Winning at trade shows: 7 startup hacks
How buckets of creativity, inventiveness, a little risk-taking, *hiring micro pigs* and a little bit of ‘Glück’ lead to success at ICE Totally Gaming 2017.
By Kevin Corti, Senior Games Producer, Glück Games
The annual ICE Totally Gaming show is arguably the biggest trade show in the global iGaming calendar. If you are in the iGaming industry, then you need to be there. ICE is huge, busy, bright, loud and….expensive! How then, does a young start-up with limited means make an impact at such an important business event?
This article is intended as an honest retrospective of how we at Glück Games did just that, in the hope that it will be useful to other technology and digital media start-ups. There are no amazing secrets if truth be told. There is, however, a requirement for a lot of creativity, hard work, a willingness to take a few risks and, perhaps, a little ‘Glück’ (German for ‘Luck’).
Glück Games make casual, real-money games and technology for the iGaming industry. We are just 16-months old and had not done any real marketing prior to exhibiting at ICE.
Our over-arching marketing goal is:
“To achieve a positive brand awareness amongst all gaming vertical decision-makers and key influencers at all of the main European gambling operators by the end of Q1 2018”.
When it comes to identifying potential customers we can identify the Head of Games at any key operator, fairly easily, either through existing personal networks or with a little desk research (e.g. Linkedin) . That business development process is, however, considerably smoother if he/she, the CEO, the CMO, CCO, the head of CRM and other important influencers have also all heard about us and have a favourable impression of what it is that we do.
That’s where ICE comes in.
ICE is a massive trade show event. This year at ICE, there were a record 30,000 attendees and 500 exhibitors over the three days at ExCel London. If you don’t know what the event is about, the short video below from CalvinAyre.com will give you a good insight.
The global online gambling market is worth approximately $60bn, depending on which sources you use and employs, we estimate, something like 100,000 people (operators and suppliers). The industry’s major companies spend several millions of pounds on their stands and related activities at ICE. Microgaming, for example, not only had one of the largest display areas and dozens of staff in attendance. They also hired — in its entirety — the Sunborn, a permanently-moored, 108-metre floating ship cum hotel with ‘136 spacious guest rooms’. All of it. The whole boat!
Several industry people had said to us that “if you are not exhibiting at ICE, then you are nobody”, but simply ticking the ‘we exist’ box would be wholly insufficient as an outcome for a young company like Glück Games.
In committing to exhibit at iCE 2017, we absolutely had to achieve multiple sales and marketing targets that would serve to drive the business forward for the next 12 months, else the experiment would have been an undoubted failure. As a young start-up simply exhibiting at ICE, let alone taking on a decent-sized stand, was a big decision, but one that looks to have paid out handsomely. One week after the show, the evidence suggests that we succeeded and by quite a margin.
Our CEO and COO were in back to back meetings for the entire show and we came away with dozens of tangible B2B sales leads, more, in all honesty, than we can probably act upon in the short to medium term and thus some hard prioritisation is now in order. Some of our, as yet, unreleased games attracted significant interest from multiple online gambling operators and state lottery operators from all across the globe. One of these games — The Lotto Machine — won the ICE ‘Game To Watch’ competition after a competitive application process, pitch session and intense grilling by some renowned industry figures. The posts on our fledgling social media channels got tens of thousands of shares and ‘likes’ amongst a very targeted audience (more on this later). We were extensively covered in the event media, including a great video piece by the well-respected Rebecca Liggero from CalvinAyre.com. We also obtained some great competitor and market intelligence.
On top of all of this, having been operating below the radar until this point, we arguably ‘got noticed’ due, in no small part, to our decision to hire two cute micro pigs. Yes, you read that correctly, ‘micro pigs’. Bear with me, I shall explain later.
