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case study

hange is the constant, the signal for rebirth, the egg of the phoenix," writes Christina Baldwin. But even when change triggers a Phoenix-like rebirth, there are always a few growing pains, and maybe even a bruised beak or two along the way.

For marketing firm EWI Worldwide, a positive change - in the form of internal growth and restructuring - beget epic challenges for its exhibit at EXHIBITOR2008, a conference and exhibition for exhibit and event marketers. But by using a low-tech storytelling strategy and a customized version of the classic Mad Libs word game, EWI demonstrated its capabilities, chronicled its story of rebirth, and forged a Catherine-and-Heathcliff-like connection with more than 300 attendees.

Founded in 1979 as an exhibit house called Exhibit Works Inc., EWI quickly made a name for itself among exhibitors in the automotive industry - a no-brainer given its Livonia, MI, headquarters. "However, as time went on, the company's capabilities expanded into mobile marketing, live events, business theater, retail, etc.," says Matt Hubbard, EWI's vice president of marketing. "Plus, we'd extended our reach internationally, and in 2006 we opened an office in Shanghai, China."

Around that same time, EWI realized the company's growth had rendered its Exhibit Works name restrictive. The company feared the exhibit-centric moniker was preventing prospects interested in creative strategy, business theater, events and promotions, design, and retail environments from considering EWI as a solution for their marketing needs.

"In early 2007, we realized that our capabilities had expanded, but our brand and messaging hadn't," Hubbard says. "So we developed a new name and brand: EWI Worldwide." The company has since created four divisions under the EWI Worldwide umbrella to better deliver its range of live communications offerings: Exhibit Works, Interior Works, Presentation Works, and Studio Creative.

As the company transformed itself from an exhibit house to what it calls a "live-communications company," it also established an overall brand message: "Your story. Alive."

"Live communications is the umbrella we use to describe our market position," Hubbard says. "Our promise to customers is that we help them tell their stories - be that of their products, companies, or brands - at every face-to-face touch point imaginable. So wherever the client's brand needs to touch its customers one to one, be it via an exhibit, corporate event, mobile-marketing campaign, retail environment, etc., we can help them bring their story to life in an engaging and effective way." Thus, in the Spring of 2007, Exhibit Works Inc. restructured and launched its new brand and messaging.

So when EXHIBITOR2008 rolled around, EWI's No. 1 goal was to make attendees aware of its new live-communications offerings and storytelling capabilities. With that in mind, EWI set two objectives for its internal team: 1) Convince at least 12 attendees to schedule private meetings during the show, and 2) attract 300 attendees to its space and keep them engaged with its staff for roughly 10 minutes each.

While most exhibitors would opt for multimedia presentations and high-tech wizardry to relaunch their brands, EWI conjured its success out of a customized Mad Libs game. And just like the original Mad Libs - a word game invented in 1953, where one player prompts another for a list of words to substitute for blanks in a story and then reads the story aloud - EWI's version required nothing more than a pencil, some paper, and some good ol' storytelling and creativity.

"We wanted an in-booth experience that was fun, engaging, interactive, and nostalgic - something that would lure attendees in and allow them to have memorable conversations with our staff," Hubbard says. And given EWI's brand message - "Your story. Alive." - Mad Libs was the perfect answer.

With a concept in place, EWI set out not only to integrate the concept throughout its marketing strategy, but also to make the booth experience and its architecture a literal representation of "Your story. Alive." EWI's resulting solution featured an extensive pre-show promotional campaign, clever booth architecture, and an in-booth Mad Libs experience with a cause-marketing twist.

The Prologue

On Feb. 1, 2008, approximately five weeks before the show opened on March 9, EWI sent a direct mailer to its top 50 prospects. The roughly 9.5-by-5-inch metal box featured an EWI-orange mailing label with the phrase "Your story. Alive." emblazoned across the front. Inside, recipients found a similar-size card urging them to "Tell us your story" and to sign up for a 30-minute Studio Session - a creative brainstorming session on a topic of the attendee's choice, which was held in EWI's booth and hosted by its best designers and creative minds.

The mailer also included a branded pencil, featuring a Swarovski Crystal attached in place of an eraser, which was inserted behind another card with text that read: "It all begins with a little inspiration. And since you never know when the next great idea will strike, we've included a small symbol to help capture the moment." Additional text urged recipients to sign up for a Studio Session and closed with "That's our story. Now let us help you tell yours."

On Feb. 4, EWI sent attendees and the same top 50 prospects an 11-by-6-inch postcard with the heading "What inspires you?" The mailer urged recipients to register for a Studio Session and visit the company's micro site at www.ewiworldwide.com/yourstory - a site originally set up for the relaunch, but one that currently remains live and is continually updated to reflect EWI's ongoing promotional campaigns.

