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case study
Research to the Rescue
Rather than relying on guesswork, Syngenta employs various research tactics to identify its exhibit-marketing ailments. After devising solutions geared to its audience and obstacles, the firm harvests a 908-percent increase in booth traffic and raises its exhibit-audit grade from a C to an A. By Linda Armstrong
program management
Exhibitor: Syngenta
Challenge: Identify and investigate the causes of program underperformance.
Shows: Farm Progress Show (FPS), National Farm Machinery Show (NFMS)
Budget: $750,000 – $999,000
➤ Enlist various research strategies to identify program limitations.
➤ Improve upon a C grade received in a benchmark audit.
➤ Increase booth traffic.
➤ Foster interaction between attendees and Syngenta's products.
➤ Improved program via personal research, audits, and a market-research study.
➤ Raised the audit grade to an A.
➤ Drew 6,807 FPS attendees to the booth, a 908-percent increase in just two years.
➤ Hosted approximately 29,000 product presentations at FPS.
"To know that you do not know is the best. To pretend to know when you do not know is a disease." These words are courtesy of Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, but they could very well be the mantra of Melissa Lord, customer event and trade show lead at Syngenta.

When Lord took over the company's U.S. exhibiting program, she was acutely aware that it had issues. Yet given her then limited experience in trade shows, she wasn't sure exactly what those issues were nor what she should do about them. Rather than feigning expertise – as would so many new recruits in a similar position – she first set out to discover what she didn't know and, later, what could be done to remedy any newly unearthed ailments.

Lord's commitment to research – and her refusal to fake it until she made it – has made all the difference. While she's quick to point out that her success is the result of a team effort and that "This wasn't the Melissa Show," Lord dramatically improved her program, became a leader in her company, and, some would argue, set an example for the exhibit-marketing industry as a whole.

Listen and Learn
Lord's journey of a thousand miles began in 2007 when she joined the Switzerland-headquartered company, which produces herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, and more. She performed myriad roles during her early tenure at Syngenta, including marketing, promotions, customer service, communications, and advertising.

And while Lord did attend some trade shows during this time, most were regional or local events that focused on the company's products, e.g., Vibrance seed treatment and Besiege insecticide, and not large national expos.

So when the opportunity for a new career arose in 2014, Lord jumped at the chance to take the reins of Syngenta's national events – before she truly understood what the job entailed. "In retrospect, I underestimated the level of detail and the amount of moving parts involved in a massive trade show program, and I didn't have a mentor or road map to lead the way," she says. That's because in the recent past, no one person oversaw the national program. Instead, various communication managers worked together to craft a unified presence at major events.

With no well-worn shoes to fill, Lord launched into listen-and-learn mode. "I tried to soak up anything and everything about our program before considering any alterations," she says. "My goal for the first year was to truly experience everything we were doing – as opposed to making changes without fully appreciating what was happening and why. I needed to look, learn, and experience it in person."

While Lord's observations ranged from talking with brand managers to digging through internal records, they primarily focused on two of the company's main agricultural shows: the Farm Progress Show (FPS), which is typically held at outdoor fairgrounds in the Midwest during August, and the National Farm Machinery Show (NFMS), most recently held in February at the Kentucky Exposition Center. While her improvement efforts started with these two shows, they would later branch out to include all major U.S. exhibitions on Syngenta's calendar.

Straight out of the observation gates, Lord noticed that while exhibit staffers were fantastic in many respects, they were also underperforming. Along these same lines, she discovered that the products and brand were drawing traffic, but people were flowing into and out of the booth without having their badges scanned or chatting with reps. "We had knowledgeable staffers, many of whom were good at talking with attendees once a conversation was started," she says. "But they weren't actually engaging with people as they walked through our space." In effect, there were no obvious reasons for attendees and staff to speak to each other, aside from impersonal "Can I help you?" nonstarters that seemed to repel the agricultural growers attending the events. Granted, some staffers needed a little help with breaking the ice, but the overarching issue was a lack of purposeful engagements.