Small start-up companies tend to occupy rather dreary, badly-located stand spaces at big trade events like ICE. You have all seen them; little square, default grey-coloured spaces with a velcroed on logo and a couple of slightly-desperate looking founder types who are hoping passers by will stop and chat. In an industry that is characterised by big numbers, bright lights, not in-frequent controversy and outrageous marketing stunts, it is very hard for the little guys to get noticed when they are surrounded by legions of scantily-clad ladies, roaming samba dance troupes, marching bands, towering multi-million pound stands (many offering free booze) and a loud, background soundscape generated by thousands of electro-mechanical gaming machines and videos on hundreds of large HD screens.
Glück is a small company with limited means but we succeeded at our first big trade show when many others likely did not. Here are some examples to illustrate that.
- Facebook advert reach of 10,192 (only €263 spent) and Facebook post reach of 12,389 (1,254 engagements, 2,001 video views) — all to to highly targeted audience of employees at iGaming companies who were at or near the actual exhibition.
- The most mentions/retweets (14 in total) of any exhibitor during the week of the event from the official ICE Twitter accounts. The next largest was Microgaming with 5 (they with the big boat!)
- 37 tweets from @gluckgames got over 16,000 impressions (2,283 profile visits) and 62 tweets from @gluckpiglets got over 24,000 impressions
- Top follower in Feb was @totallygamingHQ — the event organisers with 7,300 followers
- ‘Post views’ on Linkedin: ~9,300 (Glück Games business page posts) and a further 20,000+ from personal posts by Glück employees.
- Medium press release reads: ~280
- Meetings at ICE: ~25
- Tangible leads: >20
Now, the stats above may seem pretty insignificant to a larger, more established business however it is important to consider the quality and relevance of the audience over quantity.
We are not a B2C company. We are not trying to market to ‘Joe (or Joanna) Public’. We are a B2B games content and technology provider. Our success lies in our ability to influence relevant, key-decision makers at specific types of businesses in our industry in Europe. As a result of our activities at and around ICE 2017, we’ve now begun to get on the radar of the people that matter for our business.
For context, a single completed deal with an operator might yield us £25–100k ongoing revenue per month. Even one small deal could recoup or expenditure on ICE in under 2 months.
The intangible impact is also important to consider. You cannot quantify this with stats about followers, impressions, retweets or ‘Likes’ but it has a positive network effect that can yield significant business value. Examples were:
- All the people who saw our video interview by the influential CalvinAyre.com (we figure from 1m:06s). Companies normally pay a lot for this level of coverage!
- Twitter retweets and mentions from event organisers & other exhibitors. These carry credibility among the target audience.
- Many personal Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp and other social media posts by ICE attendees/exhibitors taking photos with our Glück Piglets (more on this below).
- Many hundreds of people who engaged with our team whilst we were out walking the Glück Piglets at around the show floor. Lots of these then came to our stand who might otherwise not have done.
- Being ‘awarded’ the ‘unofficial ICE Diversity award’ on Twitter by Ewa Bakun who heads up the content strategy for Clarion Gaming (the organiser behind ICE). This highlighted that that there are better ways to grab attention than to hire scantily-clad women. Consider how many women in this industry (and our customers) most likely harbour similar sentiments in an industry often held back by this 20th century mindset.
This was all achieved, despite the fact that we did not have much of a budget, only four people at the show, nor — as yet — any employees in dedicated business development or marketing roles. So, you may be wondering, how did we achieve this?
Our tips, in no particular order, are as follows.
1 — ‘Go all in!’
If you are going to do do it, do it properly. Commit. There is zero point in paying for a exhibitor space and then having a cheap-looking stand or not enough people working on it. Equally, if you are going to exhibit, you need to also undertake meaningful physical and digital marketing, provide useful product demonstrations and line up a bunch of PR and other attention-grabbing activities. Success comes from doing everything in a carefully-planned and coordinated fashion.
We started planning for ICE several months in advance, although the bulk of the tactical effort was undertaken in the month beforehand. As a company, we have big ambitions — we have a plethora of games products and technology platforms in development — and it always feels like ‘there is never enough time or people’. That’s the normal status quo for many start-up’s though, right? It was, therefore, a major gamble to expect our senior management, two game producers, two artists, two developers and our office manager to de-prioritise their day-to-day responsibilities, for several weeks, in order to take on ICE-related activities. If, however, we had not made that commitment then the entire investment would have likely been wasted.
