Given philanthropy’s benefits, you’d think that every exhibitor would hop aboard the cause-marketing train bound for the land of good and plenty. In reality, many choose to stay clear of the tracks, most likely because effective cause marketing can be hard. It’s not so much that no good deed goes unpunished, but that no good deed is effectively leveraged and executed without a ton of forethought, careful charity selection, and a soup-kitchen-to-nuts plan. So to help exhibitors cash in on cause marketing’s deliverables while also doing good for goodness’ sake, EXHIBITOR talked with eight industry professionals that have created good-for-something campaigns of their own. Their advice comprises the following six-step guide to help you plan and execute an effective in-booth cause-marketing campaign – and turn your good deeds into righteous returns.
STEP ONE: Determine the campaign’s deliverables and assess internal needs.
As a first step, sources assert that you must develop a basic understanding of what your cause-marketing campaign will deliver for both parties – and whether you possess or can obtain the resources necessary to pull it off effectively. Similar to any other exhibit-marketing component, you need solid objectives and clear deliverables. Without them, your endeavor becomes a random add-on that ties up valuable assets rather than pays philanthropic dividends.
For starters, get crystal clear about what this cause-marketing activity will do. For example, do you want it to generate awareness, drive traffic, increase dwell time, foster goodwill, encourage post-show donations, neutralize negative company perceptions, etc.? Are you looking to promote a specific product, or is this more about the company as a whole? Also, what do you hope to offer a charity or nonprofit? This could be a donation of money, services, products, or materials.
Next, consider what resources you currently have – e.g., exhibit space, exhibitry, time, and personnel – and whether these are sufficient to support your cause-marketing campaign or if additional means are required and accessible. “Carefully reflect on your available resources at the start of this process,” BeVille says. “That way, you can plan accordingly to stay within budget and keep from overburdening yourself and your staff.”
“Among your budgetary allocations, don’t forget about ancillary elements such as transportation, drayage, lighting, cabling, and so forth,” Arone says. “One of the biggest errors I see with these campaigns is not factoring in the distribution channel. If you do a canned food drive, for example, and then ship the food to another location for distribution, your shipping and drayage fees will likely be more than the cost of the food. So try to bypass the need for any extra logistics services or find providers willing to donate them.”
STEP TWO: List potential charities and identify existing relationships.
“I can’t stress enough the importance of pinpointing the right charity as soon as possible,” says Pat Friedlander, owner of Chicago-based marketing consultancy Word Up. “If there’s no logical, heartfelt connection between your company and the charity, the in-booth experience will feel random and inauthentic. So look for causes that align with your product and/or service offerings, mission statement, or some facet of the brand promise.”
“If you are in the food industry, a logical charity tie would be a food bank,” Arone says. “Or maybe you’re part of the medical industry, in which case you could donate to a local clinic that serves at-risk clients. You could also link your efforts to a booth theme. If your theme is Building Bridges, for example, do something to benefit a community center.”
In addition to finding a cause that fits your company, also consider the preferences of your target audience. Sources suggest you regularly talk with customers and/or take a general pulse of your industry to determine what plucks attendees’ heartstrings and what might hit a sour note.
Once you know the type of cause you want to support, create a list of specific charities that might meet your needs and fit your donation capabilities. To start this list, first query your internal stakeholders.
“Contact your company’s outreach or management team to see if your firm already has relationships with any charities,” says Kismet Mikos, CTSM, trade show manager at Nordson Corp. “Then determine if any of the causes are a good match for your exhibit objectives. Just because the charity pairs well with your company doesn’t mean it’ll be a hit with your target audience or exhibiting goals.”
And if an existing pairing isn’t ideal, steel yourself for a little backlash, says exhibit-marketing consultant Susan Shuttleworth. “If the company’s beloved corporate charity isn’t a match for your goals, you may need to have an uncomfortable conversation with senior management,” she says. “But when you clearly point out your objectives and available resources and illustrate why this charity darling just won’t do, you can approach the conversation with confidence.”
STEP THREE: Expand your list and thoroughly vet the top prospects.
If you found the perfect match for your program among your company’s existing charity relationships, skip ahead to the vetting process. However, if this is your first cause-marketing campaign, chances are you will be starting from scratch. To guarantee that both the needs of the charity and those of your exhibit-marketing program are met, sources recommend assembling a list of at least three and no more than 10 possible beneficiaries.
