|follow her lead
To increase the number and quality of Nutanix Inc.'s trade show leads, Jeannie Sadler, director of America's events, executed the following tactics.
➤ Fine-tune in-booth content and messaging to address the needs of both clients and prospects
➤ Hire booth ambassadors to gather crowds and aid sales engineers in administering lead-qualifying questions
➤ Integrate a theater space into all exhibits and scan every participant
➤ Switch to invite-only events and bypass awareness-centric sponsorships
➤ Ensure badge scanners are location and activity specific
How do you justify a massive budget increase, a new-booth investment, and your program's worth in one fell swoop? If you're Jeannie Sadler, director of America's events at Nutanix Inc., you measure, track, and report on anything and everything in sight.
It all began when Sadler joined Nutanix in 2015. At the time, the San Jose, CA-based cloud-computing software company was surfing a wave of momentum that started building just after it launched in 2009. Thanks to a timely confluence of savvy venture capitalists, startup veterans, and brilliant founders, the company was valued at around $1 billion just four years later. At that time, the finance world declared Nutanix a "unicorn startup," a term used to represent the statistical rarity of young firms that develop this degree of success. So by 2015, when the sprightly unicorn was just 6 years of age, it was already going horn to hoof with veteran brands such as Cisco, VMware, and Pure Storage.
When Sadler came on board, though, the marketing department wasn't exactly galloping at the same breakneck pace. It was demonstrating more of a methodical plod due mainly to a lack of strategic vision, which in turn was driven by a mammoth workload. To provide some perspective, Sadler was employee No. 1,211 in June 2015, and today she estimates that number has risen to more than 4,000, suggesting that Nutanix's work-force was spread anorexic thin in 2015.
As such, Sadler inherited a team of only two individuals to assist with the mushrooming exhibit and events program, which included participation in eight tier-one trade shows and at least partial management of four tier-two shows annually, along with Nutanix's own three-day event, the .Next (pro-nounced "dot next") Conference. Plus, Nutanix had just started its .Next on Tour program, which would soon include 100 one-day events scattered across the globe.
Come late 2015, the marketing team was understandably barely treading water. Members were further weighed down by an ever-increasing workload from the flourishing company that was sprinting into the fantastical unknown, which meant comparably tedious real-world tasks, such as developing an overarching trade show strategy and measurement program, hadn't made it to the top of the to-do list. Sadler hoped to change all that.
Veritable Data Desert
Once Sadler gained her footing, she took a close look at the firm's trade show program, specifically eyeballing the available metrics – or lack thereof. Her immediate findings revealed that for the most part, Nutanix's show-selection process lacked critical data, making it more haphazard than strategic. Plus, the marketing directive was to scan anyone and everyone, no matter their qualifications, in an effort to fill the firm's Salesforce-brand customer-relationship management (CRM) system with leads. In effect, there was little data that proved Nutanix was at the right shows, that marketers' efforts were effective, or that money was well spent.
"Previously, booth staff had been scanning the unwashed masses," Sadler says, referring to the fact that no lead qualifying was taking place. The dictate was to glean contact info from anybody that fogged a mirror, so staffers had resorted to scanning people merely passing by in the aisles. "When you're the new kid on the block, this mentality makes sense," she says. "But by 2016, this strategy was bringing garbage in and sending garbage out. Therefore, the leads we were giving our sales team were not qualified. As a result, salespeople were reaching out to nonproductive leads – a poor use of their time."
Sadler soon discovered several other flies in the ointment. Nutanix's booth was far from cutting edge, and the content presented seemed to be all about the company and its broad offerings, as opposed to detailed, segmented info on how its products and services could help various types of attendees. In addition, Sadler felt the firm's minimalist approach to show-related speaking engagements meant it was missing some serious opportunities to spread its message.
And when it came to hospitality events and sponsored affairs, Nutanix had a come-one-come-all mentality. For example, in 2015, Nutanix hosted a hospitality event at VMworld that drew 1,500 attendees. But instead of sending formal invites to qualified customers and prospects, Nutanix issued an all-bovines-welcome cattle call. "We scanned people as they came in, but a lot of people were just there for the free food and drinks and had absolutely no qualified interest in Nutanix," Sadler says.
After her initial analysis, Sadler hoped to establish a strategic, measurement-based approach that would allow her team to make informed decisions about shows, booth strategy, events, and more. Plus, she wanted to eliminate the quantity over quality mindset, replacing it with an engagement-centric approach firmly grounded in data.
As 2015 merged into 2016, Sadler laid out a long-term plan to bolster effective attendee/staffer engagements throughout Nutanix's event portfolio. By improving booth content and activities, adding off-floor tactics, and not only outlawing random aisle-side scanning but also "scrubbing" scans and eliminating the "unwashed masses" before delivering the leads to sales, she felt she could actually increase both the number and quality of leads – and polish the lackluster internal perception of her program.