Lord also observed that the giveaway strategy and overall booth appearance were somehow "off." More specifically, she sensed that Syngenta was giving out a ton of low-priced tchotchkes with little to show for it. And when it came to graphics and wayfinding, there was an information overload and a lack of a clear path through the space, making the booth less of an effective marketing vehicle and more of a haphazard corn maze.

Shortly after launching her year of observation, Lord had accumulated a laundry list of pitfalls. However, she'd also become acutely aware that Syngenta staff and stakeholders were content with the status quo. "There wasn't necessarily an internal push for change," she says. Thus, Lord saw research as her golden ticket. Hard data would not only help her better identify exactly what was wrong with the program but also aid her in convincing internal naysayers and those wary of change to get on board her fast train to improvement. By its very nature, Syngenta is rooted in science and analysis, which means statistical insight is a language its stakeholders readily understand. So Lord transitioned from observation to research.

Analyze and Interview
Lord initially combed through industry research that touched on customers' use of trade shows. This info only scratched the surface, but it suggested that customers sought face-to-face interaction early in the buying cycle and that Syngenta should focus on authentic, educational product demos rather than sales pitches.

Next, Lord spoke with her exhibit house, 3D Exhibits Inc. After explaining her thirst for knowledge to Kent Jones, strategic account director at 3D, they opted to perform two baseline audits in 2015 and 2016: one at the outdoor FPS and another at the indoor NFMS. "These two events would provide a third-party analysis of the exhibit program, identify areas for improvement, and provide hard-core facts, which would later serve as ammo for when Lord made a case for change to Syngenta," Jones says.

To educate growers about the importance of proper root-structure selection, one of Syngenta's displays incorporated the roots of recently extracted corn plants. The simple display illustrated which systems do best in coarse, medium, and fine soils and provided a couldn't-miss visual that hit home with growers.
To facilitate the analysis of each show, 3D hired an auditor who assumed the persona of an attendee and visited Syngenta's booth along with those of key competitors. The auditor ranked Syngenta's performance according to six criteria, including everything from pre-show outreach to in-booth messaging. Once each audit was complete, Lord received a massive report (one 52 and the other 82 pages) and an overall score of 73 (at FPS) and 80 (at NFMS) out of 100, or low-level C and barely B grades that would get some teenagers grounded.

Around this same time, Lord also convinced her management team to free up funds for a private market-research study to further identify the show-related needs of Syngenta's target audience. Managed by Syngenta's internal market-research team with help from Minneapolis-based Martin Williams Advertising, the research comprised online interviews with prospects in 12 north-central states. "We asked 300 corn and soy growers why they attended trade shows, what creative concepts best drew them in, and what they thought of various marketing tactics," Lord says.

And as a cherry atop the research sundae, Lord began conducting exit surveys with departing Syngenta booth visitors. While certainly less formal, the queries helped her check the pulse of actual showgoers and get their immediate responses to what they'd experienced. In exchange for participating, respondents received a piece of Syngenta-branded swag.

Once the reports were compiled, it was time to switch gears from data gathering to analysis. So Jones and Lord got out their fine-tooth combs and started going through the numbers.

Findings and Failings

Results from the various research studies correlated with Lord's initial perceptions – and shed light on potential solutions. For example, they revealed that branding was strong, but visuals were too complicated and text heavy. Plus, staffers were reluctant to open conversations, but when attendees prompted them to do so, they offered a wealth of information. In addition, demos and displays didn't seem to offer the type of real-world applications that attendees desired, and much of Syngenta's in-booth experience was slightly off center from attendees' expectations.

Visitors preferred genuine conversations about products, as opposed to anything resembling a sales pitch, and they wanted to see realistic crop samples to augment product claims. And above it all, visitors felt that staff interaction was key to the entire experience, but they weren't getting enough of it, and it was generally lacking in quality and authenticity. All of these factors, then, explained why people often entered the space but rarely engaged with staff.

Pairing results with gut instincts, Lord and her team established a host of goals for their late 2016 and early 2017 shows. First, they needed an engagement plan comprising a series of realistic demos that would provide product information and serve as an icebreaking initiative to get attendees and staffers talking. As part of this strategy, Lord ordered a booth redesign.