Thus we organised daily ICE stand-ups, came up with and then debated dozens of marketing and PR ideas, identified a host of practical requirements, set up a Trello board with dozens of tasks, shared out the workload and committed to making it work.
2 — ‘Buddy up’ (share a stand)
A key, early decision was to share a large space with two other companies; Gamevy and W2 Global Data. This could have acted to confuse passers-by and to damage first impressions so it was undoubtedly a risk. However, by way of some good stand design decisions, and perhaps a small dose of luck, the arrangement paid off for all parties. Firstly it creates an impression that you are bigger than you really are. From a practical standpoint, it meant that we could share meeting rooms, and tables and chairs when ours were busy and vice versa.
We also found, unexpectedly, that when we or our ‘stand buddies’ were busy, that more often than not we could ensure that interested foot traffic was catered for by way of providing them with a short overview whilst catching our colleague’s attention. If this was not feasible, then at least business cards could be obtained from the visitors along with some salient info snippets to enable a follow-up call or email was still possible. They, of course, did the same for us.
Lastly, having three companies with three sets of products makes for a busier stand overall, which in turn attracts attention. Nobody is attracted to an empty stand!
3 — Improve your social skills
Most companies at ICE will have had one or more employees solely focussed upon managing their social media channels. We didn’t even have a Facebook presence until three weeks before the show! Even then, simply having a web site, twitter account, Facebook page and Vimeo presence is not enough. You need to consider how these channels work in unison, what content you need to produce for each, who you are trying to reach and why, and then how you are going to measure the impact and tweak accordingly.
It is tempting to just post about your products and services on Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin. That might work for Apple, Jaguar or Netflix, but we are a young unknown paddling in a sea full of mighty whales….and no small amount of sharks. We had to repeatedly grab attention over and over again by whatever means possible until the target audience began to notice what we actually do for a living and, hopefully, make the connection with what they do. Multiple dry company news announcements are generally not the medium for that. Most people will not have the time or inclination to read those in full. These do, however, serve a different purpose in that the titles may get noticed even if the article is not opened. If these article titles convey a consistent message around, for example, ‘growth’ and ‘success’, then you are beginning to create a positive, subconscious impression.
Identifying what social media KPIs matter to your business is very important. For a B2C business, Facebook followers and ‘Likes’ are clearly relevant. For us, however, getting seen by iGaming professionals — of whom there are not that many — is the overall goal. In particular, we wanted to drive Linkedin post views since these are not mere ‘passing newsfeed fillers’ but require the user to click on the post URL itself.
Our focus however was upon creating content that was either (a) useful, or (b) funny.
‘Useful’ posts included facts and figures, breaking industry news and practical insights that we scoured the internet for and simply passed on with a short summary for context. Finding good quality, relevant content takes time and you need to consider how best (where and when) to share it.
We also produced an attractive-looking infographic entitled ‘Online Lotto: Oceans of opportunity (don’t miss the boat), which we shared across social channels.
‘Funny’ content had to be crafted so that it actually was funny (not easy) and so that there was some connection with Glück Games and what we do. Luckily our team has a good sense of humour — despite, as you may assume, us being a German company — and, on top of that, we had the golden gifts of multiple, timely, high profile ‘talking points’ as source material courtesy of the ‘exciting’ new Trump administration.
One may naturally assume that Facebook is the place for funny memes and Linkedin the place for straight-laced professional content, however we found that is not necessarily the case.
Facebook is generally made up of much closer links between people who move in similar circles e.g. actual friends who are interested in what you have to say and trust your judgement because they actually know you in real life. That actually suits sharing of meaningful content e.g. informative articles.
Linkedin offers a much more tenuous network (again, speaking generally) and we found that funny memes got shared and viewed far and wide on Linkedin. Maybe it’s a way to get noticed on Linkedin?
