The creative team conceptualizes their first corporate e-greeting for KS Associates.

One of the most challenging facets of operating a successful surveying firm is marketing your services and maintaining a dominant presence in the marketplace. You want to consistently stay in front of your clients so that when a surveying need arises, decision makers think of your firm first. But how can you achieve this goal when your budget leaves little room for marketing expenditures? Sometimes, all it takes is a little creativity.

The final product: A captivating video depicting how surveyors and engineers plan Thanksgiving.

Seizing the Day

For the past five years, KS Associates, a mutidisciplinary civil engineering and surveying firm based in Elyria, Ohio, has developed clever and sometimes humorous Thanksgiving greeting cards. The cards are mailed to more than 3,000 contacts in the firm’s database. Recipients include both clients who purchase the firm’s services directly and associates who can influence the purchasing decisions of others.

KS Associates chose the Thanksgiving holiday for several reasons, the most important being the “thank you” message associated with the holiday. Thanksgiving is the perfect occasion to thank clients and friends for their business and loyalty, and it precedes the flurry of messages and activities associated with the December holiday season. Additionally, a thank-you message is universal--it resonates with the many types of clients that KS Associates serves, including municipalities, counties, public agencies, utility companies, developers, architects, owners and other engineering, construction and real estate professionals.

But with the costs of marketing on the rise--particularly those associated with printing and mailing--it was becoming prohibitive to produce and distribute a customized greeting card.

In 2009, with a reduced marketing budget and a desire to use an environmentally conscious medium that would appeal to a certain client genre, KS Associates decided it was time to pursue a different approach. 

Students combined simple props with sophisticated technology, including green screen photography, to animate KS Associates’ e-greeting.

Going out on a Limb

The firm turned to Progressive Arts Alliance (PAA), a local nonprofit organization committed to providing young artists with opportunities to express themselves through the contemporary arts. PAA’s programming includes mural painting, hip-hop dance and filmmaking--all designed to stimulate critical thinking and promote progressive thought. It also includes a computer-animation program, and it was this program that interested KS Associates.

After meeting with PAA’s executive director and art instructor to learn more about the program, the marketing team was convinced that creating an electronic greeting was the way to go.

The next step was to present the idea to the firm’s owners. “We were reluctant,” admits Mark B. Skellenger, PE, vice president of KS Associates. They knew this would be the students’ first real-world corporate project. “KS clients have come to expect clever greeting cards from us, and we didn’t want to lose that momentum or miss an opportunity to wow them.”

However, Skellenger and the other directors also recognized the value in engaging the community, especially students, in the project. “We also thought this might be an indirect way of promoting the field of surveying and engineering to students,” Skellenger says. “So we went with it.”

A student carefully moves claymation character “Clay Dough, PE” into position before shooting, frame by frame, to create the stop-motion video.

Crafting the Right Message

The first and most important step in the project was to point the students in the right creative direction by helping them understand exactly what surveyors and engineers do. After KS Associates presented site plans, survey plats, photos of surveyors working in the field, and construction drawings, the students grasped both disciplines.

The next step was to conduct a brainstorming session to develop a theme for the e-greeting. The session resulted in just the right message: “We hope your Thanksgiving goes according to plan,” with a clever play on the word “plan.”

One of the greatest challenges was the project timeline. The brainstorming session was held in late August, and the release date for the e-greeting was mid-November. Because the students attended different high schools miles apart and were involved in other after-school programs, finding time to meet was difficult.

Despite the challenge, the students worked diligently, giving up their Thursday evenings and Sunday afternoons to focus on the project. They created a well-developed story line wrapped around their “plan” theme. They then developed storyboards and presented them to members of KS Associates’ management team. The formal presentation gave them valuable real-world experience in a professional corporate setting.

After presenting their ideas and making modifications to incorporate KS Associates’ input, the students fine-tuned their story line and then went into production mode. Before they began shooting video, they requested props such as rolls of plans, surveying safety vests, hard hats, T-shirts and even a toy Ford F-150 truck that they decorated to resemble a truck in KS Associates’ surveying fleet.

Using green-screen photography, stop-motion video techniques and graphic design software, the students created an engaging, entertaining video that depicted their perspective of how surveyors and engineers plan their Thanksgiving celebration. The story’s all-star cast included claymation characters resembling both male and female surveyors and engineers. One of the characters was cleverly named Clay Dough, PE.

The greeting was hosted on YouTube and placed on KS Associates’ Web site. A link to the Web page was delivered to more than 3,000 contacts in KS Associates’ database via e-mail using e-mail management software.

Throughout the production of the e-greeting, students took photographs and shot video of their team in production mode. They also created and posted a video capturing their work behind the scenes. Giving viewers an inside perspective of how the e-greeting was produced and allowing them to see the young, creative talent drove home the benefits of engaging the community in this type of project. 

This segment was combined with a computerized sketch of the dough character planning the perfect Thanksgiving meal.

Low Cost, High Return

Since issuing the e-greeting, KS Associates has received favorable feedback from clients and colleagues. One client commented that the e-greeting was the best she had ever received. The video has also received more than 900 hits on YouTube.

The e-greeting also caught the attention of Cleveland’s major metropolitan newspaper, The Plain Dealer. An article addressing how companies are moving toward e-greetings, featuring KS’s project, appeared on the front page of the business section.

The cost of the project--$1,100 in the form of a donation to PAA and a small fee for technical assistance--was a good use of limited marketing dollars. “The feedback that we’ve received alone was valuable enough to consider this a successful branding initiative,” Skellenger says. “That value was compounded by the press coverage and the opportunity to give back to the community--one of KS Associates’ core values.”

Staying in contact with clients is an important component of the firm’s overall marketing plan, and the e-greeting is just one of several ways in which KS Associates achieves this goal. But it’s also a good example of how surveying companies can step out of the box and use nontraditional media to market their services. “Sometimes, having faith, taking chances and doing things that other companies may find too risky can lead to successful outcomes and really help set your firm apart,” Skellenger says.

KS Associates engaged students in its local community to create a clever e-marketing campaign. Above is the "making of" video.

KS Associates Thanksgiving 2009 e-greeting.