Tracy Collins is a marketing communications manager for Huber Engineered Woods LLC. Collins, who joined Huber's marketing team in 2012, is responsible for the company's presence at trade shows and educational events, as well as the firm's mobile event fleet.
A game-changing product is every marketer's dream. But what happens when your target audience is dubious of both you and your wares? How do you convince buyers to give your brand a chance when they instinctively resist change and instead double down on time-tested, weather-worn, and arguably outdated alternatives that underperform your new offerings? That was the exact challenge faced by Tracy Collins, marketing communications manager at building-products manufacturer Huber Engineered Woods LLC.
Huber's products comprise the bones of residential homes, i.e., the sheathing and subfloors that make a house structurally sound. The company's bread and butter is divided between two brands: AdvanTech, an award-winning line of subflooring solutions, and Zip System Sheathing and Tapes, a newer line of products that is used on the walls and roof of a home. Both lines boast innovative improvements compared to industry mainstays. AdvanTech subflooring, for example, is more durable than its competitors' offerings and designed to withstand up to 500 days of wear and tear in the elements while the rest of the home is being built around it.
While Huber's paradigm-shifting products are peachy, they don't amount to much if buyers refuse to give them a chance. So Huber's challenge has always been to prove to new customers that its cutting-edge products are the best in the industry. But the company's target audience is a hard nut to crack because its constituents belong to a trade that's been around for ages, with tried-and-true practices and well-established brands selling familiar products that builders have learned to trust. With its product lines 20 years old or less, Huber is still considered a newbie in the building-product scene, a perception that puts the company at a major disadvantage.
"It's difficult to convince builders to try new products because of the significant risk associated with product failure. Imagine if your floor failed or a wall fell down. There's huge liability for builders' final products to perform," Collins says. So going into the 2018 International Builders' Show (IBS), Huber had to find a way to prove its products' claims, convince buyers to put them to the test, and pique their interest enough to consider switching to Huber sheathing and subfloors.
Learning From the Past
"In previous years, our exhibit wasn't telling a story, and that had an impact on how our staffers could engage with attendees," Collins says. At IBS 2017, for example, the Huber exhibit comprised eight product stations, two of which were interactive. But instead of drawing attendees into the booth and keeping them there to flow from one station to the next, the exhibit's design had the unwelcome effect of overwhelming visitors and decreasing cross-selling opportunities for staffers. And due to a lack of clear messaging, many attendees didn't understand that Huber's various product offerings complemented one another. So after getting their badges scanned and checking out one station of interest, many booth visitors disappeared. After the event, the Huber sales team followed up on leads, but the results echoed the somewhat lackluster attendee experience, as evidenced by the fact that only 14 percent of prospects were interested enough to be considered qualified leads.
Collins and her team knew from past experience that the best way to connect with builders was to prompt conversations about the problems they frequently faced on the job site.
You might say the feng shui or Huber's 2017 IBS booth was off. You might also say that more interactive stations could have increased the number of hands-on demos and therefore opportunities for Huber to prove its products' superiority. Both answers would be correct – and Collins knew it. So she set out to reboot Huber's exhibit design, incorporate more interactivity, and boost the percentage of booth visitors intrigued enough in the company's offerings to request post-show contact.
The interesting thing about Collins' decision to change up Huber's exhibit is that it wasn't driven by upper management or corporate directives. In fact, she and her team had received accolades from internal stakeholders regarding the number of leads collected at IBS 2017. Still, Collins knew that her team was capable of capturing better results, and that getting prospects up close and personal with the company's products was the key to increasing returns. So while some might have rested on their laurels, she brushed those laurels aside and set her sights on something even better.
Training the Team
To start, Collins and her team initiated the request-for-proposal process and eventually enlisted a new exhibit partner, 3D Exhibits Inc., to reimagine the Huber booth with better traffic flow and more interactive product stations. While the booth redesign was in progress, she turned her attention to the people on the front lines of Huber's exhibit-marketing program. "Building a new booth was an important step," Collins says. "But that wasn't going to be enough if staffers weren't any better at telling our story, facilitating hands-on demos, or moving prospects along the sales cycle."
So weeks before IBS 2018 opened, Collins was already hard at work training Huber's 40 staffers. Once at IBS, a pre-show meeting in the exhibit focused on making sure all reps felt at home in the new layout, understood the intent of each product display, could rattle off every demo station's talking points, and were comfortable cross-selling product lines. During an additional hour of training, Collins taught staffers how to use a new custom lead-retrieval app, which they downloaded onto Huber-provided iPads and practiced using via role-playing and walking each other through qualifying questions.
