Trade shows are a fact of life. I can’t count the number I’ve attended. No matter the industry, it seems like a virtual certainty that booth traffic is never quite as high as anybody would like.

Recently, our client Milliman asked us for some ways to improve their presence at a conference in Chicago. These professional events are particularly challenging, because the environment is constrained, and attendees are there principally for the breakout sessions, rather than the exhibits. (Economists and lectures, who knew?)

In any event, School of Thought was asked to come up with a better solution that either the worthless 87¢ pen giveaway, or, on the other end of the spectrum, the $20k sponsorship of an equally forgettable lunch.

We had our work cut out for us, to be sure.

Our solution was threefold. First, we designed an elegant invitation that was delivered under the door of any hotel guest attending the symposium. The twist? Our invite was to a Black Swan Event—the economic equivalent of the Perfect Storm: a 50% market crash, combined with runaway inflation and a class 5 hurricane thrown in for good measure.

It was catnip to many of these economists.

Second we created the TheBusinessofRisk.com, where Milliman consultants live-blogged the event, providing their unique take on each day’s events.

But the center of our effort took place on the floor and hallways of the Symposium, as we invited people to participate in a brief survey on economic trends in business.

There was, after all, no shortage of opinions in the room.

Of course, nobody likes to be bothered with a survey while they’re busy. So we added some interesting elements. Like using an iPad as our input device—and letting people fill in their own entries.

The other intriguing aspect of the survey was that when each respondent was finished, their entry was immediately beamed back to the booth over a Bluetooth network. The live results were presented in dynamic animated graphs on a large flat screen.

To see how their responses compared to everyone else’s, survey respondents were encouraged to drop by the booth. Turns out, economists like to see how their answers compare with their colleagues, because traffic at the Milliman exhibit was up significantly.

Our expectations were modest. We weren’t sure that an asteroid striking the convention center could affect this jaded, hyper-educated crowd. But all told, nearly a third of all Symposium attendees took our survey, and nearly half visited the blog. Meaning more than half had an active engagement with the Milliman brand. Milliman consultants received new leads (the year before they got none), and there was even industry press coverage.

No sweepstakes. No cheap tchozchkes. Just some information…of value.

Proof perhaps that thoughtful communications still work. And that occasionally, it’s still possible to get economists to agree about something.