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July 21, 2005
Case Study

How to Double Tradeshow Ticket Sales With Clever Online Marketing: 6-Month Plan

SUMMARY: Are you hoping to leverage your email newsletter or trade magazine by running a profitable annual trade show? Publisher Shawn Collins tried it and couldn't get past break-even for two years in a row. Undaunted this year he launched a six-month series of Blog, Web site and email campaigns you should definitely steal ideas from. (Yes, loads of creative samples included in this Case Study.) Be inspired by this triumphant tale of how to double paid ticket sales on a tight budget.
CHALLENGE According to a June 2005 study by Tradeshow Week, old fashioned direct mail is still by far the most effective method of selling tickets to attendees.

In fact, 65% of surveyed show managers rate postal mail as their big winner. Web site (41%) and email marketing (40%) are at second and third rank respectively, with other tactics such as magazine ads (21%) and telemarketing (10%) trailing far behind.

Shawn Collins and Missy Ward, co-owners and organizers of the 2005 Affiliate Summit show, had only broken even in their first two years out of the gate. Show coffers didn't have enough to front direct mail costs. Plus, neither organizer had personal experience in direct postal mail, and they didn't want to invest much in a tactic they were rank beginners at.

However, they were both hands-on experts in guerrilla-style Web marketing and had sold all past show tickets via Web tactics in the past.

So, they figured they could pull it off again for 2005. Only this time their goal was to make a nice fat profit. How? By doubling ticket sales from an average 220-seats to 500; and by converting past-show program advertisers into higher-priced booth buyers based on the lure of increased traffic.

Can you double $995-$1495 ticket sales for a tradeshow using Web and email alone?

CAMPAIGN Collins, who headed marketing for the event, based his campaign strategy on the fact the Web is a big place and you can't count on one single site or email list to catch attention. He needed to wave his offer flags in every possible place a potential attendee might be surfing, including:

Five types of house media -
o Official show Web site and offshoot email newsletter sent to past attendees and opt-in inquiries
o Two editorial Web sites and offshoot email newsletters published by Collins for the marketplace (big online merchants and the larger affiliates who partner with them)
o Editorial 'Tips' blog published by Collins o New show-focused blog plus RSS feed
o SIGs (email signature) on all personal emails sent by show organizers and staff Eight types of outreach media -
o Search engine optimization efforts for the above Web sites and blogs to attract searcher traffic
o An affiliate program (naturally) allowing a handful of top affiliates to promote the show on their own editorial sites, blogs and ezines in return for a commission
o Google AdWords $1,000 test campaign for targeted keywords (text-only ads)
o Ads on blogs carefully handpicked for topic and traffic (text plus HTML ads)
o HTML ads in third party editorial email newsletter publishers on related topics
o Third party editorial Web site HTML banners
o 1/2-page print ad in a trade magazine (bartered space)
o Online press release distribution service to Google and Yahoo News

Having identified all the media he'd be using, Collins launched a planned month-by-month series of buzz-building campaigns and offers starting in January 2005, with the goal of selling out tickets in late May, just before the June event. (See link to samples of most creative below.)

-> January: Waking the early birds

Collins issued a call for speaker proposals with a deadline of Feb 13 to get people thinking and acting quickly.

Typically, event organizers sell as many as 50% of total tickets in the final two weeks prior to a show. Also typically, everyone offers early bird savings to help with cash flow and final count forecasting well before nail-biting time.

Collins emailed and posted his savings offer to all relevant house media. The savings deadline was fairly tight -- Feb 13. Prices would then go from $995 to $1,295. To dissuade the last-minute rush, Collins also pre-announced prices would rise again to $1,495 in mid-May.

-> February: Sweep and barter deal

Collins announced the Affiliate Summit 2005 Sweepstakes. People who entered either online or via email would be eligible for four monthly drawings for a free pass to the conference (but not airfare or hotel costs).

In addition, he worked a deal with a related February trade show (a lower-ticket-priced virtual show in his niche) that the show's last minute registrants who also bought Summit tickets would get discounts on both.

-> March: Picture yourself at the Summit

Through an online promotional merchandise merchant, Collins set up an online store featuring T-shirts and tank tops customized with the Summit logo. Rather than expecting a profit, he priced them at cost as marketing incentives.

Collins tried to create buzz by offering a 20% discount on Summit tickets (now up to $1,295) to anyone who purchased one (or more) of the items and sent a photo of themselves wearing it to the official show site.

As entries came in, Collins posted them online immediately, hoping other visitors would get excited and take part in the promo as well. His goal? To get a viral traffic lift as pictured execs emailed their buddies.

To build a humorous mood, Collins added a P.S. at the end of the contest rules: "By the way, if you try to be a smartass and PhotoShop the logo onto a picture, rather than wearing authentic Affiliate Summit threads, you will be sent a special link that charges you 20% higher than the regular registration rate!"

-> April 1st: Fool’s gold

Like many niche industries, the affiliate marketing space is a tightly woven community with plenty of gossip.