To that end, Sadler began fine-tuning Nutanix's in-booth content and messaging. "We always had speaking sessions in the booth, but they weren't necessarily targeted," Sadler says. That is, content was more about the company as a whole and less about individual solutions for a specific group of attendees. "We pressed our product-marketing team to tweak the content so there was a mix of info for both people new to Nutanix and those who already knew us," Sadler says. Plus, she added an in-booth session agenda posted via monitor that let visitors self-select content best suited to their unique needs.
Sadler also ensured that all exhibits had some type of theater and that staff were scanning the vast majority of audience members. "Theaters drive the most attendance for us," she says. And in Sadler's mind, anybody willing to spend time sitting in a theater had a level of interest worthy of follow-up.
In addition, she hired and trained a host of booth ambassadors to act as crowd gatherers and help administer newly developed lead-qualifying questions. Comprising roughly 30 percent of the exhibit staff, the new ambassadors assisted Nutanix's sales engineers (SEs), i.e., employees staffing the demos and presentation areas. As SEs wove qualifying questions into their conversations, ambassadors entered prospects' answers into the lead-retrieval devices. In effect, the ambassadors helped Sadler better control the lead-qualifying process, allowed many salespeople to remain at home where they could effectively follow up on leads gathered, and ensured that SEs could hold authentic conversations with attendees.
Sadler also increased the number of Nutanix's speaking engagements at events and tasked staff with scanning attendees' badges at these sessions whenever permitted by show management. "A conference speaking session is 20 to 45 minutes long, and if an attendee is going to spend that much time with you, there's a fairly high level of interest in your firm and your product," she says. However, she's quick to point out that not everyone that attends a session is a qualified buyer. Nevertheless, their level of interest is high enough for them to be considered a potential lead.
Along these same lines, Sadler turned the cattle-call invite system for hospitality events into a thoughtful and controlled process. Going forward, in order to access Nutanix-hosted events, attendees would need to preregister or arrive at the soiree with some type of invitation – one secured at the booth after properly answering some qualifying questions, for example. Thus, Nutanix staff would only invite customers and prospects and would filter out competitors, partners, and the "unwashed masses." Sadler also vowed to bypass participation in sponsored and nonproprietary events whose deliverables mainly involved branding and awareness. Rather, she hoped to focus solely on opportunities for guests to have direct engagements with a person or product, thereby further qualifying them as a viable lead.
All told, by beefing up the quality of content, increasing the number of direct engagements, and curtailing the random scanning and branding-only experiences, Sadler reasoned that the quality of show interactions would increase. Next, she set her sights on the actual scanning process and a post-show lead-scrubbing system.
Scannin' and Scrubbin'
After renting multiple scanners for the stand, Sadler set them up so they were location and activity specific. This way, she could track who came to the booth and what specific activities each person participated in during the entire show experience.
During 2016 and into 2017, these multiple scanners documented even more leads than the random aisle-side scanning had in the past. However, most of these leads were accompanied by additional data, courtesy of a handful of qualifying questions. As attendees joined a theater presentation, for example, ambassadors asked one or two quick questions, and during more detailed demos, the SEs and ambassadors worked together to capture additional info.
But even more importantly, the leads were put through what Sadler calls a scrubbing process. Within 24 hours of each show close, Nutanix's marketing-operations team removed duplicates, competitors, and partners from the data and culled any leads containing insufficient info or personal (as opposed to work-related) email addresses. Each lead was then added to the CRM system, assuming no duplicate lead already existed.
Even though the new leads were integrated and dupes removed, Sadler retained all of the raw data, which provided a plethora of information. Not only did it give her averages about the number of attendees engaging with staff at the booth, attending speaking sessions, and partaking in hospitality events, but also she knew how each element within her booth was performing – and how each functioned at various shows. For example, she could tell you how many people visited the theater or participated in a specific demo at VMworld, and she could compare this same data against similar elements at shows such as Oracle OpenWorld and Google Cloud Next. This last measurement helped her better plan engagements for specific audiences, as what's a home run at one show might totally bomb at another.
Perhaps most importantly, the data enabled Sadler to track exactly the type and frequency of engagements each lead had with Nutanix over time. And that type of data is pure gold to the sales team as they prioritize lead follow-up. "For example, I can look at our data and see that over the last six months John Smith sat through two in-booth theater sessions and a conference session, and he engaged in two demos," Sadler says. "Let's compare that to Bob Jones, who only attended an in-booth theater presentation. Once I give the leads to sales, it's John they're going to contact first based on his level of interest."
In addition, Sadler can help sales further prioritize follow-up based on the type and length of engagement. For instance, Nutanix sets what it calls executive briefing conferences in its booth during shows. Hosted by senior Nutanix staff, the EBCs provide in-depth product explanations for interested attendees. Thus, if someone participates in an EBC, his or her level of interest is far greater than someone who merely sat through a theater presentation. Similarly, if attendees partake in a demo or two, their leads climb the priority ladder over people who only registered for a hospitality event.