It is hard to quantify the impact this had on people that actually came to our stand. We could not really ask everyone if they saw our Mike Pence-themed memes for example, but we can — truthfully(!) — state that several people commented on our great digital marketing work without being prompted. They noticed it. They enjoyed it. They remembered who we were. They stopped at our stand. Mission accomplished.
Some examples of impact:
- Our top tweet during ICE (about winning the Game To Watch competition) got 2,156 impressions.
- A Linkedin post on the same subject by our CEO, Robert Lenzhofer, had 9,588 views (as of 19th Feb), 287 from CEO/Exec-level people and 72 from people at William Hill.
4 — Targeted paid-for content boosting
Again, one may assume that Linkedin is the medium on which we would pay for advertising what with it being a professional network. We reasoned, however, that with so many people visiting ICE from far and wide, that they would almost certainly be using Facebook to keep in contact with friends and family back home. We also knew that we could use Facebook’s awesome custom audience creation and geographic targeting tools to create ad campaigns that almost certainly showed up if you were a iGaming industry professional who was at or near to ICE.
With that in mind, we ran a series of small ads (€25–50 each) and boosted-Facebook posts using a custom audience made up exclusively of people who worked for exhibitors at ICE and at major operators who were also within 20km of the event whilst it was running. Our goal was not to get these people to click on a sales link, rather we simply wanted to enter their consciousness so that if they walked past our stand, they were more likely to stop and have a chat.
The added advantage of this tight targeting is that you only pay for advert impressions for people that fit the campaign’s remit. If you did not work for the likes of William Hill, NYX or Playtech and were not situated near to ExCel during the event, then you did not see the advert, and we did not pay anything. We applied this tactic to a mix of content; company overviews and product news (with sexy videos), and the aforementioned practical and funny content.
5 — Hire micro pigs!
A significant number of exhibitors at ICE2017 hired attractive young women to be on their stand, many in very revealing outfits. Many people have commented as to whether this is appropriate in 2017. Doing so was never an option for Glück Games however we still wanted ‘something’ that would attract attention nonetheless. The answer …..to hire micro pigs!
The initial idea was simply to have some piglets on our stand because hey ….they are cute, right? However, this evolved into a much more coherent concept tied together with an easy to grasp narrative and which worked well with our social media strategy. The ‘Glück Piglets’ were “visiting ICE2017 on a hunt to find the biggest jackpots”.
We would walk them all around the show floor over the course of 3 days, taking photos of them at various stands, post to social media (with hashtags such as #BiggestJackpotHunt) and, after 3 days, shock horror ….the piglets find a £20million jackpot on offer on our very own stand. Silly pigs, they should have known that the best jackpots are found at Glück Games!
The ‘Glück Piglets’ concept was also a good fit with the fact that we’d recently announced that we have sold 40 million of our ‘Piggy Bank’ scratchcards (big numbers impress). On top of that, pigs are a sign of good luck in Germany, where our studio is based.
The ‘Glück Piglets’ proved to be absolute show-stoppers. Almost everyone (female and male!) would stop to watch, stroke or have their picture taken with them. People would break off from conversations or walk away from their stands to see them up close. Countless photos were taken of the piglets. Several people phoned other colleagues at ICE to tell them to come and see the piglets. Some called friends and family elsewhere to tell them ‘they had just met micro pigs’. One guy made a Facetime calls to his wife in the US. One person even made a Facebook live video of his encounter. The piglets, I should point out, wore baby T-shirts with our company logo and stand number prominently displayed! We have no idea how many people will have seen, shared or liked these photos on people’s personal Facebook accounts. We suspect it was a lot.
The pig’s handler (from ‘Kew Little Pigs’) took the time to learn some of our key messaging, and she and our staff wore branded T-shirts and handed out brochures. Ironically, having piglets on our stand lead to repeated, extended visits from several groups of ‘both babes’ who were supposed to be getting visitors to their own stands.
