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Exhibitor: 3D Exhibits Inc.
Creative/Production: 3D Exhibits Inc., Elk Grove Village, IL, 847-250-9000, www.3Dexhibits.com; Culture22 LLC, Schaumburg, IL, 847-517-9022, www.culture22.com; Comet Branding LLC, Milwaukee, 414-672-8777, www.cometbranding.com
Show: EXHIBITOR 2010
Budget: $84,400
 Generate three new RFPs within six weeks of the show.
 Attract 55 qualified leads (10 percent more than EXHIBITOR2009).
 Increase repeat booth visitors by 10 to 15 percent compared to 2009.
 Grow Twitter followers to 100.
 Received four RFPs within six weeks of the show.
 Drew 62 qualified leads.
 Increased the number of repeat visitors by 300 percent.
 Grew Twitter followers to 203.

or a species to succeed against its competitors, it needs two things: evolution and eons. The velvet belly lantern shark, for example, took millions of years to evolve its special light-producing organ that makes the seagoing predator invisible to its submerged prey.

But when 3D Exhibits Inc. wanted to show current and potential customers at EXHIBITOR2010 that it had transformed its marketing skills to keep pace in an era of Twitter, Flickr, and the other Web 2.0 tools that are as confounding to businesses today as television was in the 1950s, the Elk Grove Village, IL-based company didn't have eons or even years to evolve and then demonstrate its new abilities. In fact, it had mere months to accomplish what a member of our 2010 Sizzle Awards judging panel called "One of the best executions of a theme I've ever seen."

Back to the Ol' Darwin Board

Even a triumphant evolution can appear slow and halting, with one seemingly dead end after another. In the spring and summer of 2009, 3D held meeting after meeting with its brain trust of designers, public-relations specialists, ad-agency creatives, social-media mavens, and account executives to fix on a theme for the 2010 show. It had every reason to be as nervous as a saber-tooth tiger feeling the first chilly breeze of the Ice Age: The exhibiting industry at that mid-June point was in the middle of a 12.5-percent slump, the largest single-year decline ever recorded, according to the Dallas-based Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR). Frustrated by the financial meltdown, 3D went around in more circles than an Indy 500 driver. "Everyone was looking at the devastation in the exhibition industry and the economy as a whole, and kept saying 'We need to evolve our internal process. We have to evolve our approach to customers," says Nicole Genarella, 3D's vice president of marketing. "The word 'evolve' kept cropping up. That was our light-bulb moment - we knew 'evolve' should be our theme."

Once 3D Exhibits Inc. settled on the motif, it needed to determine exactly how it would show customers it had evolved and how they could, too.

First, 3D launched a social-media campaign involving Twitter, Flickr, Vimeo, and a microsite to reach its audience.

About two weeks prior to the show, 3D posted the first of 19 videos on Vimeo. The video featured the company hustling to ready its exhibit for the show.

The Sunday before EXHIBITOR2010 opened, the company e-mailed a one-page missive that featured the increasingly prevalent word "evolve" and invited recipients to visit its booth at the show.

Each day of the show, 3D changed the color of the word "evolve" in its exhibit, e-mails, and more to suggest its ongoing evolution.

On Wednesday - St. Patrick's Day - 3D employed shamrock-shaded tints for the exhibit, e-mails, and giveaways.

After chatting with staffers and watching an interactive presentation, attendees were offered light refreshments.

To celebrate the holiday, staffers performed an Irish jig in the booth.

Even the in-booth snacks matched the "evolve" hue of the day.

Drawing attention to its theme for the show, 3D outfitted six staff members in a purple, blue, yellow, green, orange, or red, T-shirt, each one imprinted with a letter from the word "evolve."
Once 3D settled on the motif, it next needed to determine exactly how it would show customers it had evolved and how they could, too. "Customers want to know you are ahead of the curve on the things they don't understand but which their competitors use, especially in tough times when they can be afraid of falling behind," Genarella says. For 3D, that "curve" included social media. With the world now spending more than 110 billion minutes a month on social networks and blog sites - according to the New York-based online-media research firm, Nielsen Online - businesses need to master the quickly shifting, always changing, constantly evolving, and often baffling world of social media.