Proving Product Claims
The next morning, the Orange County Convention Center opened its doors to a flood of builders who were itching to explore the show floor. Huber's 30-by-40-foot booth beckoned them from across the exhibit hall thanks to redesigned overhead signage. A 26-by-17-by-8-foot fabric element was suspended 22 feet over the exhibit and boldly branded the space as Huber territory. Below it hung two more 12-by-12-by-3-foot elements, one for AdvanTech and the other for Zip System. All demos staged below the AdvanTech signage represented AdvanTech products, clearly demarcated by the brand's signature blue colors and wood-grain textures found on nearby graphics. Conversely, all demos below the Zip System element were related to that brand's products, easily decipherable thanks to the iconic green hue of the line's offerings. A walkway through the space divided the product areas and fostered a smoother traffic flow.
Collins and her team knew from past experience that the best way to connect with builders at IBS was to prompt conversations about problems they faced on the job site, from working in the rain and snow to adequately sealing a building's cracks and crevices. Therefore, all seven demo stations addressed various job-related pain points that would resonate with builders.
Perhaps the most eye-catching element inside the exhibit adeptly demonstrated Huber's Zip System sheathing. Comprising a rectangle of sheathing suspended 14 feet in the air with a continuous stream of water gushing over it, the demo proved that the product could withstand the elements. Booth visitors could even walk under the sheathing to see the deluge from the product's underside and witness how watertight it really was. For many attendees, this demo was their entry point into the Huber exhibit, and a troupe of well-trained staffers were ready to meet them and talk about the value of reliable sheathing and Huber's other offerings. The openness of the floor plan and clarity of the complementary product offerings allowed staffers to easily guide attendees from one demo to the next.
Three more stations comprised the Zip System side of the exhibit. One demo for Huber's stretch tape was carried out using a section of an unfinished building with windows that needed sealing. Attendees could test the tape for themselves, getting a feel for its quality and ease of use, while nearby staffers answered questions and underscored key messages. Another demo included samples of Zip System R-sheathing panels, which were suspended on staggered rods that attendees could flip through to understand how varying insulation thicknesses were suited for different climate zones – effectively proving that no matter builders' needs, Huber had something to suit them. The final demo on the Zip System side featured multiple sealing solutions for openings around pipes, electrical outlets, and other architectural details. Attendees could try out these products on a large panel of Zip sheathing to see how they perform in their natural habitat.
Moving on to the AdvanTech half of the exhibit, attendees discovered three more interactive demos. The first looked like an old-fashioned water wheel that slowly turned due to a steady stream of water falling from above. On closer inspection, attendees learned that the structure was made from AdvanTech subfloor panels that don't swell when exposed to moisture. Next, guests encountered AdvanTech subfloor panels that had been glued together using the brand's subfloor adhesive. For an apples-to-apples comparison, staffers invited attendees to stand atop AdvanTech's ultraquiet subfloor system before stepping onto a competitor's squeaky alternative to see, feel, and hear the noticeable difference. Finally, to quell any fears about clogged nozzles, messy application, or inconsistent spray, staff convinced guests to try out AdvanTech subfloor adhesive by spraying it onto massive pieces of paper while reps talked up the product's main selling points.
Taking the Lead
As attendees journeyed through these demos, staffers chatted with them while carrying iPads to log details about their particular needs and interests. Compared to previous years using the show-provided lead-retrieval equipment, described by Collins as archaic Blackberry-esque devices that were nearly impossible to type on, it was a night-and-day difference. "Staffers are sensitive to the flow of a conversation, and if collecting the lead's information isn't easy or interrupts the dialogue, they are more likely to skip the step entirely," Collins says.
The final step on the lead form was a checkbox beside the phrase, "Yes, I want to be contacted by my Huber rep." All staffers knew that this was one step that could not be skipped, because if the box was checked, the lead was considered qualified, and a sales rep would prioritize it for follow-up. "This final item on the lead form was a direct response to feedback we'd heard from the sales reps who conduct follow-up after IBS," Collins says. "They like to be able to rank their leads based on attendees' levels of interest so they can follow up in a timely manner with those most likely to make a purchase. By having staffers check this box to signify qualified leads, we made it easy for the sales team to prioritize its lists."
Reaping the Rewards
After IBS 2018, Collins was eager to learn how her changes had played out. As she compared lead counts from 2018 to the previous year, she realized just how substantial an impact her strategy had on her program's results. Thanks to an exhibit revamp with seven interactive demos, a user-friendly lead-retrieval system, and a thorough training program for staffers, Collins saw her overall lead count more than triple, meaning three times as many in-booth demos. Plus, Huber went from just 14 percent of its leads being qualified in 2017 to 43 percent of them meeting that threshold – and requesting post-show contact – in 2018. In addition to quality leads for the Huber sales team to act on, there was also quality data collected via the new lead-retrieval system that allowed for more thoughtful post-show conversations.
Collins' self-driven determination to outperform previous results fueled an award-winning program that got reluctant buyers hands-on with the company's innovative offerings – effectively proving their efficacy and proactively eradicating potential pushback. "Just like Huber's demos, the proof is in the pudding," said one All-Star Awards judge. "And these results prove that Tracy Collins is truly worthy of All-Star status."