Elizabeth Thomas is a global marketing manager of corporate event strategy and communications at Red Hat Inc. Throughout her 10-year career in corporate events, her passion has been focused on the client experience and finding ways to tell the company's story through hands-on activities that strengthen brand affinity. Prior to Red Hat, Thomas was a performance marketing professional in IBM Corp.'s security and analytics business units.
According to author Cynthia Ozick, "Two things remain irretrievable: time and a first impression." The truth of this statement was top of mind for Elizabeth Thomas when she joined Red Hat Inc. as a global marketing manager of corporate event strategy and communications in early 2018. Having cut her teeth at tech titans IBM Corp. and Microsoft Inc., Thomas arrived at the Raleigh, NC-based provider of open-source enterprise technologies eager to hit the ground running.
Along with her new title, Thomas inherited a robust face-to-face marketing program that included more than 500 global events ranging from modest regional shows to massive tech expos including VMworld and Mobile World Congress. "Regardless of an event's size, Red Hat's main exhibiting priority is lead generation and adding contacts to the top of our sales funnel," Thomas says. "However, it's also important for us to focus on branding. Red Hat has a strong brand following, so we want to make sure we're consistently projecting our core values of openness, collaboration, and community." But after assessing the company's exhibiting strategies, Thomas felt Red Hat was missing the bull's-eye on both of these objectives.
First of all, depending on the event, foot traffic and lead counts were either stagnant or falling, a state of affairs Thomas attributed to a lack of in-booth engagements that motivated an almost universally introverted audience to venture into the exhibit and warm up to staffers. "I've probably been to more than 200 trade shows, and I can tell you that tech attendees rarely open up on their own. If your staffers are just standing there waiting to engage with someone, these attendees are going to be very cautious in their approach," she says. "But I've observed that if you host activations that align with their interests, usually
on the gaming front or relating to Star Wars, they're more likely to come into the booth. It takes a little coercion."
Secondly, Red Hat's booth activities focused almost exclusively on product demos and small theater presentations. While these educational activations got the company's target audience of open-source software developers, systems engineers, and corporate information-technology decision-makers (typically managers or vice presidents of IT departments) up to speed on Red Hat's offerings, they did little to impart its core values, i.e., teamwork and camaraderie. As such, attendees would simply visit the booth, learn the nuts and bolts about a new open-source solution, snag a giveaway, and depart.
In Thomas' opinion, Red Hat may have earned a tip of the hat for educating attendees, but it deserved a wag of the finger when it came to creating avenues for meaningful engagement that would draw visitors to the exhibit like sci-fi fans to a Q&A panel with George Lucas. "I felt the impact I could make most quickly would be regarding booth traffic, so I immediately took it upon myself to increase the numbers," she says. With her new business cards still warm from the printer, Thomas set out to identify how to do just that via strategies that could be implemented at 5G speed and be scalable for a wide range of booth sizes.
Play to the Crowd
Since Thomas' eagerness didn't give her time to reinvent the wheel, she first looked at existing elements of Red Hat's events program to see if there were any gems that could be adapted for a trade show environment. One possibility that quickly piqued her interest was a Lego-building activity from Red Hat's user conference.
Created to promote the company's Open Innovations Labs, a service in which Red Hat consultants host workshops to help clients improve efficiencies and internal processes, the activation invited attendees to work both independently and collectively to construct a massive Lego cityscape using a tool common to agile project management. "I thought this activity was so brilliant because it perfectly communicated our values of community and collaboration," Thomas says. "Plus, based on how well the activation had been received, it was clear that Legos played a large part in our audiences' childhoods, so there was an emotional connection."
What's more, Thomas believed that such an activity could be easily modified to accommodate almost any exhibit footprint and that Lego's global appeal would draw traffic at shows regardless of their locations.
Spill the Beans
For the Comics and Coffee activation, attendees sat for interviews with the team behind Red Hat's "Command Line Heroes" podcast. To thank them for their time, participants received comic-book-style caricatures of themselves.
As Thomas began planning her Lego icebreaker's debut at VMworld 2018, she heard through the company grapevine that the team behind Red Hat's "Command Line Heroes" podcast was looking for material for its upcoming season, which would focus on open-source gaming. After giving it some thought, she reached out to the team and asked if it would be interested in interviewing trade show attendees. "My first instinct was that this could be a way to extend the reach of our brand while also helping generate content for the podcast," Thomas says. "I felt this would be a means of nurturing our relationships with attendees by promoting the podcast, which would impact our business in an indirect way." However, Thomas suspected that she would need to incentivize her attention-averse booth visitors to agree to an interview. Given the podcast's subject matter and attendees' nerdy natures, she decided to thank participants' by presenting them with comic-book-style caricatures that would be drawn while the interviews were being recorded. The podcast team loved the idea, and the aptly named Comics and Coffee activation was born.