Necessary or not, adapting to social media can be an obstacle that demands Olympic-level commitment to hurdle. A recent study by the New York-based public-relations firm Weber Shandwick showed that 73 percent of Fortune 100 companies had started a total of 540 Twitter accounts - then let 52 percent of those accounts lie dormant, usually because they didn't perceive a quick ROI from them. That's the equivalent of a business in the 20th century signing up for telephone service, and then using the heavy old rotary phones for paperweights when they didn't magically triple sales overnight. Anything but a quick fix, social-media tactics require an extensive investment of time and two-way communication between a business and its customers in order to generate sales. Thankfully, 3D understood that, as John Hagel, coauthor of "Net Gain," put it, "Community precedes commerce." Putting that principle into practice, Genarella says 3D's first step to cultivating real business was to foster virtual relationships through a focused and ongoing social-media strategy.

After choosing social media as the main arrow in its strategic quiver, 3D settled on a contrarian approach to its messaging. Instead of plastering 3D's name and logo all over its promotional materials and booth, 3D chose to emphasize its evolve motif, prioritizing that over the brand itself in the
message hierarchy. "People already knew who 3D was, but they didn't know our new message," Genarella says. "They probably wouldn't get too excited about the company name, but the evolve theme might intrigue them enough to visit the booth."

But getting them to visit the booth was only half the battle: 3D wanted attendees at EXHIBITOR2010 to come back multiple times, revisiting its evolution-themed exhibit throughout the three-day show. This was vital to 3D, because a company rule of thumb held that if attendees made more than one visit to the booth, it raised the chances of them becoming a client by 25 percent.

The Missing Links

Starting in January, 3D launched the first salvo in an ingenius, multifaceted social-media campaign in hopes of reaching its audience, demonstrating how social media can be used to bolster traditional exhibit marketing, and simultaneously underscoring its own social-media capabilities. First, the company announced, "See what is evolving at 3D ... visit us again March 6, 2010" on its website's splash page. Then on Feb. 22, it launched the next salvo on Twitter, broadcasting: "We're looking forward to #Exhibitor2010 in March! Anyone else heading to Vegas?" That same day it posted 12 photos on Flickr that showed 3D personnel at work on the booth. 3D's social-media effort continued on Feb. 26, with a tweet announcing, "Tweet #evolve3D on 3/15-17, win $25 gift card! 1 winner per day for using hashtag." By offering a $25 gift card (from Starbucks, it turned out) for using the #evolve 3D hashtag, 3D gave its Twitter followers one more reason to become an active part of its Twitter community during the show.

On Feb. 28, about two weeks before EXHIBITOR2010 commenced, the company posted the first of 19 videos on the video-sharing site Vimeo. Called "3D Exhibits: Trade Show and Exhibit Marketing Evolution," it showed the company hustling to ready its booth for the show. 3D posted much of the same content on YouTube as well, uploading 20 videos. In addition, nine days before the show kicked off, 3D launched a microsite and a blog. These, too, focused on the hammer-and-nails tasks of preparing for the show as well as touting 3D's ability to - you guessed it - evolve.

"The very ordinariness of 3D's pictures and messages was key," says Susan Weinschenk, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist and author of "Neuro Web Design." "It cushioned their communications with small talk and therefore made it feel less like a hard sell. Secondly, people look to other people to decide what to do, especially when they are uncertain. When I know that a Twitter message or Flickr photo or Vimeo video is circulating, has been viewed by others, and is popular, then it makes me more interested in the company."