In March, the hot rumor was the possibility that a big new company was about to break into the space. Collins cleverly used his blog to build the rumor up for his own Summit-promoting purposes. "I started building up this fictitious network that was supposedly going to be launched by this big public company," he explains.

On the evening of March 30th, he wrote a fake formal press release "from" that fictitious company and distributed it via a wire service to appear on the major news portals the next morning.

The release contained hotlinks leading to what appeared to be the official home page of a real new company .... for about five seconds. Then a little DHTML postcard appeared on the screen reading, "Psst…Check your calendar. What day is it?" Another five seconds later the screen changes and the headline asks, "Wait…isn’t it April 1st?" Five seconds later, the viewer was automatically redirected to the Affiliate Summit's real registration page.

-> Late April: editorial PDF offer

Collins' editorial sites also publish a $129 statistical report for the industry every year. He'd already marketed and sold the latest edition fairly heavily and figured most people who would buy one, had purchased. So, he decided to offer a PDF of the report as a free download from the newsletters, Web sites and blogs.

Only catch? The PDF had been altered to contain Summit ads and every single page footer featured the hotlinked notation: Register for Affiliate Summit 2005 at

-> May: eBay surprise

Collins planned to run a big "almost sold out" promo for May, and indeed did post notes to that affect in various media. However, something funny happened on the way to the Forum.

A ticket holder posted their ticket for sale on eBay (a very unusual — if not unique — occurrence for a tradeshow).

‘We really wanted to blow out this legend," says Collins. So he quickly put a notice on his blog ostensibly offering permission, even encouragement, for registrants to post their tickets on eBay without a hassle from show management. "For anybody that has purchased a pass and cannot attend, feel free to resell your registration," the blog announced.

RESULTS Collins and Ward experienced the exquisite agony of an oversold show. 550 tickets were sold prior to the week of the show, with another 100 wanna-be ticket buyers waiting on standby to take advantage of last minute cancellations.

More than 50 wanna-bes flew to Vegas to try to gate crash. Collins and Ward had to hire four extra security guards to block non-ticketed folks who tried to sneak in.

The campaign buzz also boosted booth and sponsorship sales -- every spot was sold, most at full price $7,500 per booth and $1,500-$8,000 for extra sponsorship opportunities.

As a result, ContentBiz estimates this formerly break-even show had a gross profit of roughly $400,000.

More results data:

- Roughly 30% of tickets were sold to past show attendees. (Collins notes this retention figure is a bit misleading because tickets overall doubled.)

- About 20% of tickets were sold to executives who were not reading house media. Collins rates the effectiveness of external media in the following order:

1. Blog ads - most tickets sold, $115 cost per ticket 2. Google AdWords - fewer tickets sold, $75 cost per ticket 3. Affiliate marketing - roughly 25% of external media-driven tickets 4. Print magazine ad (surprise) 5. HTML ads in targeted third party email newsletters 6. HTML banner ad CPM buy (no sales resulting)

In addition, over the 28 days it was live online 35,388 people clicked on a headline link in one of the online news portals (such as Yahoo News) to read the full text of Collins' April Fool's press release. Unfortunately he didn't track conversions from this campaign specifically, but notes 5% of total ticket sales came in on the day of April 1st.

- Otherwise ticket sales patterns matched what we've heard from most event organizers. 20.5% of total tickets were sold during the first 90 days of promotion, and 79.5% were sold in the second half of the pre-show time period.

- The official Summit Blog saw steady growth in traffic, with 38 unique visits in December; 185 in January; 350 in February; 316 in March; 289 in April; 736 in May and 1,203 in June, the month of the conference. Collins notes, "The heaviest time was leading up to the Summit and right after it, to provide coverage for people who couldn’t be there." Roughly 150 visitors signed up to get the RSS feed.

- The April Fool's joke worked as a viral gag. It "got a lot of attention. A bunch of bloggers picked it up and there was a lot of chat on the message boards."

-The AffStat PDF was downloaded 725 times, but Collins hasn't tracked sales conversions from this (too bad).

- As far as eBay, there were a dozen auctions total to scalp tickets to the conference, and the highest one went for $2,225. It there had been any tickets left, highest ticket price from the Summit producers would have been $1,495.

"People asked us why we were permitting sales on eBay, but we were actually facilitating the buzz,” Collins explains. "After that, people who hadn’t registered were lining up asking us, ‘What do we have to do to get in?’"

It's a problem more conference organizers wish they had.

Useful links related to this article

Creative samples from Collins' campaigns:

Past MarketingSherpa Special Report: 'Affiliate Marketing 2005 -- Do Merchants & Affiliates Have Unrealistic Expectations?':

Past MarketingSherpa Special Report: 'Viral Advertising in 2005 -- Top 7 Tactics, How-Tos, and Measurement Data':

Tradeshow Week:

BlogAds - The blog advertising network Collins used to place his ads easily without having to negotiate with each blog owner separately:

PRWeb -- The press release online distribution service Collins used to post his April Fool's release on Google News, Yahoo News and elsewhere for an $80 flat fee:

CafePress -- The customized apparel merchant that Collins used to power the online Summit apparel store for the "Picture Yourself" promotion:

Affiliate Summit:

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