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ike the colonists who organized the Boston Tea Party that helped ignite the American Revolution, Marla Merritt was determined to spur her own revolt against competitive threats during the 2009 American Association of Orthodontists Annual Meeting (AAO) in Boston. But rather than tossing tea to take a stand, OrthoBanc LLC's director of sales and marketing decided to brew it instead.

Marla Merritt, director of sales and marketing for OrthoBanc LLC, has spent 20 years marketing financial services. During that time, she has discovered that themed campaigns can bring excitement and brand recognition - not to mention hard-core program results - to products that can otherwise seem routine and boring.
As the first company to offer a payment-management service that included both payment drafting and orthodontic-patient account management, Chattanooga, TN-based OrthoBanc dominated the market it created in 2001. For the next two to three years thereafter, OrthoBanc held orthodontists' undivided attention, as they had but one source for this double-duty offering."Back then, our only real competition came from orthodontic practices themselves," Merritt says. "Many were simply uncomfortable with the notion of handing off responsibility for their patient billing - a time-consuming, often cumbersome process traditionally handled in-house - to a third-party vendor."

In the years that followed, however, clients began jumping on the OrthoBanc bandwagon in droves, as more orthodontists began to recognize the value of outsourcing their patient billing to OrthoBanc. By 2006, the competitive landscape was beginning to shift, as other companies took notice of OrthoBanc's enthusiastic following and began entering the same market. "Not only were a handful of competitors on the scene by this time; they were starting to show up at the same trade shows as us, too," Merritt says.

This was particularly problematic, as trade shows are a critical marketing channel for OrthoBanc, and serve as one of the company's primary means of educating the marketplace about its services. "When we were the only game in town, we could count on turning out a lot of curious orthodontists who wanted to learn more," Merritt says. "Then suddenly, we were head to head with a number of competitors on the show floor, all of whom were vying for the attention of the same orthodontists who, up until then, represented a captive audience for us."

As a result, OrthoBanc's prospects were getting an earful from competing firms, and starting in 2006, it experienced a dramatic dip in both booth traffic and exhibit-related sales leads. Going into the 2009 show, Merritt knew it was time to reverse these declining trends, and to steer prospects back toward the brand that started it all.

Trouble's Brewing

Determined to win back her once loyal audience, Merritt began hatching plans to draw significant attention to OrthoBanc's booth at the 2009 AAO, which attracts more than 20,000 orthodontists, orthodontic staff, and other industry stakeholders from around the world.

Invitations to OrthoBanc LLC's in-booth tea parties resembled an American
Revolution-era document and featured the campaign slogan: "Revolt against the tyranny of managing office payment plans yourself and discover the freedom of The OrthoBanc Way."
In addition to attracting traffic, OrthoBanc was intent on differentiating itself from the competition. "Like us, our competitors offer payment-drafting services," Merritt explains. "But payment drafting is only one component among many in the complete package of managed account services that we offer."

Unfortunately, few attendees understood this distinction, and many were signing up with what appeared to be the cheapest service providers
without considering which one could actually meet their needs. "We wanted to use the Boston event to educate these prospects about the important differences between our services and the services our competitors offered," Merritt says. "Typically, once prospects understand this distinction, we're no longer competing for their business on price alone."

Finally, Merritt wanted to generate more leads at AAO and close more sales on the show floor than her team had in years past. She notes that this goal marked a departure from OrthoBanc's traditional approach to trade shows. "We'd always believed that converting orthodontists from the old way to the OrthoBanc way represented a necessarily long sales cycle," Merritt says. "Because of this mindset, we never had the expectation that much business could be closed at a conference."

That perspective changed shortly before the event when Merritt spoke with one of the Web-development firms that created the office-management applications that integrate with OrthoBanc's payment-drafting services. "I learned that 80 to 90 percent of all new business it wins is closed on the trade show floor - due largely to the special show pricing it offers to those willing to sign up on the spot as new customers," Merritt says. "If the software developers can do it," she recalls thinking to herself, "Why can't we?"

Steeped in History

To achieve these goals, Merritt decided to play on the host city's history as the birthplace of the American Revolution with nine 20-minute tea-party events hosted in the OrthoBanc booth over the course of the three-day show. Merritt strongly suspected that a tea-party concept would offer the perfect blend of information and entertainment to capture attendees' attention, and to help the company stand out amid competitors, whose exhibit offerings were more Earl Grey than Indian chai.

"Apart from the occasional clown or other sideshow entertainment, exhibitors at AAO are not generally known for their marketing stunts," Merritt says. A revolution-themed tea party, however, would stand out. "With free food, plenty of tea-party-themed goodies, and a light-hearted atmosphere, we were confident that we could boost traffic to our booth."

Of course, generating booth traffic wouldn't be enough, as OrthoBanc also needed to drive home its key differentiators. To do so, Merritt aimed to make sure her tea parties were steeped with information as well as tea. Thus, each party was to feature a presentation about the company's account-management services - a core capability not offered by any of the company's competitors.