Unlike some companies that swoon over shiny social-media tools, 3D knew enough not to eschew the older but still effective e-mail. So the company blasted out 674 of the digital communications to a list of recipients comprising pre-registered attendees and current clients. The one-
page missive, sent the Sunday before EXHIBITOR2010 opened, featured the increasingly present word "evolve" sprawled across the top in Skittles-bright red, green, and blue. Beneath the one-word tagline, 3D invited recipients to come to its booth and watch as the company evolved.

By tweeting and blogging links back and forth among its social-media outlets, 3D had built an ingenious perpetual-promotion machine where visitors would surf from one 3D venue to another. It was a stunning strategic achievement that wowed one Sizzle Awards judge, who said, "I love the social-media outreach. It's more than just shooting out tweets. It integrated attendees into the experience."

Protective Coloration

Primed by 3D's social-media campaign, attendees experienced the full force of the company's strategy when the show floor came to life on Monday. When they woke that morning and checked their e-mail, attendees found another dispatch similar to Sunday's, but with the word "evolve" now all in maraschino-cherry red. The content, too, had evolved. While the first communiqué suggested recipients stop in to watch how 3D transformed its exhibit, the second invited them to the booth to learn how they could evolve their own programs. If attendees picked up the show directory when they entered the floor, they also saw a print ad whose look and content were similar to the e-missives, again encouraging attendees to visit the 3D exhibit.

Rather than plastering the 20-by-40-foot exhibit with a billboard-size corporate marquee as many exhibitors do to attract passersby, 3D played down its name. To intrigue visitors, the company hung letters that formed the word "evolve" from a truss 15 feet above the booth. Made of a snow-colored foam, the 3-foot-tall letters by themselves would have formed a tantalizing lure that potential customers could see from across the show floor. But here, 3D found a visual way to demonstrate its theme that was remarkably consistent with its ads and e-mails. Each day of the show, the company changed the booth's hue with lighting from an overhead truss, which served to attract new visitors as well as repeat ones to see how the booth had evolved.

On Monday, the show's first day, 3D bathed the exhibit in Valentine's Day red. Inside the white-carpeted booth, attendees chatted with any of the 12 staff members who escorted them to one of four meeting areas located in the booth's corners. Surrounded by a string-like curtain as white as Andy Warhol's hair (but turned a vibrant red by the aforementioned lighting), the semi-intimate areas featured funky white seating alongside touchscreen monitors. But when visitors joined 3D staffers in those ruby-red rooms, the conversational ice had already been broken. 3D staff didn't so much have to initiate a conversation with them as continue the one it had been having all along, via Twitter, Flickr, Vimeo, e-mail, and other channels, allowing exhibit staff the freedom to elaborate on the evolve motif.

After attendees chatted with staffers and watched an interactive video presentation in the meeting rooms, the guests could order a complimentary snack and beverage tinted the color du jour at an 8-foot-long bar in the center of the exhibit. On Monday, for example, 3D served sugar cookies with scarlet-shaded frosting, along with red drinks, including varieties of Gatorade and SoBe beverages.

To wrap up the in-booth experience, staffers escorted the attendees to one of two walk-up computer kiosks, where they asked visitors to use 3D's Twitter account to share their stories of how they evolved their own programs. In exchange for their brief narratives, contributors were automatically entered in a daily drawing for an Apple iPad, which, along with the Starbucks cards, 3D promoted in tweets as well as pre- and at-show e-mails. While the company selected the Starbucks winners at random, it awarded the iPads after 3D staff pored over the entries, picking the ones they felt best captured the concept of evolving an exhibit-marketing program. Winners for both prizes were announced via Twitter.

With 88 of the visitors spinning brief tales of resourceful fixes and shrewd adaptations, the impromptu tweeters became live and, more importantly, independent evangelists for 3D's theme. The user-generated content also helped 3D pump up the number of daily tweets to roughly 40. But instead of sounding like the white noise of commercials, the tweets offered compelling reading, pulling people even more into 3D's social-media orbit.

"These communications reinforced a dopamine loop," says Weinschenk, referring to the neurotransmitter that compels people to seek out increasingly greater amounts of information. "The more tweets they read, the more tweets they wanted to read."

