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case study
ust 10 years ago, searching for information routinely involved thumbing through books at a local library. Now, books often collect more dust than wear, as the explosion of online search engines has brought virtual libraries to anyone with an Internet connection. People no longer "search" for information; they simply "Google" it.

A massive 131 billion Internet searches were recorded in 2009, up 40 percent from the previous year, according to ComScore Inc., a provider of digital-marketing data. A recent advertising campaign for Microsoft Corp.'s search engine Bing even asked the question, "What has search-engine overload done to us?"

Businesses aren't blind to the craze. They've wised up to the fact that potential customers won't discover them in a dumpster full of Yellow Pages. But simply having a website isn't enough; making sure prospective customers Googling their way around the web find them at the top of an Internet search is key, explains Bill Muller, former chief marketing officer for iProspect.com Inc., a leading search-engine marketing (SEM) firm based in Boston.

To do that, businesses team with companies like iProspect to develop and implement SEM strategies. These strategies include search-engine optimization, a so-called "natural" or "unpaid" method that involves building specific search terms into the content or HTML code of a company's website, ensuring it turns up in common searches. Other approaches entail actually paying search-engine companies to place a business's website toward the top of the list on certain search results.

As the number of Internet queries and search engines has surged in recent years, so has the number of companies providing SEM services. "Since I started at iProspect in 2002, the SEM industry exploded from what began as a bunch of mom and pop companies," Muller says. "Suddenly, anyone with a computer can hang out a shingle and call themselves an SEM firm. And almost all major advertising agencies now have a division devoted to SEM, and those companies are competing with iProspect."

A Heavy Burden
Even though this was a lightweight structure made from aluminum and fabric, the graphic mapping and quality of the design made it look like a solid and amazingly realistic structure.

While competition is fierce, iProspect remains at the top of the pack. London-based parent company Aegis Group plc reported revenue of $1.4 billion in 2009, and Muller calls iProspect the "800-pound gorilla" of the SEM industry.

As the king of the jungle, iProspect has a reputation for being the biggest and the best at industry trade shows, says Kathleen Thompson, director of marketing for the company. "There's almost an expectation among trade show attendees that we're going to have the most impressive presence at any given industry show," she says.

But heading into the company's next event - the Search Marketing Expo (SMX) West show in February 2009 - iProspect's exhibit strategy was being literally weighed down by a bulky and banged-up booth.

"Our booth was three years old, and while it was the most impressive booth we'd ever used, it was made with wood framing and was extremely heavy and cumbersome. It took about 12 crates and an entire dedicated trailer to ship, which wasn't cost effective," Muller says. Playing off the company's name, the display featured a giant pan filled with gold nuggets protruding from a large rock façade made of foam. "The setup and tear down for the display were very time consuming, and the foam kept getting dinged up and damaged during shipping," Thompson says. That left the display looking more suited for a bargain-basement company than the industry's top dog.

So, with four months to show time, iProspect's marketing gurus put on their work helmets and began chiseling out a new exhibit design. Their goals for the overhaul included producing a dramatic display that reinforced the company's image as the premier search-engine marketing firm and grabbed visitor attention to up leads. With a budget of $90,000, they also wanted a durable, lightweight and easy-to-assemble exhibit that would cut shipping and labor costs and last long enough to be worth the initial investment.

Panning for Creative Gold

The company put out RFPs to a number of exhibit-design firms, including Wilmington, MA-based Sacks Exhibits Inc. "The iProspect team wanted to stick with a prospecting theme that played on the company's name but also took an alternate approach to the old, heavy display they were using," says Bob Mitchell, vice president of business development for Sacks. "For our proposal, we developed an oil-rig-themed display concept. While it wasn't exactly what they wanted, they got excited about the creativity of what we came up with. So, they choose us as their design partner despite wanting to go back to the drawing board and come up with something on which everyone could agree."

"By pushing the envelope with innovative materials, we were able to create an experiential environment on a budget that would draw attention. I think this structure really represents the future of exhibit design."
Michael Hanifan, account executive at Sacks, says he was impressed by the time and interest the iProspect team took in developing the exhibit design. "Usually when companies pick an exhibit house, it's like a beauty contest. They go with whatever looks the best to them. But iProspect was different. They wanted to find a true creative partner."

