Thursday, August 25, 2011

How to make money with trade shows

I attended a local trade show not long ago, and from what I saw, at least half of the exhibitors made mistakes that caused them to waste part or all of the money they spent on the show. With that in mind, here are some suggestions for how to get the most value out of exhibiting at trade shows:

Ask yourself "Is this show really necessary?".

Considering the cost of renting booth space, booth design and building, travel, labor costs, shipping, advertising and lost productivity, trade shows are some of the most expensive sales and marketing activities that your company can do. You're constantly getting emails, flyers and sales calls asking you to participate in trade shows, but some shows are much better than others at generating qualified sales leads. Could you get the same benefit (or more) by doing a series of webcasts instead of exhibiting at a trade show? Could you run an online promotion to generate leads for your salesforce? In other words, are there other sales and marketing investments that you could make that would be more cost-effective or pay off with more revenues?

The purpose of exhibiting isn't to get as many people as possible into your booth, it's getting as many qualified sales leads as possible.

This is a critical point: Companies spend enormous amounts of money to draw bodies into their booths, but how much of that money is well-spent? Burying your sales team in hundreds of unqualified leads is just as bad as not sending them enough leads. If they work the leads and come up empty-handed, they'll ignore future trade show leads that you send them. When it comes to sales leads, quality is much more important than quantity. Here are a few techniques for driving traffic, and some suggestions on whether and how to use them:
  • Tchotchkes: These are cheap giveaways, everything from pens to candy to T-shirts. Tchotchkes primarily bring people to your booth who are looking for free junk, not qualified buyers. If you really want to use them, I'd suggest good literature bags, with your company's logo and booth number on both sides, or coffee mugs, which will be used again and again by the visitor. Anything that's likely to be thrown away, used up or lost before people get home is a waste of money. (T-shirts tend to attract T-shirt collectors, who won't end up wearing them and are more interested in scoring free swag.)
  • Contests/Drawings: Contests and drawings with valuable prizes tend to draw visitors who are more interested in the prize than in the exhibitor's products or services. I once worked for a company where we gave away a notebook computer at a trade show. Based on the number of entries we received, almost everyone who attended the show entered the contest, but only a tiny fraction of the entrants were qualified potential buyers of our product.
  • Models: Many companies use professional models to gather leads. Attractive women draw men into the booth, but many of the visitors are more interested in the women than the company's products and services. A bigger downside is that models are usually unable to answer any questions, so if a qualified buyer does come into the booth, they have to go on a hunting expedition to find someone who can help them. It's better to staff your booth with full-time employees who know your offerings, and if they can't answer a question, know the person (or people) who can answer it. (By the way, some exhibitors award models extra pay based on the number of leads that they generate. All it does is create a flood of unqualified leads.)
  • Entertainers: It's one thing if you want to hire professional presenters to demonstrate your products, but something else if you hire a magician or other performer whose sole purpose is to drive traffic into your booth. Don't waste your money.
When it comes to booths, it's "location, location, location".

Where your booth is located on the show floor is extremely important. The booths that get the most traffic are the ones nearest the entrances to the show floor. The further to the back and side you are, the lower the traffic you'll get. This isn't a problem at small trade shows, where most attendees can easily walk the entire floor, but it's a big problem at major shows--especially shows in more than one exhibit hall. It doesn't matter how valuable a show is if your potential customers can't find or reach your booth.

You can never have enough signs.

At the trade show I visited recently, and at other shows I've been to over the years, there were many exhibitors whose signs gave the company name--nothing more. Don't assume that everyone who attends a trade show knows who you are, or has the time and inclination to come over to your booth and ask what you do. Your signs should say what you do and what products and services you're exhibiting in simple language. Pay particular attention to signs for new products and services that you're exhibiting for the first time: "New" is one of the most powerful words in the English language, and many people come to trade shows specifically to learn about new offerings.

Staff your booth at all times.

You would think that it would be common sense to have your booth fully staffed at all times while the show is open, but you'd be surprised how many companies leave part or all of their booths unstaffed during the show. Unstaffed booths look amateurish, no matter how big or well-known the company. To go back to the sign issue for a second, there was a major exhibitor at the show that I recently attended that had a sign on one part of its booth that said "XYZ". (The company and product names are being disguised to protect the exhibitor.) I had no idea what XYZ was; there was no other description. In addition, there was no one manning that portion of the exhibit, so I had no one to ask. As a result, I still don't know what XYZ means, or if I'm in the market for it.

Start driving traffic to your booth before the show.

Companies have incredible tools for reaching out to current and potential customers to let them know what and where they're exhibiting. Social media and email can be used to very precisely target attendees. Many shows allow exhibitors to give out a number of free exhibit passes; these can be used to encourage existing and potential customers to attend. Your sales team also knows many customers that they'd love to talk to face-to-face at a conference. Tap your internal customer lists and leads first, and then move to broader social media outlets such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

Process your leads immediately after the show.

True story: Years ago, I was helping to set up booths at a trade show, and I opened the information kiosk where we processed sales leads. There, in a locked wooden box, were all the sales leads from the last time that the booth had been used, some six months earlier. The leads were, of course, useless by that time. Your number one priority after the show ends should be reviewing and qualifying the leads, and assigning them to salespeople. Every person who gives you a lead at a show should receive some kind of acknowledgement, whether it be an email, letter or flyer, within two weeks after the show closes. Leads go stale very quickly, so process and assign them as quickly as you can. If you don't do it, your competition will.

Doing all these things won't guarantee that you'll have successful trade shows, but they'll make success much more likely and put you ahead of at least 50% of the exhibitors at any show.

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