At the end of each show, Sadler compiles all of this data into a report that includes highlights of the various activities and engagements Nutanix offered, EBC summaries, summations of speaking sessions presented and hospitality events hosted, and any anecdotal snapshots from key stakeholders in attendance. In addition, each report provides metrics on the total number of leads gathered, the number of leads that were eliminated in the scrubbing process, and those identified as "net new" leads (i.e., contacts that were previously not in the firm's CRM system) and existing leads with which Nutanix had some type of engagement at the show.
With this info, Sadler can directly attribute what she calls "sourced" and "influenced" sales to her program. Any lead that survives Nutanix's qualifying and scrubbing process is added to the system and is called a marketing qualified lead (MQL). If this is a new lead, it's marked as a "net new" lead, which identifies it as a new prospect for the company that was "sourced" at a trade show. If a lead already exists in the CRM, it still becomes a MQL (again, because it has been fully vetted), but its resulting revenue is tracked as "influenced" as opposed to "sourced." This simply means that the lead originated via another marketing or advertising endeavor, but the person engaged with Nutanix at a trade show.
Results and Reporting
Throughout 2016 and into 2017, Sadler's scrubbing and lead qualifying – and the resulting metrics and reporting – were a godsend to the sales team. They finally had hard-core data to help them prioritize lead follow-up and guide their conversations straight out of the gate.
As a secondary benefit, the myriad data points helped elevate the overall perception of the trade show program within Nutanix. After all, Sadler had undeniable data showing which leads were a direct result of trade shows and which were propelled further down the sales pipeline due to show engagements. "Plus, the numbers allowed me to prove that people aren't coming to the booth for one simple experience," Sadler says. "They're having multiple face-to-face engagements." The last fact further supports the value of trade shows as a viable relationship-building and sales-generating tool over time.
Since 2016, Sadler has used this robust data to calculate lead and sales pipeline goals, aid in event selection, and justify ongoing expenditures. By analyzing the lead and sales data in Nutanix's CRM – including past leads, sourced/influenced metrics, and forecasts – Sadler is able to determine what sales are directly attributed to specific shows. Based on that, she is able to project return-on-investment numbers for various trade shows.
Sadler takes things one step further by using this data to project the effectiveness of shows she is considering adding to the calendar. While this data isn't the final word in show selection (Sadler also considers the business case for attending each show, including impact on business relationships, positioning, and market situations), it does give her a strong sense of the ROI she can expect.
The process looks something like this. First, Sadler selects a show that, based on attendee demographics, will fall into Nutanix's sweet spot. From there, she looks at shows that are similar in size and industry and then averages their performance data to create numbers that represent a forecast of total leads, pipeline, and net new leads that can be used as multipliers to evaluate the new show.
Using demographics in the show's prospectus and previous averages, she then forecasts the total MQLs for the new show. "I know from year-over-year stats that 28 percent of Nutanix's target audience at a show will come to the booth or ancillary events," Sadler says. "I then multiply the average revenue per attendee to determine the forecast number."
For example, if the show has a total attendance of 60,000 people, and 50 percent of them are Nutanix's target audience, then she's targeting 30,000 people. And if Nutanix normally attracts 28 percent of its target audience to its booth or events, that's 8,400 people. If the average revenue per attendee is $3,125, that equals a projected revenue of $26.25 million.
She then compares this revenue to the estimated exhibiting costs to determine a projected ROI for this show. When she presents her findings to management, they weigh the probable ROI against the other business reasons for attending to make a final decision.
Big Boost for the Bottom Line
In addition to validating the investment for each show, Sadler's efforts have helped her justify her program as a whole – and to reap dividends starting in 2016 and continuing through today. Due to her tactics, Sadler was able to establish and maintain an average ROI of 300 percent for 2016 and 2017 (which is based on actual sales attributed to trade shows divided by the annual spend). What's more, Nutanix's trade show leads doubled in 2017, and 71 percent of those leads were net new, the combination of which is attributed with $960 million in revenue that year.
Sadler admits that she also added four new events in 2017 to bring the company's total tier-one shows to 12, but she feels the improved content and increased number of engagements contributed as much to the massive increase as the additional conferences. This data is even more impressive given that a considerable amount of leads were removed in the scrubbing process, while all such leads were counted toward the lead total in previous years.
In addition, Nutanix's top brass approved a 60-percent budget increase for the 2018 program and allotted $500,000 for a second, new booth from Impact XM. "At the end of 2017, we wanted a much larger property with some wow factor, large storage space, double-deck meeting area, and overall more flexibility," Sadler says. "We use both new properties today depending on the shows, sizes, and potential overlap."
Certainly, then, number crunching doesn't usually conjure cold hard cash. But in Sadler's case, strategy and metrics led directly to a massive influx of dough – and booth properties. So while Nutanix might have been a unicorn startup once upon a time, Sadler seems to have cast some fantastical metric magic of her own.E