Despite finding that partner in Sacks, iProspect was still without a "eureka" moment with any of the design ideas in play. "Sacks came up with a number of designs, none of which quite captured the enticing and enveloping environment we were looking for," Muller says. "Each year, the competition keeps upping its game. We needed to come up with a more creative and impressive booth with a compelling environment that would entice people to make that magical step from the aisle to the exhibit carpet. We always want to be the booth that people are talking and blogging about."
Muller recollects how design inspiration finally struck one afternoon in his office. His unlikely muse: a blank sheet of paper.

"I was in my office with Kathleen Thompson and another colleague," Muller says. "I actually took a piece of white paper and folded it so it formed an arch on my desk and looked like a cave. I said, 'If this was the booth, and someone took a step past the underside of that arch, they would literally be enveloped in the environment we created.'"

Creative juices flowing, several marketing colleagues quickly added a few additional elements to the paper prototype: brand signage above the cave entrance, a mining cart turned reception desk positioned front and center, and a large mining pan holding gold nuggets as a focal point in the cave. "We took a picture of the creation and e-mailed it to Sacks. They called it our 'origami model,'" Muller says.

With a concept in hand, Sacks took on the difficult job of transforming a desktop design into a realistic gold mine. For nearly a month, Sacks worked closely with the iProspect team to refine the booth blueprint before construction began. And to meet budget goals while delivering a lightweight display with a dynamite wow factor, Sacks turned to some innovative design materials.

From Inspiration to Innovation

The frame for the cave centerpiece was constructed from lightweight aluminum that assembles in a snap. Instead of using easily damaged materials like foam to provide the structure's exterior, Sacks opted for tension fabric, a durable material that's stretched over a frame to provide a sturdy structure.

Upping the technological ante, Sacks used graphic mapping - a technology that turns an image into digital information for transfer to other mediums - to print a realistic rock façade on the fabric. Hanifan says getting this step just right was key to producing a display that captured the likeness of real rock without the accompanying weight and price tag. And it wasn't easy. "We went through several iterations, the first of which looked like cheap snakeskin from the 1980s," Hanifan says. But Sacks kept hammering away to unearth the perfect product. "We went out and took pictures of local granite formations to get it just right," Mitchell says.

After several iterations, the cave came to life. "Even though this was a lightweight structure made from aluminum and fabric, the graphic mapping and quality of the design made it look like a solid and amazingly realistic structure," Mitchell says. "By pushing the envelope with innovative materials, we were able to create an experiential environment on a budget that would draw attention. The old days of heavy plywood design are coming to end. I think this structure really represents the future of exhibit design."

Sacks rounded out the fabric-based design with a number of impressive details for the cave's interior, including a sepia-toned map in the style of an Old-West design. Mounted on faux distressed timber, it showed the location of iProspect's 28 global offices. "That enforced the message that we are a global leader in the industry," Muller says.

"It's amazing when you put the photo of the paper design next to the photo of the completed booth and see how close the original concept was to the finished product."
Sacks also distributed several dozen Fiberglas rock castings on the floor to add weight to the display "and counter the lightness of the cave
design," Mitchell says. A large, bronze-colored mining pan filled with fake gold nuggets sat beneath a light, anchoring the interior, and signs styled as old-time, wooden directional posts displayed iProspect's service offerings, such as "search-leveraged public relations" and "web analytics."

"It's amazing when you put the photo of the paper design next to the photo of the completed booth and see just how close the original concept was to the finished product," Muller says.

Attendees Rush in for Gold

With the eight-week design/build complete, iProspect hurried to promote its exhibit's debut to attendees at SMX West 2009 at the Santa Clara Convention Center. While show organizers wouldn't share registered guest information, they did provide advertising for show sponsors (which included iProspect) in an e-mail sent to attendees. The company's advertising hook beckoned attendees to stop by for "a chance to win free gold," a
reference to a planned giveaway. Any visitor who dropped off a business card at the booth was entered in a drawing to win one of three $200 American Express gold gift cards. The company also e-mailed the same message to its internal database of contacts within a 100-mile radius of the event to help boost visitor turnout.

