To bolster its profile in the competitive document-management industry, Ikon Office Solutions ramped up its education efforts to establish itself as a leader with clients and the press.Creating "buzz" in the document-management and digital-printing sector can be an arduous undertaking, particularly in a mature market dominated by heavyweights including Canon, Ricoh, and Hewlett-Packard. Competitors jockeying for attention must offer cutting-edge products and services, and leverage astute marketing strategies to call attention to their brands. This task was particularly challenging for Malvern, PA-based Ikon Office Solutions, an independent distributor of copier and printer technologies. Ikon integrates document-management hardware and software - developed by other companies - to provide enterprise-wide systems and services. But it needed to stand out and call attention to its expertise in helping organizations become more efficient and productive. The rewards for greater visibility can be immense. Companies typically spend between 1% and 3% of their revenue on document printing, and annual worldwide spending totals $180 billion, says Andrew Johnson, managing VP for IT research firm Gartner. "There are many forms of printing occurring in many different areas of companies, and that is resulting in inefficiencies," Johnson notes. "Firms in some instances can save up to 30% of their printing costs by properly and accurately managing the process." In light of that, Ikon has made education a major ingredient of its PR and marketing strategy this year. The company sought to better publicize the benefits of intelligently managing document printing and the role an outside provider can play in reaching such goals. Ikon kicked off its educational agenda in New York in March at the On Demand Conference & Expo, the sector's largest trade show. The company sponsored a "document-efficiency theater," where, throughout the day, experts extolled the benefits of document efficiency and highlighted Ikon's capabilities. Ikon also held panel discussions at On Demand, rather than going the traditional route of renting booth space for product demonstrations. Doculabs, a Chicago-based technology consulting firm, moderated the panel discussions. The event was promoted on the On Demand website, in show materials, and via press releases. Ikon returned to New York in June to co-host a roundtable discussion with Fortune and Business 2.0 to talk about service innovations and the ways organizations can achieve sustainable growth beyond customer retention. The company also sponsored a series of breakfast seminars featuring presentations by industry analysts, Ikon executives, and customers. Ikon embraced an education strategy in an attempt to become more visible and enhance its reputation as a document-management expert in an increasingly competitive and commoditized market, says Cathy Lewis, SVP of marketing and strategy. "If I go to an event and put my emphasis on promoting products at my booth, I am just like most other vendors," she says. "We want to differentiate Ikon and present the company in a different light." Offering insight Another major element in the education agenda was the launch in April of Insight seminars. Ikon hosted the seminars in 13 North American cities throughout the year, including Houston, Atlanta, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami, Charlotte, Toronto, and Washington, DC. Participants included such industry analysts as Johnson, who detailed the ways that companies can achieve document efficiency and how firms can turn document outsourcing into a competitive tool. Ikon representatives explained the firm's methods for assessing customers' document-management needs and how Ikon could benefit organizations. Customers also provided case studies that illustrated how they profited from Ikon-implemented solutions. Attendees were versed on technologies and the best practices for operating their systems, as well. The Insight seminars were promoted with an integrated marketing campaign that included press releases, e-mails, website announcements, direct mail, and advertising. "Our events were designed to provide a strong environment for relationship building among Ikon sales professionals, prospects, and clients," says Wendy Pinckney, director of marketing communications. "And using an educational format helps to position Ikon as an industry thought leader." The concept of an education strategy was initially proposed by Brodeur Worldwide, which began working with Ikon in July 2003. Its idea to illustrate Ikon expertise at events was a response to the growing interest by corporations to implement a total document management system, instead of purchasing individual pieces of equipment, says Brodeur SVP Steve Marchant. "The overall campaign is focused on increasing Ikon's brand recognition and then educating the sector about document management issues," he notes. "A big aim is for Ikon to develop more sales leads and create an environment where it can bring together its customers." Ikon's two-person PR staff focuses on creating awareness of the events. The individuals are part of an eight-person marketing team - which includes advertising and internal communications personnel - that works to ensure there is consistent messaging from all parties, Pinckney says. Brodeur helped develop the panel topics and content for On Demand and also recruited participants. Ikon customer panelists included representatives from the New Haven (CT) Register and Lehigh University. "The trade show was a way to make our executives more visible and to showcase our document management services and expertise," Pinckney notes. "The emphasis was on attracting the media, analysts, and prospects to the discussions." Seeing results Chuck Surprise, editor and publisher of printondemand.com, a San Diego -based website that covers the on-demand printing industry, calls Ikon's support of educational seminars an "intelligent" way to showcase its services. "Ikon is able to demonstrate that its personnel have a working knowledge of how the digital-printing systems operate," Surprise says. "It is a strong selling tool and is helping Ikon to raise its profile." While Ikon executives agree that the educational strategy is proving successful, they add that it is too soon to quantify results. Lewis says about 45 people attended each of the Insight events, which was close to capacity. Attendance at the On Demand theatre also was strong, she notes, and says both the Insight series and On Demand seminars will be held again next year. Because Ikon's PR activities are integrated with many other marketing functions, Lewis says she is unable to pinpoint its budget. However, funding levels for PR and marketing have remained constant over the last several years, she notes. One of the main challenges in implementing an education initiative is getting Ikon's sales staff to endorse the idea and to invite clients and prospects to the events, says Johnson. Such cooperation is essential because - despite a strong PR blitz - only a personal solicitation will entice many people to attend seminars, he says. One-on-one invites also enable vendors to better gauge market interest in their offerings. Prospects that spurn such proposals are unlikely to ever do business with the event sponsor, Johnson notes. Companies that need such products and services, meanwhile, also can more easily be identified at the gatherings. Johnson says prospects often will approach him or an Ikon representative to discuss their situations at an Insight seminar after hearing similar circumstances mentioned by panelists presenting case studies. "Educational events are an underutilized part of the marketing mix," he explains. "But they require much involvement from PR to create awareness and fine-tune messages around the events." The ultimate success of the initiatives will be measured by the amount of new and repeat business that Ikon is able to generate as a result of the seminars. While it likely will take many months to determine the results, Lewis says the strategy so far has been "very well received" by Ikon customers, sales representatives, and the company's professional services personnel. "It wasn't difficult to change our PR strategies and roll out the new educational offerings once we saw there was a need to demonstrate the factors that set Ikon apart from others in the marketplace," she adds.