To grow this list, sources propose you spend some time on websites such as www.charitynavigator.org and www.guidestar.org, which provide info on scores of nonprofits. While these websites are often used in the vetting process, they can help you identify charities as well. Also consider charities that are local to the show destination, particularly if you’re planning any type of product or material donation, as their proximity can curb transportation costs.
In addition, agencies with local expertise can help. “A destination management company can assist you with not only identifying a suitable charity but also wrangling some of the logistics of your campaign,” Arone says. Creative agencies that specialize in cause marketing, such as Phil & Co., For Momentum, and Civilian Agency, are another option, as they can handle everything from identifying causes to planning and executing the campaign. An online search for “cause-marketing agency” will bring up additional options.
Once you’ve assembled a sizeable list of potential charities, vet each one like your job depends on it, because it does. “When selecting a nonprofit, I do a ton of fact checking, research, vetting, and more on the front end,” Shuttleworth says. “Once we go public with a partnership, I can’t have any ‘gotchas’ slapping me and my program in the face.”
Roger May, partner manager at Teradata Corp., starts this research online. “One of the first things we analyze is how much of the nonprofit’s funds actually go to the cause, as opposed to administrative costs,” he says. “Obviously, we want the bulk of our donation to go straight to the recipients.” The aforementioned websites should also be used to verify that each cause is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization and in good standing with state and local tax regulations.
Along these same lines, Friedlander and Shuttleworth complete extensive research via social media and online news sources. “A big red flag for me is any negative press or social-media comments about the organization or its leadership,” Shuttleworth says. “So I go online to dig up everything I can. I also review each organization’s mission statement and goals to ensure they mesh with my company’s values.” Friedlander researches personnel to boot. “Has anyone on the management team been accused of sexual harassment? What is the organization’s record with regard to diversity, antidiscrimination policies, environmental issues, and more?” she says. “I get as much info as I can early in the selection process so there are no surprises further down the road.”
STEP FOUR: Initiate preliminary talks and select a partner.
After vetting your list of potential charities, narrow it to no more than three top prospects based on the level to which each relationship can be beneficial to both parties. Then contact each organization to determine its interest, gauge commitment levels, and ascertain any requirements it may have for corporate partnerships.
“Usually, when you approach a local or grassroots charity – or at least one that doesn’t get a ton of media attention – its reps are delighted to receive any kind of support and will walk through fire to work with you,” Friedlander says. But according to Mikos, large, well-known organizations may have an entire system of hoops for you to maneuver. “They need to protect their brand images, and they have standard processes for partnering,” she says. “So there may be a vetting stage followed by a detailed contract that spells out the terms of the relationship.”
“During your initial conversations, also determine how each charity would prefer to work with you and what, if anything, it has to offer,” May says. “Some organizations have never been involved in trade shows, so there may be a learning curve. But others will have logos and videos for your use, or they might have ideas of what has worked well in an exhibit setting in the past.” Event-marketing consultant Allison Saget says that some organizations will even send a representative to the show to accept the donation, creating an awesome photo op and promotional opportunity.
Also ensure that you understand logo permissions and usage requirements, BeVille says. “Some charities will let you use their names and logos with few parameters, while others will have very specific guidelines.”
In addition to these initial conversations, experts warn that it’s critical to maintain ongoing communication. “For example, you could have a charity all lined up to accept a large food-drive donation,” says Lisa Lawley, CTSM, senior event program manager at Cisco Systems Inc. “But then at the last minute the reps realize that they don’t have any storage space available for the material soon to be headed their way. I’ve seen charities back out at the 11th hour because they weren’t ready for the onslaught or they didn’t fully comprehend what was going to happen.”
The purpose of your vetting process is to figure out which one of these charities is the perfect fit for both your marketing initiatives and your available donations. The relationship should be a win-win for both parties, and by asking a ton of questions early in the game and establishing a connection with a representative, you should be able to pinpoint a match.
STEP FIVE: Develop a clever strategy.
Once you’ve chosen a charity, it’s time to hammer out your in-booth strategy. Technically, though, this step could be initiated earlier in the process. “There’s no hard and fast rule for when or how to develop the in-booth activity,” Arone says. “It’s kind of a chicken-and-egg scenario. Sometimes you’ll want to create the idea and then go looking for a partner; other times, you will do the reverse. Or maybe you’ll pull in your exhibit house or agency and set it to the task of creating this activation. You could also sit down with the charity and brainstorm together. Whatever works for you is fine.”
