Plantronics had used traditional road shows to connect with its channel partners before. In 2005 and 2006 it held about six meetings per year aimed at resellers and distributors.
But at this month’s VoiceCon IP telephony trade show in Orlando the company debuted its first-ever mobile marketing vehicle the Sound Innovation Experience. The truck is scheduled to host 165 event days before the end of 2007.
Now Plantronics marketers can look back at those events and crow: “That wasn’t a road show. This is a road show.”
Execs at the telephone headset manufacturer had been batting around the idea of a mobile marketing campaign for at least five years. The general rationale was the same as it was for any number of other companies that use mobile campaigns: “It’s like TiVo or heated seats ” says Kelly Myers-Santos director of b-to-b channel marketing. “You don’t know what the benefit of using the product is until you get to try one for yourself.”
That was the genesis. But how did Plantronics go from a rough concept of a consumer-focused mobile tour to the channel-focused wireless Internet-enabled fully loaded 44 foot trailer that hit the road this month?
GETTING THE CONCEPT
In the early stages of the discussion the team envisioned a tour that would be aimed squarely at end-user consumers. Plantronics began seriously considering the idea in January 2006 and Chuck Yort the general manager of the company’s business solutions group discussed the idea during meetings over the next few months with Atlanta-based agency Next Marketing. (The agency had been managing Plantronics’ sponsorship of a Champ Car team.)
Based on those conversations and Plantronics’ initial goals Next Marketing in June presented a plan for a consumer-focused mobile marketing tour something that would have been modeled around an “office of the future” theme says Paul Duffy vp at Next.
As discussions continued into August Plantronics switched gears. “We realized that… from an end-user perspective it wouldn’t scale as easily but when we looked at the tools we could leverage for the channel side of the business it made more sense ” Myers-Santos says. So the company began concepting a tour aimed at its channel partners—classic value-added resellers specialized distributors and big-box business-products retailers.
The concept that emerged was to put attendees through a 20-minute sales training session during which participants would get to use Plantronics headsets to make scripted live phone calls take a short quiz covering the information covered during the presentation and—while talking on their headsets of course—print out and pick up a computer-generated certificate marking their completion of the course.
BUILDING A CASE
Mobile marketing as a platform—and channel partners as the audience—appealed to the company largely because of the combination of two otherwise separate factors in its business. First Plantronics sells exclusively through those channel partners; it doesn’t have its own internal sales organization. Second even as headsets have become a more common workplace fixture awareness for the devices is still very low.
“In order for us to affect awareness we would have had to spend lots of advertising dollars ” Myers-Santos says. “But we took a step back and looked at the number of channel partners we have calling on end-user businesses every day. The more we could help them help us raise awareness of these products the faster we could get to a point where awareness increases and then turns into consideration trial and purchase.”
Further supporting the case for a mobile tour was Plantronics’ success with the old-school road shows for resellers the last couple of years. Although few in number the events—typically scheduled months in advance and held in hotel meeting rooms—were paying off with measurable sales gains. “They were very effective but it was hard to scale them ” Myers-Santos says. “We knew that if we could increase sales through our resellers by touching an increased number of them the program would scale very easily and it would pay for itself.”
In other words if Plantronics was generating sales gains of x dollars from each road show stop investing in a 165-event mobile tour would figure to produce lifts of 165 times x for the year instead of just the 6 times x that the company saw in 2006.
Based on that premise the sales impact from the new tour would have been so huge that when he was finalizing the business plan Yort decided to scale back ROI projections. “We had to be very conservative because the numbers were almost hard to believe ” he says.
The team behind the tour began its formal internal pitch at a business review meeting of the b-to-b solutions group which Yort oversees. Internally the team had begun referring to the vehicle as the Sound Coach. Armed with a sales kit that had been prepared by Next as well as a 3D mockup of the vehicle and financial models the tour backers shared the idea with their colleagues from other parts of the organization.
“There was some skepticism at first ” Myers-Santos recalls. “Some people laughed and asked ‘Are you crazy?’ ‘You really want to do this?’ But the fact that the general manager of the group his marketing lead for end users and his marketing lead for channel partners had all bought into the idea—that helped the decision get made.”
Even before that meeting getting some allies on board first was an important move. The team presented the business case to Don Houston Plantronics’ vp-sales getting him into the loop and then began to find supporters among colleagues with mobile marketing experience from their previous jobs. The head of industrial design had worked on a similar initiative during a stint at Indian Motorcycle the vp-corporate marketing at Pepsi and another coworker at Silicon Graphics.
Although they didn’t take formal roles in helping pitch the initiative to senior management the colleagues who knew about mobile marketing were valuable in helping the program get through Myers-Santos says. In particular the added support helped convince others internally that mobile marketing wasn’t just for flashy fun consumer products. “They were influencers in helping the people who hadn’t done it before [realize] that our products were applicable to mobile marketing.”
