"God forbid you actually get out and speak to customers in person and hear what they say," laughs Chris Grams Senior Manager, Marketing Communications, at Red Hat.
18 months ago, the Red Hat team did just that. Four staffers drove a souped-up RV across America, stopping in diners and coffee shops to meet casually with users of their technology who they'd emailed invites to along the way.
The tour was such a success that the team decided to do it again for 2004.
But in the intervening time, Red Hat had changed dramatically. Now it was a $115 million year company with enterprise customers including Morgan Stanley and AOL, many of whom were outside the US.
How do you impress clients and prospects in suits, while remaining true to your t-shirted fans in the user community?
Plus, what's the best way of handling the internal politics of a worldwide road tour, with HQ's team dropping into regions run by local offices?
Last but not least, how can you get the most bang for your road tour buck? Are there ways to use technology to reach more people than merely whoever you can squeeze into the meeting rooms?CAMPAIGN
The tour took place from March 9th to April 1st, with formal gatherings in seven cities on four continents. First in February Grams posted an invitation in the company's email newsletter 'Under the Brim'. Local offices were also asked to help out, choosing venues, and emailing their own regional lists to invite attendees.
The team held three separate meetings in each region to please each constituency. First they did a presentation and Q&A for staff at the regional office. Then they held a presentation for enterprise clients and prospects at formal venue such as the Park Hilton in London. Then, often the same day, they held a user-group meeting either at the same venue or at a local university hall.
Every presentation began with a showing of Red Hat's official company video -- it's under five minutes long. Next there were a few canned presentations, and then loads of Q&A.
Different speakers -- Red Hat execs plus execs from tour co-sponsors IBM and HP -- met the main team of five guys at each stage of the show. This helped keep everyone's energy high, and ensured that even canned presentations didn't sound canned the way they do when you've given the same speech too often.
Also, the team made a point of learning about their local office members in the first meeting, and then spotlighting them in client, prospect and user meetings afterwards. So, presentations always had a local angle and flavor rather than just focusing on HQ.
No matter how successful you are at getting people to sign up for your road show, your reach is obviously limited. Grams and the team used three outreach tactics to extend reach exponentially:
-> Outreach tactic #1. Write a Back-stage Blog (Link below)
A big part of Red Hat's brand is that it's an open source company. Grams took that to mean that communications should be as open, honest, and even human as possible, rather than "corporate-sounding."
"I want to give people the sense that Red Hat is made up of real people. You're not talking to a building, you're talking to an individual, and some pretty darn smart individuals at that. We're proud of that.
"I really believe if you talk in a real person's voice, you reach people in such a deeper way. We try not to make the message so watered down and so enterprise antiseptic that it appeals to no one. We may make at least a couple of people mad, but I'm hoping an enormous number of people feel a deeper connection."
So he set up a Blog (web log) on the site, and encouraged each of the five team members to post their daily impressions during the tour. He also invited guest bloggers to post, including speakers and local staff.
"The first internal reaction was, 'It doesn't sound enterprise enough.' People worried." But he persisted and got permission to test the project. "We posted whatever we wanted to. We had lucid moments and less than lucid moments."
Posts included everything from event Q&A session highpoints, and snapshots of local staffers, to jetlagged musings about how hard it can be to find the right hotel room in Boston.
-> Outreach tactic #2. Video the Entire Tour
The team also brought a videographer on the road with them for the entire tour, who shot almost 80 hours of meeting and backstage footage. "We didn't want to have the tour result in just us five guys knowing a lot about the state of Red Hat around the world."
Most important - after every session they grabbed a few attendees for one-on-one on-camera discussion, sort of like running an informal global focus group. That footage is currently being edited for sales training and product development brainstorming.
When Red Hat's rarely-seen founder arrived unexpectedly at one of the events, the team videotaped a 30-minute interview with him too. "We'll probably be using that footage in company presentations for the next 50-years," Grams says happily.
-> Outreach tactic #3. Use Online Social Networking to Extend Your Reach
A few weeks before the tour began, the New York Times ran an article on how US presidential candidates were using an online social networking service called MeetUp to grow community and launch local real-world events.
Inspired, the Red Hat team decided they should try the system out. So, on March 1st, they launched the MeetUp Red Hat community and announced a "Global Meeting Date" of April 1st.
Anyone in the MeetUp free registered member base could sign up to be added to the list. Then as soon as five or more members emerged in a particular geographic location -- such as Brisbane Australia or New York City -- they were asked to choose a location for their meeting.
Because meetings were to take place anywhere in the world where there were five interested MeetUp members, and the meetings all took place at 7pm local time on April 1st, it wasn't possible for a Red Hat staffer at attend most of them.
However, Red Hat HQ hosted their own local group, plus the company site and email newsletter plugged events.
The total cost was "about 1/5th of what having a presence at a major trade show would be," notes Grams. But the impact was enormous -- all told an estimated 1,500 customers, prospects and users attended the formal tour events.
Although on average roughly 50-75% of RSVPed people actually attended the tour events, in some countries such as Asia and Australia, attendee rates ran over 100% because so many people brought along friends.
Unexpectedly, many of the corporate suit-types who attended the "enterprise" meetings decided to follow the team to the user-group meeting, spending four-to-seven hours attending presentations and Q&A sessions. That's why you'll see suits and t-shirts mingling in the snapshots posted to the Blog (link below.)
An average of 3,000-5,000 people per day read the latest Blog entries. The "honesty" in the Blog entries made a few folks at HQ nervous, especially those who'd previously worked at more formal enterprise software companies. But the readers themselves seemed to appreciate the voice. And now other Red Hat execs, including the CEO, are planning to launch their own Blogs.
As of this writing more than 1,400 fans have joined Red Hat's MeetUp community with the express intention of attending local meetings around the world. MeetUp events lead by local volunteers went as scheduled around the globe on April 1st.
Grams was fascinated to see fervent interest in cities in India, Korea, Malaysia, and other places the world tour never touched. It's definitely affecting his route ideas for future tours.
Only next time he'd like a little more time to put the tour together -- this time the team pulled it off with just three months' warning. "Ideally I'd love to plan something like this a year out."Useful links related to this article:
Red Hat's Blog for the World Tour:
Blog entry with photos
Moveable Type - the low-cost software Red Hat used to power the Blog
MarketingSherpa's past Case Study: "How Red Hat Has Kept its Email Newsletter Open Rates Higher Than Average for Four Years in a Row"