Third-year Advertising and Marketing Communications (AMC) students at St. Lawrence College participate in an annual charity trade show as part of their integrated marketing communications learning experience. This trade show is held each November in the conference venue on campus and is attended by students, staff, and faculty from across the college, as well as representatives from the charities and other community dignitaries.
The third-year students in the from the class of 2021 were faced with the challenge of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which meant we were all studying remotely. MS Teams, the platform of choice for program delivery, was still relatively new to us at that point as we’d only just been introduced to it at the outset of the pandemic.
This was my cohort. We had started together in 2018 and we were a tight-knit class. Our professors routinely remarked that some of the bigger projects that we did were unlike anything they attempted with past classes to our unique dynamic.
As far as the charity trade show would go, the pandemic meant that all possible event spaces were closed to us. This left us with a usually-practical class that was now going to be flipped to all theoretical: we’d plan a mock in-person trade show that would exist only on paper. It met most of the learning outcomes and had been signed off on by the appropriate powers that be.
But it was not what we signed up for.
The promise of third year in the AMC program is being able to do some pretty big projects, bigger even than some of the stuff we’d done already. It was supposed to be all practical, all impactful. And we were getting ripped off.
So, we, as a class, presented an alternative. What if, instead of doing a mock in-person trade show, we did a real virtual trade show? The professor loved it.
He had planned to do some lessons on virtual trade shows to mix into the semester, but now that became the focus. I was selected, along with two other students, to be the “leads” on the project. This meant it was up to us to plan, develop, and execute the virtual trade show from a technology, marketing, and day-of programming point of view. The rest of the class would be split in group and would be our clients who would select charities to exhibit during the trade show.
How it Began
We knew from the outset that we were taking on a big task, and a big risk. The professor for this course is someone who takes student work and the reputation of the program and the college very seriously, and the annual charity trade show is a spectacle that gains a fair amount of attention both on campus in within the community.
And we had 10 weeks to make it happen on a zero-dollar budget.
We began by trying to recreate the look and feel of the Advertising and Marketing Communication program’s in-person charity trade show in a virtual environment.
The in-person trade show has a very structured feel to it that has been curated over more than a decade within the program, and we very much wanted that feeling to come through in our virtual environment.
During the in-person trade show the conference venue is broken up into discrete booth spaces and there is a path and flow between the booths. Visitors enter, are greeted by faculty and an emcee who does announcements, and taped lines on the floors guide visitors through the space.
We wanted to find a way to capture that experience in a virtual realm.
As a class we’d had the opportunity to visit trade shows from the previous pre-pandemic cohorts in 2018 and 2019, so we knew what it looked like and what it felt like.
My team started out by conducting some research from our fellow students to ask which parts of the trade shows of the past they felt were most important to keep incorporated in our virtual trade show.
We conducted a short survey and did some select interviews with the participants to attempt to gain insight into the most important features that we should try to replicate in the virtual space.
Based on our research the platform needed to:
- Give us the ability to organize the booths into an order
- Have a front page “lobby” from which all booths were linked
- Offer a blog/news feed option for the run-up to the event
- Have a way to run “announcements” across the whole platform during the event
- Have assignable user roles and levels of access
- Have a registration/login feature
- Have a live chat
- Be free
It very quickly became evident that there wasn’t a platform that would do what we wanted it to do on zero-dollar budget (or anything close to it).
For one thing, that’s a lot of features to ask for in a free trade show platform. For another thing, it’s a bit of a hodgepodge of needs; but it reflected the learning outcomes we needed to achieve, and it felt like an authentic successor to the in-person charity trade show that the program had run for so many years.
The team we had were adamant that we didn’t want to compromise on the above list, as it reflected what we had identified as important aspects our exhibitors (classmates) wanted to see in the trade show as well.
The charity trade show has always been intended to reflect a wide range of learning outcomes, rather than what the experience of any one trade show would be in the real world, this meant that we could, and should, do our best to try to incorporate all of those things into our virtual offering.
And, because I have previous web development and coding experience and had access to a web server with capacity to host it, we decided that rather than continue a fruitless effort to search for an ideal platform we opted to build one instead.
We landed on WordPress as the CMS for the platform as it allowed us the range of options we were looking for, such as assignable user roles and registrations. It also has a mature plugin system that allowed for a vast number of easy customizations for the platform.
The design process started off with a conversation and some ideation around possible ways that we could incorporate some of the must-have elements above. In the course of our conversations the idea of a live-streamed emcee came up and became a focal point, and driver, for much of the design.
We quickly settled on a design where the emcees would be displayed in the centre, shown through an embedded YouTube Live link, and the exhibitors would be frame in the design on either side. In the responsive view the emcees would appear at the top and the exhibitors would be shown below. A live chat would be incorporated below the video for visitors to use to interact (there were prize giveaways and other things going on).
Figure 1 – Initial mock-up of main “lobby” page
This design was then reviewed with the professor, and with the participants who would be representing the charities involved. We still hadn’t, at this point, figured out how to incorporate some of the pieces that we’d identified as must-haves in our original research, but we nonetheless presented the prototype to our stakeholders for feedback.
