What do you do when your service or product is a little too far ahead of the marketplace to sell easily?
Last year, American Power Conversion (APC) found they'd bumped against a wall when they tried to promote their "crown jewel" software, InfraStruXure Solutions, outside of the early adopter marketplace.
No one else was demanding the product, because no one quite understood what it was or how it would help solve their particular real-world problems. A typical lead generation campaign wouldn't work, because the marketplace wasn't ready to be called on by sales reps yet.
First, APC's marketers had to educate prospects and turn head-scratchers into hand-raisers.
One January evening APC's VP Marketer had a brainwave. Why not tap into the passion and fervor of early adopter customers and get them to evangelize the new technology to other IT managers in their geographic area? CAMPAIGN
The team decided to ask current clients if they would personally host a tour of their own data center for a dozen of their IT peers from other local organizations. APC would handle all the logistics, sending out invites and paying for a nice group dinner immediately after the tour.
To help clients say yes to the idea, APC dubbed the campaign the "Real-time InfraStruXure Awards: Honoring Advocates for Change." In other words, you deserve public recognition because you're an early adopter.
APC's art department even created an actual award made of crystal that the honoree could proudly display in his or her office. (Link to photo below.) The Award had several slots to insert additional awards (shaped like Franklin Mint-style coins) into so if the honoree ultimately hosted several events, they'd get a new award for each one.
Here's how the logistics for a typical campaign would work once a client agreed to host an event:
Step #1. Carefully select names from the house list
APC had built a great house database of IT execs from mid-to-large organizations across the US from past campaigns. However, they didn't mail the event invite to everyone. Instead they pulled names by geography -- usually within 50 miles of the host location. Then they suppressed:
- Any organizations the host asked not to be invited (usually direct competitors).
- Anyone who'd been to a similar APC event in the past six months (to avoid freeloaders who were in it only for the fancy dinner).
- Anyone who'd received invitations to similar events in their area in the past month. "We get very, very sensitive to the frequency of touches someone might get," explains APC's Matthew Wolcott. "A person in a major metropolitan area might be selected for several events over the course of a single quarter."
- Anyone who wasn't in the right target audience (smaller businesses, resellers, press, etc.)
Step #2. Direct postal mail campaign
The team mailed a DM campaign via standard mail (not first class) to the selected list roughly 17-21 days out from the actual event date.
Why such a tight timeframe? The team didn't want to invest in multiple postal mailings, and the tighter deadline on the creative increased response. Plus, most events started at 5pm, so the likelihood IT execs would have conflicting meetings were slim.
The team tested a wide variety of DM creative including a "wedding-style" invitation, oversized postcards, and a classic white #10 package (white business envelope with a personal letter inside).
Step #3. Two waves of email
About 60% of the names on APC's database have email addresses and permission to mail. The team sent two waves of email to the same carefully targeted list segment as the DM went to.
o First wave -- sent two weeks out (arrives just prior to the DM campaign) usually on a Tuesday morning.
o Second wave -- sent one week out on a Thursday afternoon.
The creative featured real photos from other events instead of clip art. The team tested a variety of subject lines to see what would get the best open rate, including putting the name of that prospect's sales rep in the line, mentioning the host organization's name, and putting the date of the tour in the subject.
Step #4. Screening all registrants
Prospects were asked to register by calling a toll-free line with their "priority code" or by using an online form (their choice.)
Either way, the inbound call center or the online form (which Wolcott admits APC is still tweaking because they're not completely satisfied with it yet) asked a for a little data that wasn't already in that prospect's house list record. This might be job title, type of organization, etc.
The goal was to prescreen all registrants to make sure they were truly the right people to be at the event. If someone wasn't, they were gently redirected to another APC resource such as a white paper that directly met their needs.
Also, APC wanted between 10-12 attendees for each event. If too many people registered, the call center chose the most qualified prospects for the event, and re-invited others to another event later in the year.
Step #5. Logistics for the event itself
APC's marketing department coordinated with the local sales rep to brief the client before the event itself. They also gave the client an easy-to-follow guidelines memo on how the event worked.
One key -- the APC rep didn't make a sales presentation.
"Having your customer talk about your products is one of the strongest, most authentic ways you can get the word out. We have an APC person at the event, but mostly just as an MC. They are by and large hands-off. They break the ice, present the award, and introduce the IT manager who will be giving the tour."
As mentioned above, each event started at 5pm. There was about 20-30 minutes of meet-and-greet in the client's meeting room. During this time the APC rep presented the award to the client, plus they held a drawing for a door prize such as a laptop battery.
(To enter, each attendee handed their business card to the rep, who then used the cards to take shorthand notes for possible follow-up later. It's easier, notes Wolcott, than making the rep deal with downloading a list from the database.)
Then the group walked over to the data center for the formal tour, which took roughly 20-30 minutes including some Q&A.
Next they got into their cars and drove to a nice local restaurant where a reservation had been made for the group for dinner at 6:30. "The mood is casual," notes Wolcott. "The conversation may start with an IT focus, but it eventually digresses and people talk about everything from sports to local news."
The next day everyone got a nice thank-you note in their email, and then sales followed up with whoever asked for more information.
APC's initial handful of test campaigns in February 2004 went so well that the campaign mushroomed to roughly 700 events held across the US in the past year.
Wolcott notes that by holding so very many events, they may be tapping out the marketplace and expect to see slightly lowered response rates fairly soon. In the meantime, it's a great idea for B-to-B marketers in different niches to copy.
- Only .3-.5% of direct mail recipients register from the mailing. The best creative is a moving target. The oversized postcard worked very well, but then sagged. The current control looks like a formal invitation card in an oversized envelope. (Link to creative sample below.)
- 5% of email recipients register (remember, this is a house list!) - the best subject line proved to be the most explicit and direct, mentioning the client name, site tour offer, and date. Useful links related to this article:
Creative samples from APC's campaign: http://www.marketingsherpa.com/apc/study.html