Sometimes the marketing battle is won just by getting customers up close with your product, whether that means a tasting in the grocery aisle, a hands-on software demo, or a test drive. But how do you get the customer in the driver's seat?

Aerospan.com, an e-marketplace for the air transport industry, found a solution as part of Aviation Week's MRO 2001 [Maintenance Repair and Overhaul] Conference and Exposition in Dallas. The solution was particularly inventive because while it taught attendees about the Aerospan system, it also allowed the company to raise funds for a very worthy charity, The Flying Hospital, a nonprofit organization that coordinates and implements medical missions and manages the world's largest surgical hospital in an aircraft.

The Aerospan.com e-marketplace, founded in February 2000, allows airlines, aerospace companies, and others to buy, sell, and collaborate online. Its procurement tools include buyer and seller auctions. Using the seller auction technology, Aerospan created a charity auction and assigned part numbers to the donated auction items — including a set of golf clubs and roundtrip airline tickets. That way, users logging in to bid on the items would see the connection between the way the system worked as a charity auction and the way it works for Aerospan customers looking to buy or sell parts.

During the MRO conference in April, Aerospan.com raised about $5,000 for The Flying Hospital and introduced many thousands who visited its booth to the Web site functionality.

At the Paris Air Show in June, the company took a somewhat different approach to teaching attendees about the Aerospan system. Before the show, the company sent out about 5,000 part numbers to registrants. Some part numbers were winners, most were not, but attendees didn't know until they came to the booth, typed in the number, and examined its “traceability documentation,” a key differential of the Aerospan.com service, according to Charles Withrow, director of marketing.