Getting the company’s top brass to approve the plan required some “socialization” as well Yort says. “It’s not something you can spring on someone because it’s so out of context to the typical things you’ve been doing.”
What did he do to get Plantronics’ ceo Ken Kannappan to buy in? Yort says one-on-one meetings occasionally sending a cc’d email about the project and casual conversations in the corporate corridors all helped. “The key element though was agreeing what the business problem was and having a common understanding of it ” he says.
In fact Plantronics staffers did get on board—so much so that people from other parts of the company began suggesting ideas for what else the mobile tour could do for the company.
“There was a propensity for creeping objectives ” Yort says. “There were people who wanted to make sure the logo on the truck had broader appeal than the messaging we wanted for our [channel marketing] objective. There were people who came out of the woodwork and—with the best of intentions—tried to add more diversification than what the program was trying to achieve. We’ve tried to fight that because we think success will require focus.”
To keep that focus Yort’s team repeatedly referred back to a creative brief written early in the process that narrowly defined the project’s goals. New ideas that weren’t in sync with the brief were tossed aside. That applied even where Kannappan was concerned. “There was only once or twice that the ceo came in [to ask] ‘Could we do this as well?’ But we used the creative brief to keep it on target and we can look at other opportunities down the road ” Yort says.
Another consideration that arose: Some channel partners were so excited about the program that they offered to get involved as sponsors. Plantronics tabled the offers preferring to wait until the initiative has a proven track record.
Even after the years the idea had floated around and the months it had been refined it wasn’t until November 2006 that the budget was finally approved.
Yort’s first thought—even he admits now that it was overly optimistic—was to get the vehicle ready for the 2007 Consumer Electronics Show which took place in Las Vegas in January. “It wasn’t until very late in the game that we gave up on CES and that was really to keep the ball moving.”
Still having an aggressive launch plan—as it is the vehicle arrived at VoiceCon less than four months after the contract was finalized and the vehicle was ordered—worked in the company’s favor Yort says. “Having that deadline forces the timeline for when decisions have to be made. Otherwise you could agonize over some of the decisions because you feel like you have lag time to get it right as opposed to a date [when it has to be completed].”
The program’s objectives are many but the two primary goals are simple: increase the number of people selling Plantronics products and increase the number of headsets each salesperson is selling.
To determine whether it’s all working Plantronics will use a combination of existing sales-tracking resources and a new system-wide customer relationship management system. (The CRM program was in the works anyway but Yort says Plantronics was able to add a few elements to the system knowing it would help measure results from the tour.)
Myers-Santos says Plantronics plans to review results quarterly—it will analyze the number of salespeople trained and compile feedback from channel partner surveys it plans to distribute 60 days after each stop in addition to continual checks of the number of people registering for and completing the course.
While Next is managing the tour Plantronics called on a trio of existing agency partners to contribute. Because the project was put together on such a short time frame managing those relationships properly was critical.
San Francisco-based Loomis Group which works with Plantronics on channel programs was engaged to ensure the content of the on-board training was relevant and connected to other Plantronics channel activities. Palo Alto CA-based SolutionSet which has handled Plantronics’ interactive projects was hired to produce the tour’s microsite and training web site. And the Salt Lake City office of McCann Erickson the company’s advertising AOR was tapped to ensure the overall theme and all graphics and messaging were consistent with existing media.
As soon as the project was a go in December 2006 the company brought in project leads from all three agencies for a kickoff meeting.
That was followed by one-hour status meetings every Tuesday at 3 p.m.—largely to make sure that Next McCann and the internal crew were all on the same page says Jenifer Salzwedel Plantronics’ senior marketing communications manager who was the point person for agency relationships.
Knowing who had to produce what and when was based on the construction of the truck. “Next Marketing drove the schedule based on the buildout of the vehicle. So once we had the key dates we did work-back schedules with all of the agencies ” Salzwedel says.
Considering both its potential impact and the financial investment required Plantronics is planning for the Sound Innovation Experience to be a multiyear program. Asked to discuss the potential downside of the initiative Yort points to the long-term investment and admits that if the tour underperforms it would be more difficult to manage than a bad short-term campaign.
On the other hand he has plenty of ideas about what might become of the Sound Coach in three or four years. One of them is obsolescence. “Ideally we might not need it any more if the category has evolved to the point where customers don’t need this kind of hands-on experience ” he says.
But if all goes according to plan? “I could see it expanding to new geographies or evolving into new product categories that would need new evangelism and new experiential marketing to support ” Yort says. “But the first thing would be if it works it may be more efficient to have two trucks dividing up the country.”
Now that would be a road show.