OrthoBanc LLC sent tea-themed shirts to clients to wear during the show, and also gave the Ts out to booth visitors who signed up for the company's services.
To ensure OrthoBanc closed sales on the show floor, Merritt also decided to offer those who attended each tea party a show special. Off the show floor, the company's standard rate is a flat fee of $30 per single managed account, Merritt explains. If clients purchase accounts in bundles of 100, 200, or 400 or more at a time, OrthoBanc also offers tiers of escalating discounts.

In an aggressive move ripped from the pages of her Web-developer colleagues' playbook, Merritt decided to advance this discounting one tier level on all bulk purchases for tea-party attendees. "At each tier, the show special would provide attendees with another 2.5-percent savings above and beyond our normal bulk discounts," Merritt says. To motivate attendees to take action at the show, discounts would only be redeemed if attendees signed up as new clients at OrthoBanc's AAO booth.

The Perfect Blend

With the stage set, Merritt employed multiple rallying tactics - from text messaging and T-shirts to brand ambassadorship and more - to fuel word-of-mouth buzz surrounding OrthoBanc's AAO presence.

First, she carpet bombed more than 10,000 orthodontic practices nationwide with mailers that invited orthodontists and their staff to attend an OrthoBanc tea party during the AAO show. The 5-by-7-inch tri-fold invitations were sent almost four weeks in advance of the show and were printed on brown card stock that had the look and feel of parchment paper. The invitations arrived in prospects' mailboxes bearing an official-looking red seal. On the inside, each invitation featured Merritt's campaign slogan: "Revolt against the tyranny of managing office payment plans yourself and discover the freedom of The OrthoBanc Way."

The OrthoBanc team also contacted its best brand ambassadors - existing clients likely to attend AAO - and offered them free his-and-her T-shirts if they pledged to wear the tea-party-themed garments on the trade show floor. In a reference to both the T-shirt and the tea-party theme, the women's garment featured a stylized illustration of a steaming cup of tea printed with the words, "I got my 'T' in Boston. OrthoBanc Revolution. AAO 2009." For men, shirts depicted a lone male figure heroically waving a banner emblazoned with the words, "I Joined the OrthoBanc Revolution." Under the banner the shirts read, "AAO 2009 Boston." "Approximately 80 customers took us up on our free T-shirt offer and asked us to send them T-shirts prior to the show," Merritt says. In addition, Merritt ordered T-shirts to hand out at the booth to those who signed up for OrthoBanc's services while at AAO, as well as extra T-shirts for members of each new client's staff.

Merritt also created 4-by-1-inch ribbons incorporating the company's black, gray, and white corporate colors. Designed to be attached to AAO conference badges, the 350 ribbons featured the printed message, "Join the Revolution. Ask Me About OrthoBanc." Prior to the show, Merritt mailed
roughly 115 of them to OrthoBanc customers, business partners, and orthodontic consultants who were willing to wear the ribbons at AAO. Staffers distributed the remaining 235 ribbons to attendees during the show.

In addition, Merritt purchased a conference-bag-insert sponsorship from AAO management to disseminate OrthoBanc tea-party invitations. Featuring the same design and messaging as the pre-show mailers, the bag-drop invitations ensured that all attendees knew about OrthoBanc's tea parties. Plus, with three tea parties scheduled each day of the three-day conference, the invitations advised attendees to text message OrthoBanc staff with their preferred date and time of attendance. The inserts also informed attendees that their text-message reservations automatically registered them for a $100 cash drawing at the end of each tea party.

Care packages sent to consultants included travel necessities and an insert that read: "Who is the Gold Standard in Payment Management? OrthoBanc has it in the Bag!"
Finally, Merritt and her team sent care packages to 25 orthodontic-practice consultants prior to the show. "These are the professionals who advise orthodontists on all the business aspects of running their practices," Merritt says. "As such, they represent an important group of influencers in our market space."

These black canvas-like care packages were the size and shape of a laptop carrying case and sported the OrthoBanc logo. Each came loaded with items consultants might need while traveling on business, such as sticky notes, paperclips, pens, hand sanitizer, toothbrushes, and toothpaste. Also included was an insert that read, "Who is the Gold Standard in Payment Management? OrthoBanc has it in the Bag!" The care packages also contained information about the tea parties as well as gentle encouragement to point orthodontists in OrthoBanc's direction at AAO.

Eat, Drink, and Be Merry

Given Merritt's seemingly endless barrage of pre-show promotions, oodles of orthodontists arrived at the show, ready to party with OrthoBanc. But to further increase her tea-party attendance, not to mention her lead-count goals, Merritt implemented an ingenious referral program featuring simple Post-it Notes and word of mouth.

Prior to the show, OrthoBanc ordered 300 3-by-3-inch teacup-shaped Post-it notepads. Featuring 50 sheets of gray paper, the notepads included blue typeface that referenced both the company's booth number and the campaign's tea-party/revolution theme.

"During the show, we distributed these to our business partners, which include a number of practice-management software companies, orthodontic practice consultants, Web developers, and others," Merritt says. "We then asked them to write their names on the top of the notepads, distribute them to attendees with whom they discussed OrthoBanc's services, and encourage attendees to bring their notepads to the OrthoBanc booth." When prospects bearing teacup-shaped notepads signed up as new clients, booth staffers noted the name on the top of the notepads and provided that person with a $25 cash prize after the show for making the referral.

