Several years ago, while running a marketing agency called Immersion Media, Jonah Midanik found himself confronting a unique challenge.

As technology evolved and the marketing industry became more data-driven, Midanik began looking for ways to demonstrate to his clients – which included several automotive companies – what their return on investment was for participating in events such as the Canadian International Auto Show, held in Toronto mid-February this year.

“We wanted to be able to say to our clients, ‘If you give us $10, we’ll give you at least $11 in sales,” Midanik says.

“The vanity metrics are nice. It’s nice to know that 300,000 people saw your new car … but it would be better to know how many cars you sold.”

The task proved a difficult one.

There are numerous digital assets involved in “experiential” marketing events such as trade shows, from mobile apps used to run contests and power demonstrations; to databases that capture sales leads and pass them on to the dealerships. All of those digital assets yield data that can be useful to companies trying to gauge the impact of an event on their bottom line.

But, as far as Midanik could tell, there was no way to effectively aggregate all of those data sources into one place, leaving marketers scrambling to cobble together all of the various pieces. Often, the resulting picture was an incomplete one.

“I really couldn’t figure out, from a bottom-line perspective, what this was yielding for ourselves and for our clients,” Midanik says.

Without better analytics, it was tricky for automotive brands to decide how big their footprint at an auto show should be, what activities they should be focusing on during the event, or even whether they should participate in the show at all, Midanik says.

Midanik and his team searched Canada, the U.S. and Europe for a software platform that would solve their problems, but found nothing.

“So we just started building,” he says.


The packed show floor of the Canadian International Auto Show in Toronto, in 2015

In September 2014, Midanik launched Limelight Platform Inc., a technology platform that can help companies figure out how much they generate in sales for every dollar they spend on a live marketing event.

The software allows clients to lay out their plans for the event, build custom apps to use during the show, and automate the process of communicating with customers. Limelight also aggregates all of the data surrounding the event – from initial contact with a potential buyer straight through to the sale – into one place.

Since its inception Limelight has grown from two staff to 25, secured $3.1 million of investment and signed on a number of major clients including BMW, Infiniti and Mercedes-Benz.

The Toronto-based tech startup also made its first foray into the U.S. this year, launching a satellite sales office in San Francisco. Midanik plans to hire a few sales staff in New York, as well.

Midanik says the software platform has been a huge boon to its automotive clients, who spend big bucks to rent booth space at shows, by helping them figure out which aspects of the event are most profitable for them.

“At these auto shows it’s crucially important to go, ‘Which of my tactics is working? I know I need to be here, but are contests working? Are VIP experiences working? … What models are people interested in here? What’s consumer sentiment about our features the first time they see them?”

Auto shows have been around for a long time, and it’s no secret that they come with hefty price tags. However, they also provide a variety of business opportunities says Jay Owen, an automotive marketing consultant and the president and founder of Six Inc.

First there is the intangible stuff like brand exposure.

The Canadian International AutoShow held at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre last month boasted 320,651 visitors – the highest figure in the show’s 43-year history – despite frigid weather and competition from other events, such as the NBA all-star game.

That’s a substantial, dedicated audience for auto companies to pitch their brand to.

“We look at auto shows as an opportunity to communicate the story of what’s going on with Ford,” says Peter Jansen, the marketing communications director at Ford Canada.

For Hyundai, a relatively young brand, auto shows present an opportunity to win over customers who may have misperceptions about the company’s products, says Chad Heard, senior manager of public relations for Hyundai Canada.

“What we’ve found, by doing a lot of studies both in Canada and internationally, is that one of the most significant ways of changing a customer’s perception of a Hyundai vehicle was to actually have them sit in it,” says Heard.

“That’s by far the number one influencer of brand impression.”


A product specialist assists a showgoer in a convertible (via Thinkstock)

Beyond the intangibles, however, retailers can also use auto shows as an opportunity to establish contact with attendees who are in the market for a new vehicle, Owen says.

Dealership staff on-site at the event will typically collect personal information from potential customers, including how soon they are looking to get into the market and what sort of vehicle they’re interested in buying. The dealership can then use that information to reach out to would-be buyers at just the right moment with an offer that’s tailored specifically to their desires.

Making personalized offers to would-be buyers can make a big difference to a company’s sales, Midanik says.

“If a customer typically leases, sending them information on 0.9-percent purchase financing isn’t going to move the needle for them,” Midanik says.

Some auto companies, such as BMW, even set goals for how many sales leads they would like to generate at each auto show they participate in.

“We set specific lead targets for each show, and make sure those lead targets are communicated internally at BMW Canada to all stakeholders, to our Regional teams, and to our Retailer network,” Marianne MacNeil, event marketing manager at BMW Group Canada, said in an email.

“We not only track these leads, but also track the follow-up rate at the retailer level.”

BMW uses Limelight’s platform to capture those leads, noting how easily the tool integrates with BMW’s existing backend systems.

“Integration is key as it allows a sales associate to receive a lead almost instantaneously,” says MacNeil.

For competitive reasons, auto companies won’t divulge how many leads they generate at shows, or how successful they are at turning those leads into sales.

The metrics can vary from one brand to the next and depend on a multitude of factors, says Owen.

When Volvo announced last year that it was pulling out of most auto shows, save for a few, the Swedish automaker said the events are not a great way to reach new buyers.

Why Volvo’s pulling out of (most) auto shows

Ford’s Jansen suggests otherwise. “I can’t share with you the specifics of what the return on investment [ROI] is,” Jansen says. “But I can tell you that we’ve looked at what we spend to be at auto shows versus what we sell, and there is a business case for Ford to be present and active in auto shows.”

While various brands may differ in how they approach shows, all of them stand to benefit from advancements in technology and data analytics in recent years.

“Digital technology has given us the tools needed to measure ROI from programs that have been difficult to do in the past, such as auto shows,” says BMW’s MacNeil.

“Over the past few years we have seen a vast improvement in measuring ROI, interest in the brand, sales impact—all from data collection on the show floor through mobile apps.”

Armed with more information, companies can ensure they’re focusing their efforts in those areas where they are likely to reap the greatest benefit.

“My approach to marketing is that I’d rather have a sharper nail than a bigger hammer,” says Owen. “You want to make sure every dollar you spend is used as effectively and efficiently as possible.”


Ford’s booth at the 2016 North American International Auto Show in Detroit