle. Shotgun singers have included Mariah Carey, Jennifer Lopez, and Elton John, and many of the clips go viral once uploaded to YouTube. In fact, the January 2016 segment with Adele famously reached 42 million views in five days.

"My team and I were discussing doing something fun with industry leaders, something that would strengthen our relationship with them while showing a more human side to people who are usually seen delivering a keynote address or participating in a panel discussion," Sharpe says. "James had been doing 'Carpool Karaoke' for about six months, and it was already a pop-culture hit. We figured if he could get these artists to be silly with him, we could convince meeting and event professionals to let loose with us in the same way."

Sharpe believed a karaoke-themed activation involving VIP IMEX attendees would be an effective, low-budget means of generating social-media buzz and extending SongDivision's presence beyond the confines of its booth. After getting the go-ahead from IMEX management roughly one month before the show, Sharpe began contacting industry-association leaders and company executives to invite them to show off their vocal talents in "Back Seat Karaoke" sessions that would be recorded and shared on SongDivision's social-media channels. "Everyone we reached out to very graciously agreed to participate," says Sharpe, who credits her company's reputation and the explosive popularity and lightheartedness of "Carpool Karaoke" as the two primary reasons industry execs were willing to take part in what could have been viewed as a potentially embarrassing – and very public – stunt.

With her all-star lineup of industry leaders in place, Sharpe and her team were off to the Sands Expo and Convention Center in Las Vegas to see if their two-pronged strategy would turn them into exhibiting rock stars or result in a discordant debacle.


Facing the Music

When IMEX attendees arrived at SongDivision's exhibit for their prescheduled appointments, they were ushered to a high-top table and greeted by one of the company's musicians, who briefly explained what InstaHits were all about and asked them a handful of questions, e.g., their names, hobbies, what they loved about IMEX, etc., to gather details for a personalized song. A sales rep would then swoop in for a substantive discussion about the attendees' pain points and how SongDivision could address them with its range of services.

By the time the conversation was over, the acoustic guitar-wielding musician was ready and waiting with a freshly composed tune. Performances were held along the aisle, where staffers offered to record the proceedings on attendees' smartphones. (SongDivision also captured its own footage for use on social media.) "We were concerned that the InstaHits performances would be too distracting for other guests having meetings and too annoying to neighboring booths," Sharpe says. "But we found that the demos enhanced every meeting, as everyone could see how happy the songs made each attendee. Plus the nearby booth staffers loved them, as we brought increased traffic and a fun, positive energy to the area." Before departing, attendees were encouraged to share their InstaHits on their personal social-media platforms using the hashtags #IMEXAmerica, #instahits, and #songdivision.

While SongDivision's booth was rocking, a 15-passenger Ford Transit 350 van parked in front of the convention center was ready to get things rolling. The rented vehicle was branded with custom vinyl-cling graphics on all four sides and manned by a driver, a professional videographer, and Sam McNeill, the company's creative director, who acted as the emcee. Roughly four times a day during the three-day show, bands of meeting and event execs, including leadership from the Senior Planners Industry Network, Maritz Global Events Inc., and Meeting Professionals International, piled into the back seats at prearranged times for their mobile jam sessions.

Mirroring the format of "Carpool Karaoke," McNeill began the ride around the Strip with an informal interview in which passengers were posed questions of a personal and professional nature (e.g., "What is one fact most people don't know about you?" and "How does your organization benefit from attending IMEX?"). Then the real fun could begin, as industry leaders harmonized to hits ranging from "It's Raining Men" to "Uptown Funk." Music was played off a smartphone linked to the van's stereo system, and an iPad was available should singers need a little help remembering the lyrics.

After 15 minutes or so, the van returned to the Sands and dropped off the C-suite crooners. "Our passengers were very busy leaders with full agendas, so we were careful to make this as fast and easy an experience as possible," Sharpe says. The videographer did a quick edit of the footage before emailing it to participants with a note thanking them for their time and reminding them to share the evidence of their vocal prowess via social media. SongDivision also posted the clips on its own social-media platforms, and before long the expo hall was buzzing with chatter about the company's off-site sing-along sessions.


Hitting the High Notes
SongDivision went into IMEX hoping to elevate its exhibiting program from a one-note approach to an experiential symphony, and its post-show metrics were music to Sharpe's ears. Thanks to the foot traffic and online buzz generated from the aisle-side InstaHits demos and "Back Seat Karaoke" sessions, SongDivision netted a 226-percent increase in leads compared to the previous year's show. Attendees were so impressed with what they saw and heard that the company received a 27-percent bump in requests for proposal as a result of its IMEX exhibit. What's more, revenue from those RFPs led to SongDivision recouping its $20,000 IMEX investment more than seven times over. And as a final bonus, footage from the "Back Seat Karaoke" sessions was used in a marketing campaign for Global Meetings Industry Day the following year, extending SongDivision's investment even further.

By capitalizing on the crowd-drawing nature of an engaging product demo – and exploiting the popularity of a pop-culture phenomenon that closely aligned with its music-centric services – SongDivision proved that you don't need a massive booth or a Beyoncé-sized budget to make a lasting impression. Sometimes all you need is a clever hook that will make remembering your company as easy as recognizing the chorus to "YMCA." E


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