When event doors opened, iProspect quickly realized its dynamic redesign had created a veritable gold rush. Visitors flocked to get an up-close look at the 20-by-20-foot display. They were greeted by a staffer stationed at an antique mining cart turned reception desk. Sacks had taken the cart, which was sourced from an antique dealer in Nevada, and attached a granite countertop to it. Sacks then anchored the cart on antique railroad tracks at the booth's front, right corner, providing an inspired starting point for guests.

The greeter invited booth visitors to explore the cave's interior, and reminded them to drop their business card in a mining pan mounted to a faux-rock receptacle at the exhibit's left edge. At show's end, three business cards were drawn to determine the winners of the American Express gold gift cards.
Many visitors couldn't contain their curiosity over the booth's design and construction, and quickly rushed inside the cave structure to get a hands-on feel. "People kept coming up to touch the cave because they wanted to know if it was really made out of stone," Thompson says.

Apart from looking like a real mine, the booth sounded like one too. Speakers hidden beneath the Fiberglas rocks played the sounds of pickaxes pounding away and mining carts squeaking along railway tracks, all sourced from a BBC mining documentary. This sensory addition contributed to the authenticity of the immersive visitor experience.

Inside the cave, guests also had a chance to view a testimonial or two from iProspect's prestigious clientele, which includes Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. and Panasonic Corp. A looping video of those testimonials played on a thin-profile, circular rear-projector screen hung at the cave's apex.

Amid the sights and sounds, two iProspect staffers circulated to engage mesmerized visitors and ask them about their current search-engine marketing strategies and how they wanted to improve them. Staff distributed informational handouts and directed guests interested in learning more about iProspect product offerings to an HD plasma screen on the left side of the booth's interior. Headphones attached to the screen allowed visitors to listen and learn about iProspect's services without the distraction of the mining sounds and the chatter of other guests still flabbergasted over the booth's realistic and authentic design.

"We truly created an experiential environment with this booth. It was something people could see, hear, and touch. The dynamic nature of the booth piqued interest and reinforced our brand as an industry leader."
"We truly created an experiential environment with this booth," Thompson says of the visitor experience. "It was something people could see, hear, and touch. The dynamic nature of the booth piqued interest and reinforced our brand as an industry leader and innovator."

Striking it Rich

When the show lights went out, iProspect packed up its mine and headed home to weigh its gold. Before even delving into its stack of leads, the convenience of the new display provided instant rewards.

"Our old display took 12 crates and an entire dedicated trailer to ship, but this new design fit into only four crates and was much lighter," Thompson says. "Doing about a dozen shows a year, we were able to recoup the investment on this booth in the first year based on the reduced shipping and labor costs alone," Muller adds.

Back at home base, iProspect struck gold with a hefty heap of business cards, which were forwarded to sales staff for post-event telephone follow-ups. Total leads came in at 100, up 25 percent from iProspect's average trade show performance. To qualify leads for follow-up calls, iProspect used an internal tool to look up the sales of each company that had dropped off a business card. Due to the cost of iProspect's services, "companies with annual sales of less than $50 million aren't considered qualified," Thompson says. Of the 100 contacts collected, approximately 40 were deemed qualified leads, up 20 percent over iProspect's typical exhibiting numbers.

While Thompson says it's difficult to attach a monetary value to the increase, she says a one-year contract from a new client can account for $1 million-plus in business, with most clients staying with iProspect for at least three years.

But the gold iProspect unearthed at SMX West 2009 wasn't a one-time find. The company continues to use the booth at its roster of trade shows, and Thompson says leads are still up compared to previous years despite the dramatic downturn in trade show attendance that's accompanied the Great Recession.

The booth has sparked so much interest that Sacks even used it at the TS² show for exhibit and event professionals in Boston in July 2010. "We thought it was the perfect embodiment of how exhibit design is changing. You can now create a compelling and inspiring destination using lightweight materials and new graphic-design techniques, all while cutting costs," Mitchell says.

"We really took it to the next level with this design and came off as the most innovative brand in the marketplace," Muller says. "People who are
new to the industry often haven't heard of us. But after seeing this display, they leave knowing our name."

In an increasingly crowded industry, iProspect has proved mining for a lightweight exhibit that provides a memorable experience can truly be worth its weight in gold. E

Christopher Nelson, contributing writer; editorial@exhibitormagazine.com

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