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case study
When the Great Recession hit in the winter of 2007, the American auto industry crashed and burned faster than a runaway Toyota. With wary consumers shying away from big-ticket purchases, annual U.S. auto sales went into freefall, plummeting from an average of 17 million in 2006 to fewer than 10 million in 2008, according to numbers from the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.

Despite controversial government bailouts and programs aimed at increasing sales, such as "Cash for Clunkers," the abysmal state of the industry resulted in numerous closures of auto dealerships nationwide. General Motors Co. and Chrysler Group LLC alone have or plan to cut a whopping 2,000 dealerships.

While figures from the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) in July 2010 had auto sales up 6.7 percent year-to-date over 2009, recovery for the auto industry is moving about as quickly as rush-hour traffic.

Given the state of the industry, the NADA predicted a 50-percent decline in attendance for its 93rd Annual Convention & Expo in Orlando, FL, in February 2010. One of the automotive industry's largest annual gatherings, the event brings together auto dealers, manufacturers, and companies that provide critical services to the automotive industry.

Relatively new to the NADA scene was Chicago-based CareerBuilder Inc., which first began marketing its human-resources products and services to the automotive industry at the show in 2006. With the predicted drop in attendance, CareerBuilder's marketing team waivered over the value of even attending in 2010.

However, despite the economic downturn, the automotive industry still represented an area of significant customer growth for CareerBuilder; the company even recently formed an automotive-specific division to court auto companies. High rates of turnover in the industry mean those companies often look to recruiting services like CareerBuilder for staffing solutions. Coupled with an expectation that its major competitors would be there and an understanding of the importance of face-to-face contact with clients and prospects, the scale tipped toward convention attendance for CareerBuilder.

"Considering it was one of the largest auto conferences in the nation, we felt we would miss out on valuable sales opportunities by not having a presence at the NADA convention," explains Adam Polaszewski, trade show and events manager for CareerBuilder. Previous sales figures supported Polaszewski's conclusion: Just one sales lead from the 2009 event resulted in a seven-figure contract with a major automaker.

Apart from bringing in the bucks, CareerBuilder felt participation was critical to achieving its main objective: branding itself as the leader in providing recruitment services for the automotive industry. While CareerBuilder offers specialized talent-acquisition tools such as customized résumé databases and recruitment e-mails, many in the automotive industry still think of CareerBuilder as just a run-of-the mill job board. Polaszewski says the NADA event is a great way to get the message out that CareerBuilder has a plethora of products and services beyond simple job postings.

"Our main objective for this show is to inform the automotive industry that CareerBuilder is the best way to find qualified automotive candidates," he says. "The years of placing an ad in a newspaper or posting a help-wanted sign in your window are gone. CareerBuilder offers solutions unlike anyone else, and we bring that talent to your doorstep. So we wanted to scream that message because 99 percent of the audience at the show doesn't realize we offer these types of services."

Rough Road Ahead

But CareerBuilder faced a slew of roadblocks to revving up its engine and rolling out that message at the 2010 event. In addition to the anticipated 50-percent decline in show attendance - and the fact that the whole industry seemed stuck in reverse - CareerBuilder's 2010 marketing budget had been cut 30 percent from the previous year, itself a victim of tough economic times. That left a meager $35,000 for the 2010 NADA convention.

CareerBuilder leadership also wanted solid measurable objectives, including a hefty ROI, to justify event participation. Thus, the marketing team developed a comprehensive set of measurable goals, which ranged from a 10-percent increase over the 110 leads collected in 2009 to a minimum of $100,000 in show-related sales.

CareerBuilder marketing staff knew meeting these goals wouldn't be easy when exhibit planning began in November 2009. With a budget that couldn't even buy a single luxury sedan, a blinged-out, big-scale booth and high-end pre-show mailers were out of the question.

"We needed to engage the audience prior to the show and reach as many people as possible with the limited resources we had," Polaszewski says of the 2010 strategy. "The No. 1 question all exhibitors have when faced with a limited budget for a huge exposition is, 'How do I get my message across to a mass audience without spending an arm and a leg?'"

To answer that question, Polaszewski and his team looked back on its successful exhibit program for the Society for Human Resource Management's (SHRM) annual conference in 2009. Faced with a similar drop in event attendance, the company utilized a microsite to post promotional videos before, during, and after the show, delivering its brand messages to an audience that couldn't afford a trip to the conference while piquing pre-show interest for those that could. The strategy resulted in a 65-percent increase in booth attendance and almost 3,000 visits to the microsite.

While its NADA budget couldn't accommodate as many bells and whistles, the CareerBuilder marketing team felt engaging online content could again drive the company's message to a large audience of registered attendees and prospects without racking up an equally large price tag. By devoting its limited resources to online content instead of easily discarded paper mailers or a flashy exhibit that only reaped rewards when the convention doors were open, CareerBuilder hoped to boost its messaging mileage and send program results into overdrive.