"My goal for the first year was to truly experience everything we were doing – as opposed to making changes without fully appreciating what was happening and why."
"Previously the traffic was pell mell," she says. "At FPS, we had three entrances, so people continually wandered in and out, and their only staff interaction was a quick and uncomfortable 'Hi' in passing. We needed an experience that had a beginning and an end and followed a logical traffic flow that attendees could easily navigate." Lord also committed to dramatically simplifying the exhibit graphics. "We were trying to say too much with too many words," she says. "We needed to rein it in."

In conjunction with the revamped engagement strategy, Lord wanted to overhaul the giveaway process. "Previously, people only needed to walk into the booth to get free stuff, and much of it was branded with a product," she says. "That meant attendees might leave with three different pens, all with different product messaging, as opposed to one Syngenta-branded pen." Under the new plan, visitors would have to do something to get the swag, which would be branded with the Syngenta logo and generally be of higher value than in the past.

With all the hurdles laid out in front of them, Lord and Jones met to brainstorm solutions, ultimately devising what they felt was a knockout program that would tick all the boxes next to their objectives. Now they had to sell the plan to internal stakeholders and well-meaning but dyed-in-the-wool naysayers. So Lord did what few exhibit managers ever consider: She launched an internal sales pitch.

Over the course of several months, Lord met with key Syngenta stakeholders in various U.S. offices and laid out the research indicating the maladies affecting the company's program and the data on attendee preferences. In effect, the message was, "Don't trust the newbie; trust the research." With the data staring them in the face, stakeholders couldn't help but agree with Lord's proposed changes. Before long, she was given the green light and began launching Syngenta's new exhibiting approach.

Activities and Engagements
At the core of the new endeavor was an engagement and redesign strategy the team hoped would better direct traffic into and out of the space, ensure that attendees interacted with staff, and allow visitors to easily navigate to areas of interest. "When we redesigned the booth, we borrowed a best practice from retailers," Jones says. "The layout had one main entrance and a clear path." Various product groupings and brand demos were then positioned around the path, and a passport-style activity crafted by Gibbs & Soell Inc. (dba G&S Business Communications) encouraged attendees to visit multiple displays.

The passport activity prompted a choreographed, start-to-finish staffer/attendee exchange that broke down barriers for timid reps and gave a true purpose for interaction. "We greeted every attendee as they came through the main entrance and handed them a passport, which also doubled as a booth map," Lord says. "When visitors identified their areas of interest, we pointed them directly to the appropriate staff and demos."

At each demo station, staffers gave visitors a different-colored token (or applied a sticker to the passport at some shows). Once they accumulated five tokens or stickers, they earned a multitool at NFMS or a drink ticket at FPS redeemable at Syngenta Square, a sponsored hospitality area that offered live music, local craft beers, bratwurst, and more. While nonparticipating attendees could purchase a beverage here, cross-promotional signage at the locale urged guests to visit Syngenta's booth and score a free drink ticket instead.

Once they'd received their passports, attendees headed for the demos. The number and type of demos at each show varied by the attending target market, growing season, and availability of live crop samples. But on average, the booth offered 10 demos, each of which was clearly marked with image-centric, word-starved graphics. "Our graphics included the primary brand color, a subtle image to let visitors know the context of the product or brand, and billboard-style text that could be read in 10 seconds or less," Lord says.

The demos themselves were another stroke of genius. Unlike the previous displays, which were comparatively stiff and prompted somewhat canned sales pitches, Syngenta's new demos promoted candid, product-centered conversations – exchanges that staffers were excited to have because they played a role in creating them.

Just like its outdoor counterpart, Syngenta's indoor exhibit featured side-by-side live plant and crop comparisons to illustrate the impact of the company's products on crop yields, root development, and more.
"Syngenta took the critical yet often overlooked step of involving staff in the demo-planning process," Jones says. "During the development phase, staffers worked with the marketing team to devise hands-on displays and demos for brands they worked with daily." This meant that each staffer was fully versed in a specific product area and had a vested interest in the success of the display he or she helped create. As such, staff had far more passionate, real, and enthusiastic conversations than in years past.