On the micro site, text prompted attendees to supply one word that inspires them - sunflowers, puppies, Paris - each of which would later appear in the booth. The site also explained that for every inspirational word the attendee supplied before the show, he or she would receive one entry into a post-show drawing for a Reader Digital book from Sony, a device valued at roughly $300 that stores electronic versions of more than 100 books - a giveaway that was spot on with EWI's storytelling theme.

Around this same time, a full-page ad, again with the "Your story. Alive." text and a call to action to visit the micro site and sign up for a Studio Session, appeared in industry publications. The ads were followed by two e-blasts (sent Feb. 13 and Feb. 27) with similar messaging, rounding out the extensive pre-show promotional strategy.

The Plot and Main Characters

By the time the exhibit hall opened on March 10, the pre-show campaign had already given attendees a good sense that EWI had been reborn as a live-communications company with global reach and storytelling capabilities. But as soon as attendees set eyes on the 30-by-40-foot booth, EWI's storytelling and creative capabilities, not to mention attendees' own words of inspiration, came to life.

This in-booth experience, however, evolved at least in part from what Hubbard calls EWI's self-imposed "paddlers, swimmers, and divers approach" to exhibiting. "Paddlers walk through or past your booth and look at your architecture," Hubbard says. "They leave with an impression of your company, but they don't engage with you; they paddle on to other waters. Swimmers interact with you, but they splash around on the surface and don't make any commitments. Divers not only interact with you, they commit enough to dive deep into what you have to offer. So while we've taken a quality over quantity approach to lead gathering, our underlying goal is always to provide something for the paddler, the swimmer, and the diver - because you never know when that paddler will turn into a diver or when that swimmer will suddenly butterfly his way into a buying mood."

Chapter One: Paddlers

In keeping with that multi-chapter, three-tiered approach, EWI designed its storytelling booth to attract and accommodate each of Hubbard's three categories of protagonists, from the passersby paddling the aisles to the more interested attendees willing to dive into EWI's offerings head first.

At its simplest, the neutral-toned booth comprised a reception desk, central Mad Libs activity area, and a conference room for Studio Sessions. However, attendees found delight in the details. For as the show's paddlers, swimmers, and divers examined the exhibit, they discovered that its simple, customer-centric architecture contained their very own words of inspiration provided before the show.

EWI crafted a whimsical mobile comprising clear and orange-colored Plexiglas letters and arranged into vertically suspended words of inspiration which had been provided by attendees who visited the micro site. Back- and side-wall graphics also provided attendees' words of inspiration, identified their sources, and included accompanying images.

Behind the reception desk, a brown wall featured the EWI logo and text identifying EWI as a "Live Communications Company." The wall's opposite side featured a 10-by-20-foot digital version of a Mad Libs story titled "My Trip to EXHIBITOR2008." Fourteen "blanks" in the wall displayed the words attendees supplied prior to the show. With the words changing every 10 seconds, each term attendees submitted became a part of EWI's architecture at some point during the show.

Subtle yet effective, the company's architectural tactics delivered its core "live communications" and "Your story. Alive." messages - so much so that even the most preoccupied paddlers surely got the message.

Chapter Two: Swimmers

For the swimmers who wanted to splash around in the exhibit, EWI created an ingenious Mad Libs activity that occupied attendees, reinforced the storytelling theme, and encouraged interaction between staffers and attendees. As visitors entered the booth, staffers engaged them by saying something like, "Hi, would you like to play Mad Libs?" and informing them that their participation would result in a donation to First Book, a nonprofit organization that provides free books to disadvantaged children.

This no-sell approach is much more effective for EWI than even a soft-sell approach, Hubbard says. "This kind of charitable interaction starts us down the road to a relationship before any kind of business is involved."

Once an attendee was hooked, a staffer quickly explained that EWI is a live-communications company with four divisions. To visually represent those divisions, the exhibit featured four pillars, each of which held a different set of Mad Libs corresponding to a particular division. Prior to the show, EWI wrote five Mad Libs for each of the four divisions, for a total of 20 Mad Libs, each of which was customized to tell a humorous story that somehow related to one of the company's divisions it was meant to represent.

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The booth staffer then named the divisions, explained the capabilities of each one, and asked the visitor to select the division that best matched his or her needs - a tactic EWI felt qualified visitors to some extent, as it indicated which of EWI's divisions attendees might be most interested in. The staffer then asked the attendee to pick a Mad Libs story from that division's options, selecting from titles such as "You did what? True tales of booth staffer nightmares" and "More product. More creative. More sales. Less budget." Each story was printed on a sheet of corporate-orange paper, and attached to a plastic clipboard.

