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Seven Steps to Turn Trade Shows Into Real Conversations

Seven Steps to Turn Trade Shows Into Real Conversations
Finally, here’s something that trade show participants and booth staff have in common: there’s got to be more to the experience than three seconds of avoidance.

We’ve all been there, most of us from both sides of the fence. The participant approaches the booth, casting a sidelong glance to get a quick idea of the products or services on offer, without committing to stop. The booth staffer, ever attentive to a new prospect who might help justify the cost of the booth, watches closely (but never too eagerly) for any sign that the walk-by will turn into an actual opportunity.

It takes a lot of mutual mental energy to sort out whether any kind of dialogue will even take place. The procedure repeats, then repeats again. And within a couple of hours, most everyone is doing the trade show walk—feet sore, eyes glazed, and mind numb to all but the most targeted, compelling pitches. (And the people delivering the pitches feel exactly the same.)

Laying the Groundwork

Contrast this all-too-familiar picture with a show where buyers and sellers are looking forward to the specific, concrete conversations they expect to have. By the time they arrive onsite, they’ve been talking or corresponding for weeks, maybe working together for months or years.

It’s a strategy that relies on magnets rather than darts. It’s more respectful of participants’ time onsite. It’s more effective and energizing for booth staff.

And for all those reasons, it raises questions about the established view that trade shows are just about lead generation.

Event Marketing for Trade Shows

An event marketing approach means treating your exhibits program as part of a larger, more client-centred campaign. Here are seven steps you can take to change the trade show experience—for your own organization and, even more important, for the people you’re trying to meet:

  1. Start early: Allow yourself at least three months, ideally six, to plan your strategy and prepare your presence.
  2. Know why you’re attending this show: By the time you commit time and resources to set up and staff a booth, you should have a clear idea of who you want to talk to and why they should be interested in hearing from you.
  3. Build the foundation: A trade show will bring you a certain number of new, serendipitous contacts. Some of them may even remember meeting you and agree to continue the conversation afterwards. But you’ll get better results if you can fill your time onsite with scheduled appointments that advance or solidify business relationships you’ve already begun building by phone or online. But that means improving on the standard assumption that trade shows are strictly a place to gather leads, and paying more attention to the quality and depth of each conversation.
  4. Remember that less is more: If you’ve collected 100 business cards in eight hours on the floor, there weren’t enough hours in the day to find the legitimate “hook” that made you an interesting contact for each prospect. So you shouldn’t be surprised when your sales team spends a lot of time leaving unanswered voicemails after you get home from the show. Far better to come away with a half-dozen top prospects and a clear invitation to follow up.
  5. Make every booth unique: You needn’t and shouldn’t remake your entire booth for every show, but it’s a mistake to use the same, generic signage and collateral that participants saw last month or last year. The specific objectives you established for attending this show should point you to the messaging you want while you’re onsite.

    Hint: To produce a tailored booth without wasting paper, sign material, and the money you spent on production and shipping, invest in a reusable pixel board for signage and print-on-demand PDFs for collateral.

  6. Keep it professional: It’s fine to use a prize or gimmick to draw attention to your booth. But unless you’re working at a consumer show, recognize that you’re drawing people based on their professional interests. Some prospects may take an offer of personal perks as a sign of disrespect, and many organizations prohibit their staff from accepting gifts above a certain value. (We once heard of a $5 threshold that determined the designer coffee a customer could accept as a courtesy.)
  7. Always follow up. Always. Although some trade show marketers question the rule of thumb that 80% of leads are never followed up, there’s wider agreement that the “fishbowl method” of collecting business cards is seldom backed up by a formal sales management system. If your trade show presence isn’t integrated with your sales pipeline, you have no business being onsite.