Relentlessly illustrating its evolutionary motif, 3D altered the e-mails', print ads', and even the booth's colors for each of the show's three days. Every day 3D changed the color of the word "evolve" in its e-mails to match the hue of the booth. Tuesday, for instance, it used sea-blue hues for the e-mails, lighting, cookies, and refreshments, and on Wednesday - St. Patrick's Day - it employed shamrock-shaded tints for the same items. In Addition to the e-mails, 3D promoted the colorful evolutions in tweets and posts on its blog. While it's easy to dismiss the shade-shifting as a gimmick, when coupled with the continual social-media effort and the iPad and Starbucks-card giveaways, it persuaded many attendees to stop at the booth, and even re-visit it on successive days.

Survival of the Wittiest

3D's strategy of drawing attention to the theme directly (and therefore indirectly to itself) climaxed with an attention-arresting guerrilla-marketing stunt. 3D dressed six staff members in a purple, red, blue, green, orange, or yellow T-shirt, each one imprinted with a letter from the word "evolve" on the back. Starting the day the show opened, from 7:45 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., the half-dozen staffers gathered in a variety of locations near the show-hall entrance - including the hallways leading to the show floor, outside a nearby Starbucks, in front of neighboring restaurants, and so on. Once at a location, the team "froze" in place with their backs to passing traffic for up to 45 minutes at a time spelling out "evolve" when standing together.

With word of the exploits spreading on the show floor, the stunts proved to be the victory lap for 3D's marketing. Attendees whipped out cameras and cell phones to capture images of the merry pranksters, which ended up on YouTube, blogs, and Flickr. Besides providing 3D with a kind of organic growth for its social-media campaign through attendees' efforts, 3D itself had something fresh to tweet about. It too filmed the stunts as they took place, posting the footage on its YouTube and Vimeo pages.

But the social-media momentum didn't fade after EXHIBITOR2010. Rather, the company continued to retweet visitors' "evolve" stories, posted follow-up videos from footage taken during the show, and blogged about the EXHIBITOR2010 experience for weeks following the show. What started as a promotion fused with the company's marketing DNA now averages about 10 tweets per day, two blog posts a week, and roughly two videos a month.

The Darwin Awards

3D had set the bar stratospherically high to measure its success. But the evolve theme, stirred and stoked by pre- and at-show tweets, blogging, videos, e-mails, and show-directory ads, helped the company accelerate past its other goals with the speed of a starved cheetah chasing down a gazelle. Take one of its social-media goals, for example. Aiming to build a Twitter community from scratch to 100 followers, the steady, sometimes user-assisted, efforts racked up 203 followers by show's end, more than twice what 3D hoped for (and has since grown to 551).

That metric, while a key barometer of the company's marketing mojo, was overshadowed by other, even more impressive benefits of the integrated campaign. 3D had aimed at increasing the number of repeat visitors to its booth from 10 percent in 2009 to 15 percent in 2010. That hoped-for spike, while seemingly ambitious, proved in the end to be exceedingly modest: 3D increased the number of repeat visitors to a dazzling 30 percent.

The increase in repeat visitors translated, in 3D's estimation, to an upswing in the number of qualified leads it received. Instead of hauling in the 55 it aimed at (10 percent more than it had at EXHIBITOR2009), it ended the show with 62, a 24-percent increase over the previous year. Finally, and perhaps most telling of all, its success at generating RFPs demonstrated just how effective 3D's evolutionary strategy was. With a target of three RFPs within six weeks of the show's end, the company received four, doubling what it got the previous year and bettering its goal by 50 percent. It's no surprise, then, that 3D plans to continue its evolve theme, streamlining and improving its social-media and guerrilla tactics to remain king of its particular jungle. "Evolution isn't something you do one time and then stop," Genarella says. "It's an ongoing process." Darwin couldn't have said it better himself. E

Charles Pappas, senior writer; cpappas@exhibitormagazine.com

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