Next, the staffer asked the attendee to supply typical nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc., as well as more specific words such as a style of dance, or a song title. After filling in each blank on the story form with words provided by the booth visitor, the staffer read the entertaining story aloud.

"People really let their guard down during this storytelling activity," Hubbard says. "It created an almost immediate, and wonderfully authentic, relationship between the staffer and the attendee."

The EWI staffer then walked the attendee to a 7-by-24-foot curved wall positioned dead center in the exhibit. Milk-chocolate-brown laminate on the top and bottom of the wall framed a band of 1,224 round, backlit cutouts, each of which held a white ping-pong ball at the start of the show - an effect that turned the wall into a sort of 21st century Lite-Brite board.

Each attendee selected one of the balls, most of which had a number on the back to indicate the number of books EWI would donate to First Book in the attendee's name. While the majority of the balls had a number between one and five, a handful of them included higher numbers such as 50, 100, or 250. After removing a numbered ball, the attendee rolled up his or her Mad Libs story and placed the bright-orange tube of paper into the now-vacant hole in the wall - thereby making the story a part of EWI's evolving architecture.

Select balls, however, featured a plus sign rather than a number. If the attendee selected one of these balls, the staffer picked a white Plexiglas tube from a bin attached to the wall and inserted it into the vacant slot. The attendee then picked another ball, repeating the process until he or she selected one with a number.

Before leaving the wall, the staffer explained that the combination of attendees' stories on orange paper and the white Plexiglas tubes filling the wall's holes would eventually reveal a message as more and more attendees participated in the activity. Throughout the show, staffers witnessed curious swimmers and paddlers returning to the booth each day to try to decipher the slowly appearing message, which read "What's Your Story?" by show's end.

After the attendee selected a ball with a number on it, the staffer directed him or her to a "Book o' Meter," a 6-foot-tall transparent Plexiglas tube, not unlike a giant gumball machine with a swirling chute inside. However, rather than extracting a gumball, the attendee inserted his or her ping-pong ball into the top of the Book o' Meter and watched as it traveled around the inside of the tube, landing in an ever-growing heap of balls, each of which represented a donation to First Book. Staffers then handed the attendee a branded flash drive preloaded with EWI's capabilities presentation, a video of its work, as well as links to its corporate Web site (www.ewiworldwide.com), its blog (www.yourstoryalive.com), and First Book's Web site (www.firstbook.org).

Chapter Three: Divers

At this point, most swimmers freestyled their way to another booth. However, EWI still had something in store for the divers that wanted to learn more: its in-booth Studio Sessions.

While EWI scheduled Studio Sessions with 11 attendees prior to the show, it conducted 10 additional sessions as time allowed. EWI staffers from each of its divisions answered questions and offered industry insight in whatever area of live communication attendees wanted to discuss.

At the start of each session, staffers gave attendees branded sketchbooks to help them share their own stories. For those attendees that registered for a session before the show, EWI offered a 30-minute discussion tailored to their needs and a custom sketchbook. On the first page of each book, the attendee found the phrase "I'm inspired by" followed by the word of inspiration he or she supplied prior to the show.

The Climax and Epilogue

In the end, EWI's integrated story-telling campaign satisfied the show's paddlers, swimmers, and divers, not to mention all of its awareness and lead-related goals. For not only did the Mad Libs concept convey its new branding messages, it also lured 310 people to the booth, nearly spot on with EWI's goal of 300; plus, they stayed in the booth for an average of 10 minutes or more. In addition, a whopping 21 attendees participated in the Studio Sessions, almost double the company's pre-show goal.

However, with most of its objectives met and the show closed, EWI didn't stop there. It launched a multi-pronged post-show campaign to make the Mad Libs concept a best seller.

EWI worked with First Book to send a personalized "Thank You" card to all attendees that participated in the booth activity and helped the company reach its goal of donating 2,000 books (equaling a $5,000 donation) to the nonprofit organization. Next, it sent booth visitors a direct mailer with a headline that read "What inspired you?" along with text that urged recipients to visit EWI's micro site to arrange an appointment with the company so it could help them tell their stories.

EWI also drew the name of one person who supplied a word of inspiration and awarded the winner a Sony Reader Digital. Around the same time, EWI sent two e-mail blasts - one containing the attendee's Mad Lib, and a second generalized "thank you for visiting us" message - to complete the campaign.

With that, EWI's story came to an end. As a result of the integrated program, the company received two RFPs, and it's had extensive RFP- or up-sale-related conversations with at least 15 customers and prospects to date.

Oh, and as if that weren't enough, they all lived happily ever after. e


Linda Armstrong, senior writer; larmstrong@exhibitormagazine.com


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