Company: IBM
Contact: Sandy Carter, Vice-President of SOA & WebSphere Strategy, Channels & Marketing
Location: Armonk, NY
Industry: Computing, B2B
Annual revenue: $103,630,000,000
Number of employees: 398455

Quick Read

When IBM had a sneaking suspicion that the faltering economy might have a dire effect on registrations for its annual IMPACT conference, it devised a plan that in addition to trying new promotional tactics involved forging better relationships with, and maximizing conversions among, those who could attend.

That strategy paid off in more ways than one, as you'll learn when you read how Sandy Carter turned a sweeping industry challenge into a long-term win for the organization.


IBM is the world's leading provider of computer products and services. Nonetheless, in today's economy, even the big guns need to rethink marketing strategy if they are to keep pace with previous years' results.

Such was the case with IBM's annual IMPACT conference, which aims to educate attendees on the smart and effective use of service-oriented architecture (SOA) solutions. The event had hosted more than 6,000 attendees in 2008; however, widespread budget cuts throughout the industry threatened to significantly reduce registrations in 2009.

To compensate, IBM sought a new strategy that would not only drive event registrations, but also...

  1. Increase conversion (sales of SOA solutions) among those who register, in order to make up for any reduction in registrations
  2. Create a more lasting relationship with attendees that would benefit the company well beyond the event

"We had to figure out how to get a higher conversion from leads since we knew we weren't going to get as many people to the same events in this economic climate," explained Sandy Carter, VP of SOA & WebSphere Strategy, Channels & Marketing.


IBM's strategy included the following elements.

Leveraging social media

Low-cost online networks allowed the company to promote the event on a budget:

  • It set up an IMPACT group on LinkedIn and encouraging users to invite others from their personal networks to join.
  • It tweeted about the event using the #ibmimpact hashtag and offering contests to win one-on-one sessions with SOA experts.
  • It established a Facebook page that offered information, video, and calls to follow the feed on Twitter.

Getting partners and customers in on the act

The company also established a "Friends of IMPACT" YouTube channel and asked partners as well as customers to produce and upload their own videos explaining, in their own words, how IBM SOA solutions have assisted their businesses and why people should attend the event.

Building community

IBM worked with Boulder, CO-based EventVue to set up an independently hosted social network in an effort to create a more permanent campaign, using the event as the "starting game" for establishing an ongoing relationship between company and attendee.

In addition to common areas—where users could post comments and participate in polls created either by community members or the company—the network included micro-communities by specialty (business, academia, etc.) so that users could easily connect with peers and access customized content. To further their connections, users were also able to create personal profiles and import profile information from other sites, such as LinkedIn and Facebook.

Driving community awareness with bot promotions

To take better advantage of's substantial website traffic, a bot—which the company named Vanessa—was added to pop up during visits and encourage users to "join our community, and be part of what IBM has to offer," Carter noted.

Going local

In addition to the main conference, local events—dubbed "Impact Comes to You"— were planned for 100 cities internationally to appeal to those who did not have the time or budget to travel. The global company used an internal competition that called on its local talent (i.e., people based in those cities) to hatch their own promotional strategies and plan the events.

Driving interactivity and community at local events

The company also set up a contest among customers and attendees in those 100 cities. People vied for a free ticket to the main conference by posting local-event photos and videos to Flickr and YouTube, as well as by tweeting during the events using the #ibmimpact hashtag. Customers and attendees were made aware of the contest ahead of time and encouraged to bring their cameras; some of the local events loaned cameras to attendees.

Adding virtual events

Understanding that some may not be able to take off an entire day to attend even a local event, IBM added a series of virtual events to the program. Using ON24's service, the virtual events were designed to simulate the live event, complete with a keynote presentation, live Q&A, demo booths, and coffee-room chats. Users were encouraged to tweet behind the scenes. The content of each virtual event was also made available on-demand after the broadcast.

Sending out a post-event widget

In previous years, after events had taken place, customers would often approach the company for copies of presentations. Rather than email those upon request or post them to the company website, IBM instead created a widget that used RSS feeds to supply all attendees with the presentation materials, along with videos, case studies, and other webcasts. Two versions were offered so that users could choose to download the widget directly to their desktops or access a Web 2.0 browser-based version, which could also be embedded into personal blogs.