All sources agree, however, that just like an effective traffic builder, the success of your cause-marketing campaign hinges on its level of innovation and ability to attract your target market. And while there is no magic elixir for cranking out fresh new ideas, Friedlander suggests keeping your eyes open. “Ideas are everywhere,” she says. “You might be watching a National Geographic special and come across a fundraising opportunity to protect endangered species that can be easily adapted to your booth. Or maybe you’re sitting at a traffic light where a local fire department is ‘passing the boot’ and an in-booth boot activation suddenly springs to mind.”
To get your wheels turning, consider the broad types of cause-marketing activations available. Certainly, there are straight-up donations, which can be linked to some type of attendee activity, such as completing a lead form, signing a paper icon to represent a donation, performing a physical activity, etc. That is, for every time an attendee performs an action, your company donates a specific dollar amount to the charity. You could also host off-floor community-service activations (e.g., fixing up a dilapidated community center), in-booth item collections (e.g., shoes, toys, books, toiletries, etc.), and product/service or booth-material donations after the show. Or you could simply set out to generate awareness for a cause, as opposed to donating cold hard cash.
Arone prefers to put attendees to work. “People often like to physically sit down and take a break during show hours,” she says. “So some kind of build can be a great attention getter that’s also a memorable experience. For example, attendees could assemble stuffed bears for homeless children, craft bookmarks for a literary drive, write letters to military personnel or first responders, and so on.”
Saget says an event-swap of sorts is another option. “One of my health-care clients exhibited at a show that changed locations every year, and the firm typically held an off-floor event for 1,000 people,” she says. “But the year the show was in Las Vegas, reps felt they couldn’t compete with Vegas entertainment. Thus, they canceled the event and donated the money they would have spent on it to a local children’s hospital. The marketing team even sent out party ‘invites’ announcing the strategy.”
No matter what type of activity you choose, ensure that it meets all deliverables, targets attendees’ sweet spots, ties to your overarching theme or message, and makes a memorable impact. “Creating an in-booth cause-marketing activation takes time and requires considerable creativity,” Shuttleworth says. “The caveat here is that you need to keep both your needs and that of the charity top of mind.”
STEP SIX: Promote your efforts.
Not surprisingly, a cause-marketing strategy requires the same amount of pre-, at-, and post-show promotion as any in-booth activity to which you’d like to draw attention. “So use the traditional tools in your arsenal, such as mailers, email, press releases, social media, phone calls, etc.,” Saget says. “And don’t forget about on-site signage, ads in the show guide, and more.” But since this is a philanthropic endeavor, other organizations, such as show management and the charity itself, may help advertise your efforts. Contact these sources early in the process to see what free or discounted promotions they can offer.
In addition, if you happen to be working with a local charity or you’re creating an activity that those not attending the show might witness, Shuttleworth suggests you alert the local press. “Send local media a press release or even call their hotlines and tell them about your efforts,” she says. “Everybody loves a feel-good story, which can multiply the number of positive impressions attributed to your firm and overall brand impressions accrued at the show. Plus, if the story airs during the event, it could lure additional traffic to your booth.”
Arone says that you can also involve your staff and attendees in the promotion process. “People love to brag about their own good works,” she says. “So give them ample opportunities to do so. Create an activation-centric hashtag, devise some in-booth photo ops, and offer a random prize for people posting with these identifiers.
Or, hand out the equivalent of ‘I voted’ stickers. You might not get people to walk around the show floor wearing a sticker with your logo on it. But if your logo-adorned sticker says ‘I just saved a baby polar bear,’ they’ll likely wear it with pride. Simple staff wardrobe changes or accessories can also go a long way. For example, give them T-shirts with the words ‘Want to feed the hungry?’ on the front and ‘Follow me to Booth 123’ on the back.”
Finally, don’t forget the post-show follow-up. Thank the attendees that participated, and publicly acknowledge the charity and any other groups that took part in the endeavor. “Also issue a press release and craft social-media posts that highlight the results of your activation,” Shuttleworth says. “Post pictures of the charity reps or final recipients in as many outlets as possible. This is a valuable and low-cost way to extend your presence long after the close of the event.”