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Many have pronounced tradeshow marketing dead. But with the right strategy, hard work, and flawless execution, tradeshows can still be a productive part of your marketing plan.

Here are 12 ways to breathe new life into your tradeshows.

1. Start planning early

Maybe you have received a call from a tradeshow sales rep offering an unbelievable discount to replace an exhibitor that just backed out two or three weeks before the tradeshow. But getting into a tradeshow at the last minute is almost never a good idea. It shows you are being reactive with a major investment of time and money, and that is never a good sign.

If you start planning well in advance, however, you have the opportunity to obtain a quality booth space, get on the speaking agenda, secure adequate sales engagement, and plan appropriate pre- and post-show promotion. Your chances of having a positive experience are much higher.

Remember that most of the tradeshow cost is T&E (travel and entertainment), collateral and sign production, drayage, labor, rentals, etc.—so a last-minute deal on the exhibit cost is not really much of a deal.

2. Make sure the audience is a good fit

Most shows will publish a Web page for attendees that includes a "who should attend" description. Read it to determine whether the show is a good match for your target market.

In a LinkedIn discussion about the topic, one of the participants suggested asking for the previous year's attendee list. It doesn't have to have full contact information; the company name and title for each registrant would give you a good idea if the audience is right.

Ask for the entire list so you can fact-check the salesperson's claim about last year's attendance number, and also to gauge wheat-to-chaff ratio. Don't expect every registrant to be from your target audience, but determine whether the ratio is acceptable.

3. Get on the presentation agenda

I talked to a colleague recently who told me she has pared down her tradeshow participation plan by doing only the ones at which she is able to get a slot on the presentation agenda. Pretty smart.

It is much more likely to be worth attending a show if you can get on the agenda; it is validation that your message is on target for the audience. Conversely, it might not be worth doing a show if you are not on the presentation agenda. Exhibiting alone might not be a large enough value proposition to warrant the investment in tradeshow marketing.

Tradeshow attendees in North America are so jaded about walking the exhibit floor, especially at the executive level, that exhibitor presence alone might not be worthwhile. A speaker slot ensures your message will be delivered to a large audience and gives your speaker a chance to mention your booth number for follow-up discussions.

4. Establish a service level agreement with sales

Do not do tradeshows without appropriate Sales buy in. Tradeshows should be a shared effort between Sales and Marketing.

Work with the sales manager to establish a service-level agreement for Sales to work hard to promote your participation before and after the show, engage attendees during the show, and follow up aggressively and systematically after the show.

If you can't get Sales to agree, you are better off just renting the list of attendees and focusing on marketing for lead generation.

The service-level agreement goes both ways, so be sure to outline all the investment and hard work Marketing will deliver, and be sure to stick to your commitments.

5. Negotiate for the full list of registrants

A one-time blast or a pre- and post-show blast will probably be offered as part of the exhibitor package. That might be good enough, but negotiate for unlimited use of the full list, if possible.

6. Promote your participation to customers and prospects prior to the show

All tradeshows are local, so the saying goes. Promote your presence at the show within a 100-mile radius via marketing and sales. Mandate a sales call campaign in that territory as part of the service-level agreement mentioned above. Promote it at least two weeks in advance to give members of your audience time to arrange their attendance if they so desire. Promote a relevant offer they can collect by visiting your booth. Get free exhibitor passes from tradeshow management, if possible.

7. Demand aggressive and professional performance from booth staff

Again, this is part of the service-level agreement with Sales. Mandate uniform attire so visitors know who is working. Prohibit any phone or BlackBerry use in the booth area; it interferes with engagement. Have a practiced elevator pitch and engagement question ready. Get out into the aisle and engage with everyone who walks by.

I once worked with a company that was an absolute barracuda on the tradeshow floor. Sales management worked the booth and led by example. They harassed and cajoled the sales staff to work with a high level of aggressiveness. And marketing staff members were expected to work equally hard. Staff members from surrounding booths would look at us wide-eyed, as if we were possessed. It was part of the sales culture, and we got excellent results from tradeshows.

An aggressive approach can mean the difference between driving 50 leads and driving 500 leads from the same tradeshow.

8. Capture detailed lead information

Obviously, rent a badge scanner. Also, preprint a stack of 8.5" x 5.5" cards that have qualifying questions on them and room to take notes. Salespeople should put their own names on the cards and take notes on every conversation. Staple business cards or badge scan printouts to these note cards, and deposit the cards in some sort of basket or box.

9. Provide giveaways, raffles, and tchotchkes

I consider it a sad reflection on humanity, but such gimmicks do work to drive booth traffic! Give away something small (a blinking pen), and raffle off something bigger (an iPad).

Have collateral, printed analyst reports, or free trials on hand for serious visitors who aren't into the gimmicks.

10. Enter all leads into a CRM system for Sales follow-up

No exceptions. Add notes from the note cards (see above) to the customer relationship management (CRM) record (there is nothing more annoying to a sales prospect than having a long conversation with the sales rep at the booth that is completely forgotten when the follow-up call is made).

There is always temptation for salespeople to cherry-pick the best conversations and follow up with those prospects directly "offline" because they don't want to wait for the CRM system to push them the leads. Eliminate the temptation for offline lead follow-up by getting the leads into the CRM quickly and completely, and by pushing them immediately for sales follow-up.

Measure lead conversion carefully, and report back to Sales. Sales follow-up should include a relevant offer (analyst report, free trial) for leads who require further nurturing before they are ready to buy.

11. Continue post-show marketing with an appropriate offer

Send "thanks for joining us" emails to leads captured at the booth, and "sorry we missed you" emails to customers and prospects within a 100-mile radius. Even if they did not attend the show, prospects will perceive you as being active in their locality.

Include a valuable business offer (analyst report, free trial) to encourage further engagement.

12. Hold a post-mortem review with Sales and Marketing

One week after the show, conduct a post-mortem meeting with all marketing and sales participants to determine whether the show was of good quality and should be considered again next year.

Evaluate the performance of Sales and Marketing vs. the service-level agreement. Identify areas for improvement. Track CRM performance of the leads; it would be premature after only one week, but schedule follow-up meetings for ongoing tracking. Tabulate all costs.

Document the post-mortem discussion so you don't forget your analysis when you are considering next year's show.

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That's 12 solid tips. Did I miss anything?

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bob Hebeisen is a Boston-based marketing professional with over 20 years of experience as a practitioner and team manager in B2B technology marketing. Reach him via LinkedIn and his blog.