In addition to Red Hat's usual demos, attendees at VMworld 2018 encountered a 6-by-6-foot table completely covered in flat Lego baseplates that formed a grid of streets and plots of land. A narrow freestanding wall near the table served as a Kanban board, a tool frequently used during agile project management processes to visualize tasks and track workflows. The wall was divided into three columns labeled Backlog, In Progress, and Done. Prior to the show opening, staffers came up with a list of buildings for the city-in-waiting (e.g., a cafe, a power station, etc.), wrote these ideas on Post-its, and affixed them to the Backlog column of the wall.
Knowing they had a playful, hands-on activation with which to open conversations with attendees – as opposed to a dry list of qualifying questions – staffers greeted arriving booth visitors and invited them to revisit their childhoods via Legos. And since many attendees' day jobs involved agile project management, they quickly got the gist of the Kanban board and needed little instruction. After viewing the list of backlogged buildings, visitors grabbed bins of colorful Lego bricks and got to work assembling their visions for the designated constructs. Or if attendees had their own ideas of what the tabletop metropolis needed, say a library or a dog park, they were free to build those as well. Once they finished their additions to the burgeoning cityscape, participants moved the corresponding Post-its to the Done column of the board. Those who couldn't complete their buildings before needing to leave the exhibit moved their projects' Post-its to the In Progress column and added sticky notes to their semifinished structures so another visitor could resume the work.
As participants flexed their creative muscles and settled into the happy headspace that comes from play, staffers had opportunities to make organic references to Red Hat's open-source solutions and Open Innovation Labs. "This engagement truly reflected how Red Hat's open-source software thrives because of the ideas generated by the community," Thomas says. "It paralleled how users may contribute a new idea and someone else builds on it. It's a constant state of progress." By the end of the show, Thomas had a fully realized plastic wonderland – and more leads than there are bricks in a Lego kit of the Empire State Building.
Following the success she achieved at VMworld, Thomas debuted Comics and Coffee at AWS Re:Invent 2018, a cloud-computing conference hosted by Amazon Web Services. Here, the "Command Line Heroes" team set up a small table-and-chairs arrangement in a corner of the exhibit to conduct interviews using professional recording
equipment. Prompted by the podcast's e-newsletter, social-media posts, and invitations from staffers, interested attendees sat behind a mic and talked about their experiences, opinions, and practical knowledge regarding open-source gaming with an interviewer while enjoying a cup of freshly brewed coffee. During each chat, a caricature artist digitally rendered an exaggerated likeness of the attendee using a tablet and stylus. When the five- to 15-minute interviews were complete, attendees received their drawings, augmented with branded overlays, via email and as physical printouts that could be worn like a badge. Before departing, participants were encouraged to subscribe to the podcast, which might feature their comments in the upcoming season.
A Kanban board, a tool often used by IT professionals to visualize tasks and track workflows, displayed Post-its indicating the status of attendees' various Lego projects on the nearby table.
Knowing that Red Hat Inc.'s target audience is often both highly introverted and fond of creative play, Elizabeth Thomas took a page from the company's user-conference playbook and staged an activity that required attendees to work collaboratively to build a Lego city. The activation served as a hands-on icebreaker that allowed staffers to segue into conversations about Red Hat's offerings.
Coffee and Comics attracted an appreciable number of participants at AWS Re:Invent and subsequent shows – and led to reliable increases in subscriptions – but the activation's footprint, time commitment, and staffing requirements didn't make it a viable option for a large number of events. So in late 2018, Thomas commissioned a series of classic arcade cabinets featuring games created by Red Hat developers. Wrapped in custom branding and positioned next to graphics promoting the podcast, the arcade games were a hit with time-pressed attendees looking for a quick break and proved to be a more scalable means of spreading the word about "Command Line Heroes."
A First-Rate First Impression
Thomas set out to make her presence known during her first year at Red Hat, and judging by the metrics she generated, there's no doubt she was successful. The debut of her Lego activation at VMworld resulted in a 175-percent increase in booth traffic compared to the previous year, as well as a jaw-dropping 591-percent spike in revenue attributable to the show. Due to these stellar results, Thomas created Lego "packages" comprising furnishings, bricks, and literature that Red Hat's regional event managers can order for any size of booth in any part of the world.
Other 2018 events saw similar increases, including IT Symposium/Xpo (booth traffic and revenue increased 51 percent and 65 percent, respectively) and Mobile World Congress, where revenue opportunities grew by 359 percent. What's more, the popularity of Comics and Coffee and the arcade cabinets helped push "Command Line Heroes" into Apple's Top 10 list of IT and technology podcasts. "This is a textbook example of knowing your target audience and tailoring your exhibiting strategies to appeal to their comfort levels," said one All-Star Awards judge. "These activations made Red Hat's exhibits approachable, fun, and engaging, even for introverts." So hats off to Thomas for making a first impression that will be remembered for years to come. E