There was a risk that this could have gone quite, badly wrong. There were, for example, several predictable ‘poo and wee events’ and a few people stated their objection to the use of animals at the show but much to our relief, it proved to be an extremely well received PR stunt and one that we will now carry forward to other events.
6 — Guerilla tweeting
The Glück Piglets got their own Twitter account (@gluckpiglets) — which automatically fed into their own Facebook page. This allowed us to undertake extensive guerrilla tweeting activities. When the piglets went on their multiple visits around ICE, we took dozens of photos of the piglets at well-known company’s stands which were then included in tweets with the that company’s username along with (vaguely) amusing comments and careful selection of relevant hashtags. These got lots of retweets and direct replies. Social media managers love to engage in friendly, witty banter with each other and we had several pig-themed, pun-ridden exchanges with the likes of Microgaming.
This was actually a resource-intensive activity. It took two people to walk the piglets and another person to take and edit photos, quickly find twitter account names and relevant hashtags, to hack out and post each tweet. I found myself having to catch up on dozens of these in the cramped cupboard behind our stand after a ‘piglet excursion’ as there simply wasn’t time to do it all in real time.
7 — Compete!
As we may have already mentioned several times, we entered and won the Game To Watch competition at ICE.
As nice as winning a trophy is (it is sitting on my desk as I write), just being in competitions like this is useful.
Even if you are not selected to pitch, the judges — all of whom are respected industry professionals — become aware of you. If you get selected to pitch but do not win, you still get to talk in front of an audience of potentially interesting people. If you win ….well that’s just gravy …..to be shamelessly exploited on your social media channels for as long as you can get away with it.
Most industry events have some form of competition and they are often free to enter. It may take a few days to write a compelling application and pitch presentation but it is likely well-worth the effort.
What we would do better next time
Our goal for ICE 2018 is that our brand is as well known as any of the top-10 games suppliers at ICE, but to spend only a tiny fraction of what they do at the event and on surrounding physical and digital marketing activities.
That is a significant challenge and in order to set ourselves up for success these are some of the things we will need to do:
(1) Start to plan earlier (now in fact, to give us 11 months to get it right)
(2) Bring more people next time to better spread the workload and let us do things better
(3) Give people dedicated roles at the show rather than trying to do everything ‘ad hoc’. On site meetings, social media management, ‘pig-handling’, greeting foot traffic, general networking and intel gathering all deserved more focus and will do, now we know it works for us.
(4) Research Twitter account names of other companies (and related hashtags) in advance and plan the ‘piglet visits’
(5) Set up and schedule social media tweets in advance, rather than trying to do everything whilst we were working on the stand.
(6) Work harder at creating a number of custom Facebook advert audiences for targeting with different ads and boosted posts.
(7) Better identify social media and other marketing KPIs and targets to make sure we optimise what we do.
(8) Seek to do presentations on topics we’re experts on (e.g. blending casual and real-money gaming). This is another way to get in front of influencers and to generate digital marketing content.
(9) Time key product launch announcements for the event. We announced some ‘coming soon’ products but real interest and credibility comes from having some new and exclusive on the stand.
(10) Drink less alcohol. Drink more water. There’s many opportunities to ‘network’ at ICE but on reflection, it is best to leave the booze aside until after the show has finished!
And one bonus tip! Avoid hiring little Uber cars and sharing an AirBnB for the week …..we all came down with horrible man-flu for the week after ICE.
There is no doubt that the decision to exhibit at a major trade show is not one to take lightly for a start-up when cash and resources are at a premium and you are desperate to get products and services to market.
If you do decide to take the plunge then, hopefully, our experiences at ICE discussed here will be of some benefit to you. After all, as we are rather fond of saying…
….everyone deserves a little bit of Glück.
Glück Games makes casual, real-money games and technology products. We are based in Berlin and Gibraltar and pride ourselves on applying the highest quality design and engineering principles to deliver unparalleled games and back-end products to the online lottery casino market.