"You can only reach a few people with a small booth, so incorporating other communication channels into the program was essential to creating the marketing buzz we were looking for," Polaszewski says. To do so, CareerBuilder would develop a series of humorous videos to hook its target audience, enforce the message that it understands the problems automotive companies face when recruiting staff, and suggest that CareerBuilder's products and services are the solution to those problems.

Humor and Horror

CareerBuilder knew that a high rate of turnover among automotive employees meant management in the industry faced an even higher number of requisite job interviews. As any manager can attest, those interviews often involve at least a handful of candidates that leave an impression for all the wrong reasons.

With this in mind, CareerBuilder saw an opportunity to connect with automotive prospects through a series of videos taking a comedic look at those "Help Wanted Horror Stories," and showing prospects how its services could keep less-than-qualified candidates from ever making it to the interview in the first place.

Polaszewski says the use of humor was an attempt to cut through the clutter and grab auto-industry insiders' attention. "Imagine putting yourself in a car salesperson's shoes. Every prospect that comes in the lot is a potential sale. Salespeople have to use a slew of creative tactics on a daily basis to gain not only people's attention, but also their trust," Polaszewski says. "So for us to grab the attention of people like this, we knew we needed a creative angle of our own or we wouldn't have a shot. And humor is a great, memorable way to grab someone's attention."

To cultivate attendee interest, CareerBuilder would produce three videos (hosted on a branded microsite) to distribute to prospects via e-mail over a month-long duration leading up to the NADA show. Each video would depict disastrous candidates stumbling through a fictional hiring process that mirrored typical dealership-recruiting protocol, including an interview with the owner of a dealership, a mock sales pitch, and the production of a dealership TV commercial. A fourth video, revealing the candidate selected, would be shown in the booth to integrate the theme of the videos with the exhibit.

To ensure its depiction of abysmal interviewees struck a pitch-perfect note for car dealers and manufacturers, CareerBuilder reached out to its top-tier automotive clients before filming began to build archetypes of common interview offenders. "We surveyed 10 clients about the type of candidates they interview and saw a common reoccurrence. So the three personality types that we incorporated in the videos were ones to which our audience could relate," Polaszewski says. "That was key. We wanted to sympathize with them and offer them an alternative solution to finding quality candidates."

With surveys complete, the lineup of revolting recruits took shape: the sleazy salesperson with a criminal record, the unqualified career hopper looking for the next best thing, and the clueless candidate brought in for a lack of quality recruits.

"While we didn't know how the audience was going to react to the video promotions, we felt that by surveying them beforehand, we got a solid understanding of what type of candidates they typically run into when hiring for an open position. We hoped this would help the videos really resonate with viewers," Polaszewski says. "It was also something off-the-wall that we hoped would really create a buzz."

Apart from simply wanting to connect with clients, CareerBuilder developed solid measurable goals for the video promotions. They included getting at least 10 percent of e-mail recipients to visit the microsite and view a video, and hooking at least 25 percent of those that opened the e-mails to view more than one of the Help Wanted Horror Stories.

Assembling the Message

To produce the videos, CareerBuilder teamed up with P3 Mediaworks, a Chicago-based media-design firm. Each clip lasted less than five minutes, enough to provide a short, humorous storyline without requiring too much time from busy automotive managers and execs.

The first video captured nightmarish candidates fielding interview questions, while part two found interviewees looking under the hood of a car and demonstrating their automotive knowledge (or lack thereof). The third and fourth videos showed candidates bumbling through the shoot of a commercial for the fictitious "Lehmon Motors" dealership.

At the conclusion of the fourth installment, an existing dealership employee (seen in the background of the first three videos) walks in front of the camera and delivers a perfect commercial read through. This final video, produced exclusively for in-booth viewing, sent the message to attendees that CareerBuilder can help find the best talent for the job, even if it's already right in front of you. "It was almost like a sitcom, but the season finale was only shown to those who stopped by our exhibit," Polaszewski says.

Clips in hand, CareerBuilder assembled e-mail messages to introduce each video. The CareerBuilder logo and slogan, "Start Building," was featured prominently across the top of each e-mail, followed by a caption introducing the Help Wanted Horror Stories theme and a screen capture of the corresponding video clip. For example, the first e-mail read "Help Wanted Horror Stories - It doesn't have to be like this," followed immediately by a shot of the sleazy salesman smoking a cigarette in the interview chair.

Each e-mail also provided info on CareerBuilder's booth at the NADA convention and included links to details on the company's products for the auto industry. To drive booth traffic, CareerBuilder informed recipients that they could redeem their NADA product voucher (provided by the NADA to managers and dealers attending the expo to stimulate show-floor sales) at the company's booth for free services: a complimentary job advertisement and a month of free access to CareerBuilder's résumé database (valued at $1,000) for new customers, or 500 free recruitment e-mails (valued at $500) for current clients.