Generally, the feedback was positive, there were questions about how we would create the trademark “flow” through the tradeshow that we’d come to recognize in years past, and the professor had added the requirement that there be “saleable” features for exhibitors to purchase (as they would in an in-person trade show, such as booth position, signage, etc), and we needed to figure out what to sell and how to incorporate it.
It was then my job to set about building the prototype based on the mock-up that we’d designed, and as a team we brainstormed ways to incorporate the other elements the professor had set as requirements.
We eventually decided on a ticker that would run announcements, a rotating banner ad that would feature purchasable space (for both exhibitors and outside partners), and a featured space on the sign-up page for a single vendor. These features met the requirements for the professors but didn’t make it into the initial prototype by the deadline.
Figure 2 – Prototype of the design
It took some time to find, and in one case, write, the plugins that would be necessary to allow us to add the functionality to the website. In the meantime, we’d also run up against the challenge that the booth pages required a huge amount of customization for each of the exhibitors. Essentially each group wanted to be able to completely create their own page from scratch without having to be boxed into any particular layout.
This presented a problem.
I eventually settled on the page-builder plugin Elementor as the solution to that problem, and with a small amount of work was able to incorporate it into the design and gather together enough individual elements that it satisfied the needs of our exhibitors.
This did, however, require me to create a few instructional videos for the exhibitors which showed them how to create and edit their pages, and to offer myself up as technical support.
Figure 3 – a sample of the exhibitors’ pages
Further iteration led eventually to the final design, which include the ticker below the header, and a flyout box (located on the right-hand side) that served to guide you through the flow of the virtual booths (and provided a way for visitors to quickly rate the content they saw). Booths in the “tour” flyout box were ordered based on the preference the exhibitors paid for in the mock auction.
Always Do A Dry Run
This was the refrain of our professor from the first day we announced that we were going to do a virtual trade show, and as it turned out there was no piece of advice that was more valuable than that.
A week before the final date of the trade show the whole class, and a few of our friends, and faculty, got together to do a dry run of the trade show. We had stand-ins for our emcees, we had exhibitors ready and livestreaming, we had the chat up and running, the ticker turned on, and everything was a go.
And then it wasn’t.
It very, very wasn’t.
We immediately, and completely, crashed my server to the ground. The weight of the tech that had been installed on the exhibitors’ pages, coupled with the stream, and the load of 60+ users all at once, was too much for the server to handle and it went offline.
We pivoted as I logged in and brought the server back up. Each individual group tested their page in turn to make sure they knew where the kinks were, and we, as the team leads, watched the whole thing go on. I stared at server logs and metrics as each group put on their shows and watched as resource usage ebbed and surged. I kept notes, looking for spikes and tried to figure out what might be causing them.
We also asked for feedback on the interface. Did the flyout box make sense where it was, the wording, was it the right size, colour, etc? We gathered as much feedback as we could from the participants, from the visitors, and from our professor.
What We Learned
Adjustments were made to the flyout box, the side of and speed of the ticker text was changed, and I developed some new guidelines for the exhibitors to help them optimize their pages in advance of the final launch date.
I also went back to my server host and beefed up the technology that the platform was running on.
It’s about this time when it’s worth acknowledging that this zero-dollar budget thing was actually a bit of a lie. What it ended up being is just me coughing up the dough for this project, albeit in a way that benefitted me in the long run, since the server and its specs would last beyond the project and could be used for other work.
By the time the day-of came around I was confident that we’d solved the problems and worked out the kinks. We didn’t do a second dry run, as all other aspects of the process worked well enough that we were happy with them.
We made the tweaks we’d learned about, and I went over each individual exhibitor’s page and made suggestions on ways that they could decrease server overhead and improve the performance of their page.
On the day everything went off without a hitch. Overall, we had 155 users pre-register and 292 who participated on the day. Anecdotally it was the most highly attended charity trade show that the AMC program had ever put on.
We conducted a follow-up survey of participants and received 21 responses which asked, among other things, what the attendees favourite part of the event was, and asked them to rate their overall experience. 85.7% of respondents said they “highly enjoyed” their experience, and all the rest said they “somewhat enjoyed” it.
There was a spot for comments and suggestions and the main suggestion was a better overall schedule of what was happening in each booth and when (the schedules were within the booths themselves). This could have been achieved by better use of the ticker at the top of the page and replacing its purchased functionality with one that just stated the schedule.
Other comments on the survey included:
- “I was gobsmacked with how well this all went. Excellent job pivoting to online.”
- “This looked like a lot to coordinate and I thought the students did an excellent job.”
- “Very impressed with how much work went into organizing each booth, the whole trade show, and keeping the energy going for 3 hours. Great job!”
The idea of building a platform from scratch to achieve the outcomes that we’d identified in our early research with our exhibitors felt at times alternatively easy-peasy and world-crushingly daunting. But the team I had to work with were smart and dedicated to making sure that this was a success.
For all of us in the AMC program, it was the last major project that we undertook as a single group, and it will be remembered fondly as an achievement in the face of a difficult circumstance.
The Marketing for Good Charity Trade Show website remains online at https://marketing4good.ca/
The “Lobby” is accessible at https://marketing4good.ca/the-lobby/