The passport system meant that visitors arrived at each demo station with a specific mission: to talk to staff, obtain product info, and secure a sticker or token. Thus, visitors, not staffers, typically broke the ice. Lord also implemented a mandatory pre- and at-show staff-training program, which she peppered with stats from her research indicating what turned visitors on – and off. But by simply involving staff in the creative process and allowing them to pick their sweet spots, she infused a current of passion and genuineness into the experience.

These staff-crafted demos ran the gamut from effective herbicide displays to a virtual-reality activity. Each featured an opportunity to experience side-by-side product comparisons or some type of interactive element that brought product capabilities to life. For example, to educate growers about the importance of proper root-structure selection – and Syngenta's seed products that offer multiple root-structure options – one demo showed the roots of recently extracted corn plants in a plain-as-day comparison. The display illustrated which root systems do best in coarse, medium, and fine soils and provided a couldn't-miss visual that immediately hit home with corn growers. At another station, visitors could take a virtual fungicide tour. After donning a VR headset, attendees "visited" a field plot in Marysville, OH, where they witnessed various disease-control products in action and saw how Syngenta's Trivapro fungicide provides superior protection from harmful spores.

Once attendees completed their passports, the process worked in reverse. As attendees exited the space, staff collected their tokens or sticker-adorned passports, distributed the drink ticket or multitool, and thanked them for their time.

While visitors' underlying goal was to complete the required number of passport engagements, they also soaked up bushels of Syngenta product knowledge along the way. "Before we implemented the new strategy, people walked in, scored a giveaway, and walked out," Lord says. "Now they have to learn something and interact with us before they can earn a freebie." What's more, the passport system allowed Syngenta to track product interest and demo effectiveness. Since each demo had its own colored token or sticker, exhibit staff could tally up the colors to determine which demos were most effective and which might need retooling.

Reaping the Rewards

Thanks to audits, research, and exit surveys, the latter of which Syngenta continues to use today, Lord and her team determined what worked, what needed fixing, and what had to be uprooted and tossed in the compost pile. And according to company stakeholders, who were thrilled with the changes and honored Lord with an award, the overhaul was a smashing success. But as one might expect, Lord wouldn't settle for anecdotal evidence. She needed cold, hard facts.

So teaming up with Jones, Lord commissioned a second audit of both FPS and NFMS to provide a direct before-and-after comparison. When weighed against the 2015/2016 benchmarks, Syngenta's 2016/2017 audit scores rose from a 73 to a 91 at FPS and an 80 to a 92 at NFMS. The auditor noted vast improvements in the presence of compelling graphics and a revised message hierarchy as well as better overall booth etiquette and staff/attendee interactions. Plus, the visitor experience improved from a score of six to a perfect 10, as the auditor indicated that the demos were a huge draw for attendees and offered authentic, educational engagements.

After a year of further refinement, booth traffic saw more dramatic gains, as 6,807 attendees visited the exhibit at FPS 2017, a figure 170 percent above Syngenta's goal and 908 percent greater than 2015. Plus, each visit equated to more than one demo engagement. Each visitor stopped at multiple demo stations, and attendees experienced more than 29,000 product presentations at FPS. And while the overall program didn't focus on social media, Syngenta was mentioned 191 times on social media regarding FPS, which resulted in 1.3 million potential impressions.

Clearly, Lord's look-before-you-leap plan paid off in spades. By simply admitting she didn't immediately have all the answers and then devising a research-based initiative to identify problems and solutions, Lord devised a one-off program specifically suited to the needs of her company, her staff, and show attendees. It just goes to show that in marketing and in life, a strategic, perhaps humble, approach is best. For when you properly test the soil and plant the right seeds, you can harvest a bumper crop of results. E

You Reap What You Sow
While Syngenta's four audits each tracked myriad metrics (scored on a scale of 1 to 10), here are some of the top performance indicators that helped the company identify issues and track incremental improvements.

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