With four weeks to show time, CareerBuilder distributed the first of the three e-mails to 6,793 prospects, customers, and pre-registered attendees. The second e-mail was sent the following week, and the third blast went out two weeks prior to the event, providing ample reminders to stop by the CareerBuilder booth. While e-mail recipients could unsubscribe after the first message, Polaszewski says only one person did.

"I really loved the pre-show marketing initiative we pushed out because it allowed us to broadcast our message in a creative way to the audience prior to the show and repeat that three times for optimal retention," Polaszewski says. "And since everything was done online instead of in print, we were able save a lot of money."

Each of the three blasts generated more than 700 unique visits to the microsite, all above the company's 10-percent goal. In addition, 57 percent of recipients that visited the site viewed more than one video, a whopping 32 percent above goal.

Racing to the Finish Line

With the high view rate for the pre-show videos, CareerBuilder staff felt confident that the decision to exhibit at NADA was the right one. However, the company's cost-cutting plans for the NADA convention included reusing a 10-by-20-foot portable booth the company had previously used at several other trade shows. That meant CareerBuilder's show-site display was shaping up to be a Smart car among a sea of Hummers. Staff knew they'd have to focus on delivering a great visitor experience to get attendees to spend a few minutes in such cramped quarters.

To do that, Polaszewski hosted several internal training sessions at CareerBuilder's headquarters before leaving for Florida. Reps focused on teamwork, product knowledge, and delivering a singular message: that CareerBuilder has the services automotive companies need to attract top-notch talent. Staffers also conducted a full run-through on site in the booth to rehearse their roles, with sales managers playing the part of prospects and asking questions about the products and services on display. Staff providing the most accurate and persuasive responses received prizes, such as a half-day of vacation. "We even played a Jeopardy-style game to quiz staff on typical auto-industry and account-specific questions and get them to identify the faces of executives who were registered for the show," Polaszewski adds.

"The staff of seven was trained to ensure we communicated a consistent message throughout the show and directed visitors to where they needed to go," Polaszewski says. "Anyone interested in a giveaway was directed to one person, and those interested in learning more about specific products or services were directed to one of the three workstations we had set up. Everyone worked together to get the job done and ensure we all had a successful show."

The training paid off when the doors opened for the three-day show on Feb. 13. Though the petite booth sat tucked away off the main show-floor aisle, the vibrant color scheme of CareerBuilder's trademark blue and orange helped add some needed pop. CareerBuilder staff, dressed in blue and black shirts embroidered with the company's logo, greeted guests and scanned badges at a central reception area. From there, staff directed interested visitors to one or more of the three workstations that provided demos and information on CareerBuilder's automotive-focused products. Services on display included customized Facebook pages for recruiting, and CareerBuilder Institute, an online catalog of courses designed to train and develop staff. Booth staff circulated to engage visitors on recruitment concerns and suggest CareerBuilder products that provided a solution to their problems.

A 37-inch flatscreen monitor, strategically positioned on the left edge of the booth's entrance, played the final video in CareerBuilder's horror-stories soap opera, providing a few more laughs for booth visitors and attracting a continuous crowd.

Despite a limited budget, CareerBuilder didn't want guests walking away empty-handed. Staff provided a number of small branded giveaways, including computer-screen brushes, pens, and miniature Nerf guns, as well as informational fliers to keep CareerBuilder product information fresh in attendees' minds. Those visitors that allowed staff to scan their badges were also entered in a drawing for a free Flip HD Camcorder held on the last day of the show.

That's a Wrap!

When the lights went out on NADA 2010, leads were forwarded to sales reps, who followed up with prospects via telephone to provide additional info, set up meetings, and finalize sales. CareerBuilder also used information gathered from leads to survey visitors post event. "At the end of the show, we e-mailed a survey questionnaire that asked visitors some detailed questions about their current hiring practices," Polaszewski says. "Anyone that completed the survey received a $5 Starbucks gift card. In the end, we compiled over 100 responses. This helped us understand what each dealer was doing in terms of advertising and also helped us develop new ways we can improve our offerings to this specific industry."

To justify event participation to CareerBuilder bigwigs, Polaszewski put together a presentation boasting the high-octane results. Booth staff collected 134 leads, an increase of 22 percent from 2009 and 12 percent above goal. That result is particularly impressive given the almost 60-percent drop in event attendees, from 16,000 in 2009 to a mere 7,000 in 2010. Seventy-five percent of attendees that visited the booth viewed the final video in the Help Wanted Horror Stories series, and the e-mail campaign generated more than 2,000 unique visits to the microsite.

While visitor statistics impressed CareerBuilder management, sales generated from the event had them purring like a Jaguar. Polaszewski says the event has already resulted in $535,000 in related sales. That's more than five times the company's pre-show goal of $100,000 worth of revenue, and doesn't include a single cent from the more than $665,000 in additional pending contracts that resulted from the show.

By taking the road less traveled and opting for creative and unique online content instead of tried, true, and often dull paper-marketing techniques, CareerBuilder became the little engine that could, racing past the competition and proving that sometimes, horror stories do have a happy ending. E

Christopher Nelson, contributing writer;
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