EVENT MARKETING: IBM cashes in on event rejig

Clive Walker on how IBM's event marketing strategy went from fragmented failure to consistent success

Whether Boston or Birmingham, Cape Town or Cambridge, IBM's event marketing is consistent wherever it goes. Everything from third-party trade shows and product launches to in-house events follows a global template and the results speak for themselves with the IT giant doubling its return on investment.

It's a far cry from 1999, when the company's face-to-face activity was fragmented, confused and failing to yield hard sales.

At the time, event managers across IBM's three core markets - Asia Pacific, the Americas and Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) - jealously guarded their freedom to stage events where, when and in what format they liked.

Not only did this result in mixed or duplicated messages about the company, but in some cases event managers were competing against each other at the same events. A failure to track sales leads meant IBM couldn't measure return on investment.

Wielding the knife

Clearly IBM's event marketing strategy needed urgent surgery. But rather than tackle the problem in-house, IBM appointed event marketing specialist The George P Johnson Company (GPJ) to wield the knife.

IBM wanted a single vision where everything from branding, stand design and graphics to campaign integration, presentation and customer messages would obey a global template. Even research into new events or competitive intelligence gathering had to follow strict guidelines. But while consistency was paramount, IBM allowed each market to tailor campaigns to take into account local cultures and tastes.

IBM EMEA event and sponsorship marketing manager Malcolm Greig says: "Business pressures forced us to make event marketing financially accountable and focused on customer needs. IBM was experiencing a 15% year-on-year decline in return on third-party events with a less severe decline on proprietary events."

This pressure to deliver cost savings forced IBM to rethink its scatter-gun approach. Rather than be seen at every fixture in the calendar, the company only attends events that promise high sales yields. Key IT exhibitions include annual European technology show Cebit, in March, Gitex in Dubai and Italy's Smau, both in October, and Linux World, held in London, Frankfurt, New York and San Francisco throughout the year. IBM's proprietary events include new roadshow IBM in the City, which hits the streets in September, and the Japanese Forum in March.

IBM large enterprise communications and marketing manager Alan Flack says: "IBM is better placed to understand how, when and why to attend an event. By tracking leads we ensure potential sales are followed through correctly. This in turn permits better insight into the effectiveness of event marketing."

Appointing an outside event marketing agency allowed IBM to concentrate on its core business activities. Advertising, direct mail and electronic communication had already been streamlined into single agencies and it was felt the time had come to relinquish internal responsibility for events.

But employing an external specialist set the company on a collision course with event managers who were sceptical of outside interference.

"It was never going to be an easy strategy to implement but we knew it would pay dividends. Event marketing was the last bastion of individualism within IBM and there was strong resistance to handing responsibility to an agency," explains Greig.

Winning confidence

For GPJ EMEA vice-president and general manager Gary Harvey, one of the biggest hurdles was winning the confidence of event managers in the field.

"It was essential for GPJ to establish a local presence in the markets if we were going to implement and drive the cultural evolution," he notes.

Since its inception, IBM's event marketing strategy has delivered enviable results. Event expenditure has been halved yet return on investment has more than doubled. One of IBM's biggest money-spinning events is Cebit. Results from the 2003 show reveal a 20% hike in sales thanks to the new approach.

"Whatever the event, customers now perceive a very consistent IBM message and brand," concludes IBM EMEA customer events manager Carol McEwan. "They can identify what IBM is trying to portray and this translates into positive experience and solid sales results."

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