Whether lured in by the tea-party theme, or referred by one of OrthoBanc's partner promoters, attendees drawn to the company's 15-by-30-foot exhibit found a tea-party area comprising two rows of eight chairs and accompanying TV trays. Staffers also positioned food carts - bearing dainty finger sandwiches, Danishes, cookies, muffins, and of course, hot tea - behind the seating area.

Three times per day, staffers announced that a tea party was about to begin and started seating attendees who had sent in a text-message reservation. Next, attendees without a reservation were invited to take a seat, or to simply stand near the food carts at the back of the space.

During roughly the first five minutes of each party, staff informally welcomed guests and directed them to the food carts to select their goodies. For the next 15 minutes, attendees sipped and munched while Merritt delivered a presentation, not only extolling the benefits of OrthoBanc's products, but differentiating them from the competition. Aided by a big-screen TV and PowerPoint presentation, she repeatedly called out the unique value OrthoBanc provides its customers and placed special emphasis on the significance of the company's comprehensive approach to account-management services.

After the presentation, staff hosted the $100 cash drawing for those who had registered for the party via text message. Plus, those attendees that filled out a contact sheet for a sales follow-up received a free OrthoBanc-branded tumbler or calculator. Booth staffers then directed attendees with
additional questions to sales reps, positioned in a sort of reception area outside the tea-party zone. Festooned with a large poster reading "Ask us about OrthoBanc's Tea Parties," the reception area included seating where customers, prospects, and the company's sales staff could sit comfortably and speak one on one.

OrthoBanc LLC used teacup-shaped Post-it notepads to drive traffic to its booth, where it gave away branded tumblers or calculators to attendees who requested post-show follow-up.
"For at least 45 minutes following each tea party, our sales reps were literally inundated with people who were either asking for more information or signing up as new clients," Merritt says. When tea parties were not in session, booth staff met with AAO attendees in the reception area.

Good to the Last Drop

By all measures, OrthoBanc's booth presence at the Boston conference was a blazing success. To wit, all nine in-booth tea parties were standing-room-only events with 30 to 50 people at each one. Bearing testament to the effectiveness of Merritt's rallying tactics, she estimates that one-quarter of all tea-party attendees came in response to the company's bag-insert invitations. "This was the first time we'd tried this approach," Merritt says, "and the flood of RSVP text messages it produced was eye-popping."

Attendees also delighted in the lighthearted, party atmosphere featuring freebies, munchies, and more, she says, which contrasted with the staid approach on display at other companies' booths. "The funny thing is," Merritt says, "any one of those other exhibitors could have done what we did with their own themes and presentations. It boils down to whether a company wants to commit the time, effort, and resources necessary to pull something like this off in a way that actually advances business goals."

Merritt also had plenty of on-site help generating buzz for the event from the brand ambassadors and orthodontic-practice consultants whose help she enlisted prior to the conference. In fact, according to Merritt, nearly a dozen consultants who received OrthoBanc care packages prior to the show stopped by the booth to extend their compliments and to let staffers know that everyone was talking about the tea parties throughout the conference hall.

The show-wide buzz was so intense that OrthoBanc's exhibit seemed to command the attention of the entire trade show floor each time a tea party convened. "It was sort of comical to watch people hurrying over to our booth to try to score cookies and the other tea-party-themed goodies we had on hand," Merritt says. "Never underestimate the power of food and freebies to draw a crowd."

And then there were the sales. Prior to the Boston event, OrthoBanc's high-water mark for new-client business signed at a trade show hovered below $10,000. "We left Boston this year with more than $70,000 in new accounts," Merritt says. "That's a 700-percent uptick over our previous trade show efforts."

The jaw-dropping results didn't end with sales closed on the trade show floor either. At the 2009 show, OrthoBanc also increased sales leads by 145 percent over AAO 2008 figures. Not only did the volume of leads increase dramatically, Merritt notes, lead quality did, too. "So often at trade shows, you find yourself talking with the same group of conference goers that you see at every show." Merritt acknowledges that for some prospective clients, it takes all of those touches to finally win their business. "Just the same, you're always looking to feed new prospects into the sales pipeline when you attend an event like this, which is something we did with our tea-party event." In fact, she estimates that 90 to 95 percent of the leads gathered by OrthoBanc staff at the Boston event represented new sales opportunities for the company.

Winning results like these are also attributable to OrthoBanc's clever play to market itself through existing clients, business partners, and other stakeholders who could convincingly evangelize on its behalf. "I think that it really added to the buzz to have so many people at this event singing our praises and sporting our Boston campaign branding," Merritt says. All-Star Awards judges concurred. "OrthoBanc's Boston Tea Party event is a veritable how-to guide for creating buzz," one judge said. "But more importantly, the company converted this buzz into bottom-line results."

Traditionally, it's java - not tea - that gives you a buzz. But apparently, if you add a pinch of creativity, a pile of pre-show promotions, and an armada of at-show evangelists, tea can stimulate leads and send your sales figures sky high. E

John Boehle, contributing writer; editorial@exhibitormagazine.com

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