Implementing Live Person sales support

Leads who visited the company website after the events were monitored. If a lead were found to be highly engaged in the site content (i.e., they spent 10 minutes reading a whitepaper or checked out multiple related pages), a popup chat window would appear to engage that person. Specially trained Live Person sales team members, who were aware of which content had been viewed, customized their conversations with those self-qualified leads.


Although attendance at the main event was down over 40% this year, the local and virtual events more than made up for that shortfall. The first virtual event alone hosted over 3,000 guests. In all, 15,000 people attended this year's series of events.

The social media add-ons, including the thousands of videos that customers uploaded to YouTube, were responsible for a 10% registration lift per event; Carter reported that more than 540 known registrations stemmed from links within those videos.

The "Vanessa" bot also performed well, generating five-times more click-throughs than when she didn't appear.

The branded community network was another positive addition to the campaign, receiving around 3,000 unique customers per month. Those who participated in the community also rated the company an average of 10 points higher in customer satisfaction scoring, Carter said.

The community "allowed us to be very personal and to bring the brand experience to a new level," she said. "It raised the impression of us as a company...[and] people commented that they felt they were doing business with a person rather than a company."

The widget has further helped the company continue relationships: Around 8,000 people have downloaded the widget, and over 6,000 continue to use it.

"We know how many people are using widget, the most popular things they're looking for, and total downloads on material, so we know what to invest our marketing dollars in," said Carter. "That enables me to provide them with what they need and to provide continual updates on what they're interested in.... Conversion rates have gone up because of that."

Last but certainly not least, the Live Person support team has become the company's most productive sales group, generating high conversion rates and impressive returns (around 56x ROI).

Lessons Learned

Strive for more than a one-time event

IBM was able to increase its reach by adding virtual events as well as numerous local events to the schedule. Plus, by incorporating a community network feature, it enabled both building relationships prior to the events and continuing them afterward.

Furthermore, by including a Facebook page and LinkedIn group in the mix, it offered customers and leads their choice of platforms for maintaining a dialogue.

Empower your customers

By persuading its customers, partners and attendees to help promote the events with video on YouTube and photos on Flickr, IBM has realized quite a few important advantages. Free promotion is, of course, the most obvious. The thousands of customer- and partner- produced videos on YouTube truly expanded IBM's promotional reach, with many of the videos generating hundreds of views; one that a partner produced imitating the show "South Park" received over 13,000 views.

The photos and videos captured by attendees at local events (around 750 photos were uploaded to Flickr) helped to expand awareness, as well; furthermore, they allowed the company to view its events from the attendee perspective and see what they found to be interesting and memorable.

The company also benefitted through higher organic search engine rankings as a result of having more videos and photos linked to its site.

Plus, IBM took the time to really listen to its customers' videos and learned how they speak about its products. IBM has since begun incorporating that language into its marketing materials and buying related search terms. As a result, Carter said, the company's marketing materials are converting better, and its SEO results continue to improve significantly.

Take advantage of local expertise

Grassroots planning for the 100-city road show enabled the company to offer the most appropriate experience for each location while freeing its corporate resources to focus on the main event, the virtual conferences, and broader promotion. And because the local events turned it into a contest of sorts among the various cities, local creativity and excitement blossomed. The company was then able to bring those local leaders together to share best-practices and optimize the entire series of events.

Seal the deal with live support

At first, Carter admits she was afraid that the Live Person sales team might annoy customers. But it turns out—even if the team's conversion track record alone weren't enough—that customers exposed to Live Person actually rated IBM higher in terms of being easier to do business with and listening to their needs.

Carter noted that distinct criteria or rules for when to engage prospects should be established for each market, since user-interaction expectations online can vary by local culture and not every country appreciates the service as much as some. She recommends testing.

How are you outsmarting the economy? Email your story to

Ready to make the most out of tradeshows and conferences? Learn how to make the most out of face-to-face time with your prospects. Our Premium article, Six Steps to Forging Customer Relationships at Tradeshows and Conferences, gives you a step-by-step guide to building stronger, more personal connections with potential customers, which can, in turn, generate solid returns on your investment.

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Case Study: How IBM Offset the Impact of a Down Economy on Event Attendance

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Kimberly Smith is a staff writer for MarketingProfs. Reach her via