Trade Show Magic – How Invoca Owned Dreamforce, Without Breaking The Bank

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A version of this article previously appeared in Forbes.

Trade show veterans know that the louder you scream at an industry event, the less your voice is heard. Instead, you have to push the envelope of propriety to cut through the noise.

Even at a show the size of Dreamforce, you can cut through the noise, but you have to push the envelope to do it.  

Dreamforce is the conference for sales and marketing professionals. Hosted by SAAS giant Salesforce, it is more akin to a circus than a professional event.

The 2014 show hosted 135,000 attendees and boasted A-list guest speakers and performers like Hillary Rodham Clinton, Neil Young, Anthony Robbins, and Bruno Mars. There were 1,450 sessions and over 400 exhibitors, all vying for attention.

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Why am I writing an article about a trade show that occurred nearly four months ago? Good question.

I am a trade show skeptic. In general, I think startups typically overspend at such events, in a vain attempt to gain attention and avoid appearing to be small. They also typically do a poor job of linking their expenditures with definitive results. Thus, I waited to share Invoca’s creative strategies so I could couple them with the concrete results that they generated.

Invoca is no longer a startup, but frugality from its early days is firmly implanted within its DNA. Thus, the company had a difficult challenge. How can a relatively small company make itself heard, while ensuring a clear return on its trade show budget? (Note: I’m an investor in Invoca via Rincon Venture Partners.)

Dreamforce was particularly important to Invoca because it has invested its precious development resources to build and support an app for the Salesforce App Exchange, which enables marketers and sales professionals to track and measure the value of their inbound calls.

Knowing the stakes were high, Invoca looked for opportunities to push the envelope and stand out from the crowd.  As a result, they got into a little trouble, but they also crushed their goals and generated a positive return on their show spend.

  • 753% increase in leads from the previous year
  • 280% increase in booth visitors from the previous year, and 112% percent over their target goal
  • 130% of qualified opportunities created over target
  • 131% of team’s goal for demos – proving that booth traffic wasn’t comprised solely of swag bandits
  • 50% increase in web traffic which generated twice as many qualified leads to the vs. the average month in 2014
  • $1M in qualified pipeline opportunities, approximately a 5x pipeline to spend ratio

Here’s how they did it.

Invoca Goes Big (Literally) With The Hulk

Dreamforce goers couldn’t miss Invoca’s giant nine foot Hulk. He was everywhere: at Invoca’s booth, walking around the expo floors and on the streets of San Francisco near the conference halls during peak traffic hours.

The idea behind the Hulk campaign was simple - get noticed and drive booth traffic. With a bright green hulk towering above people and booths, getting attention was inevitable. To top it off, Invoca gave away several new iPhones. To enter, attendees simply had to take a selfie with the Hulk and tweet their photo.

Sexy Slogan + Interactive Demo

OK – so what. Costumed characters at trade shows are nothing new.

Correct, but Invoca didn’t stop with the Hulk. They covered the blocks around the Moscone Center with billboards, cocktail napkins, stickers, and even huge projections on the side of buildings with slogans that read, “For a good time call,” “Call me maybe,”... you get the idea. And that was it. A slogan, a phone number, Invoca’s logo and the hashtag #makethecall.

The campaign was racy and somewhat controversial, but it accomplished its goal – to motivate potential customers to interact with Invoca’s product. People who called the Invoca number were given the quick rundown on why calls matter to businesses, and then they were invited to come to Invoca’s booth for a demo and a look at all the information. The phone call with prospects underscored the company’s core value proposition (i.e., that calls still matter) and it made the campaign personal, interactive, and bold.

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Invoca’s stunts garnered a disproportionate amount of attention at the massive event, and created buzz on Twitter - followers spiked a 145% from an average week.

Invoca’s campaign was noticed by everyone, including the Dreamforce “police.” Dreamforce’s rules state that exhibitors cannot market outside of their booth area, but the Hulk’s massive size and penchant for parading around the exhibit hall made that impossible. As a result, Invoca paid a small fine in the form a donation to the Children’s Hospital. Invoca didn’t deliberately break the rules, but having the chance to standout at Dreamforce was well worth the cost of the donation.

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If your startup is not willing to push the boundaries at a trade show, stay home. Nobody knows this better than Marc Benioff, Salesforce’s CEO, who is aptly known as the bad boy of marketing for his fearless guerrilla tactics. Invoca knew that ultimately, Salesforce wouldn’t be offended that Invoca followed Mr. Benioff’s creative and provocative footsteps.

Follow my startup-oriented Twitter feed here: @johngreathouse. I promise I will never tweet about killer burritos or majestic rainbows.

Images: courtesy of Invoca

John Greathouse is a Partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage, web-based businesses. Previously, John co-founded RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency sold to Coull. During the prior twenty years, he held senior executive positions with several successful startups, spearheading transactions that generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara's Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.

Note: All of my advice in this blog is that of a layman. I am not a lawyer and I never played one on TV. You should always assess the veracity of any third-party advice that might have far-reaching implications (be it legal, accounting, personnel, tax or otherwise) with your trusted professional of choice.

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