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Is Tradeshow Marketing Dead? 12 Tips to Resuscitate a Classic Lead-Gen Tactic

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In this article, you'll learn...

  • 12 steps to getting results from your next tradeshow
  • How to effectively plan and execute your tradeshow strategy at each stage

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.

* * *

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


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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.

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Comments

  • by Pete Thu Jun 23, 2011 via web

    Some solid tips here. I would add that Tradeshow is still useful as it is a great venue to connect with your target audience and to expose your brand. But as you say, to make the best out of it, you'd have to do your homeworks ahead of time and be prepared.

    Here's another article I found with great tips on tradeshow marketing.
    http://bit.ly/iLr4W9

  • by Peter Williams Thu Jun 23, 2011 via web

    Good list but - Did you miss anything - Yes!
    Have a very interesting stand that attracts vistors visually, is 'open' in design so that visitors want to come onto it to see displays, and especially, have well trained, knowledgable and smiling staff always on hand. There is nothing worse than staff who do not know your products, do not know the benefits for customers and who look bored. {Too many exhibitors have staff just like that!}

  • by Rick White Thu Jun 23, 2011 via web

    Goo thoughts. Successful Trade Show Marketing is not dead but simple steps make a big difference.

    1. Do what ever is necessary to log every lead the day the lead was captured. DO NOT WAIT until after the show. You will loose energy for every minute lost.
    2. Push for and accept post-show follow-up appointments at the close of every discussion. Then confirm via email / voice mail the appointment that day. If you get more than 20% appointments scheduled you have had a great day but even with half that you have a meaningful way of judging not only customer intent but the power of the show messages and will know after the first few hours if adjustments are needed to drive business from the show. Trade Shows are about driving business results.
    3. By reviewing previous attendee logs in your space from attending this show previously you should determine what percentage of decision makers are actually make an appearance. I can't tell you how many times I have seen messages written for decision makers when the vast majority of attendees are supporting cast members. It makes a huge difference when messages are geared to those you are seeing.

  • by Kevin Duffy Thu Jun 23, 2011 via web

    Excellent info. I did a similar post a few months ago ( http://bit.ly/fP0MXC ). Trade shows seem to be on the rebound. I totally agree with having some giveaways in your booth to drive traffic. I think it can be as simple as food. Fill a bowl with a bunch of Hershey miniatures and people will flock to your booth.

    I think the biggest way to help yourself is to have a plan of attack going in (the first point in my post). What is the goal of the trade show for you. How will you be able to measure success. Are there particular people you want to meet while you are there.

  • by Mark Murphy Thu Jun 23, 2011 via web

    This list is a good basic list of comprehensive activities that should be provided to every new/Junior employee working on an event team. If Trade Show/Event Managers aren't doing these things, they shouldn't have their job.

  • by Lyn Murajda Thu Jun 23, 2011 via web

    Great list of tips from the author and other commenters! Trade shows are not dead, especially in manufacturing industries or those where large equipment purchases are made - these are often the only venues in which clients can see new equipment running.

    Two more tips: 1) set up a schedule for sales and marketing reps so they know when they have to be in the booth to work it, and when they can have a lunch break or set up a coffee break meeting with a client or prospect somewhere else. Scheduling breaks keeps everyone fresh & focused. 2) Demo your product in the booth - people will come over to see what's going on, and everyone going by the booth will want to know what's so interesting, so it keeps the traffic coming in.

  • by AnneTStone Thu Jun 23, 2011 via web

    Excellent points and great comments here.
    I think w/ sales & marketing buy in and Service Level Agreement - I just thought I would contribute the obvious - REVIEW YOUR OBJECTIVES.

    Show objectives should align with key strategic goals and the audience as others mentioned should match. (and it's a very expensive way to test a new audience.) Agree ahead what specific outcomes and how you will define success.

    Personally not a fan of the 'uniformed' rep personally, but branded name tags work. People should be able to tell who is working the booth, because they are *engaging* visitors and passers-by.

    My caution on the give-aways - the people that go for those are not your qualified leads, unless you strategically plan to offer something only to those people (and it's higher quality)....if you go for 'brand awareness' give aways - think about QR codes that deliver them to your site in the future w/ extra value and a way to sign up for something...

  • by Wil Porter Thu Jun 23, 2011 via web

    Something that I have been doing the generate traffic to my booth is to use the pre-registraton lest 2-3 weeks before the event and send out a postcard that says "bring this postcard to the booth for entry into a pecial drawing" The drawing is usually sports ticket or a premium $200-$300 item.
    I then put on the postcard that if they would like an extra entry into this premium drawing to e-mail me with "date / conference name" in the subject line. I can then send them information before the show and set up an appt.
    The other "hook" i use is to put on the postcard the first X people to the booth get another entry.
    It has worked great over the course of a few years .. about 20-30% will return the card to me and others will say "ughhh left it at home" but they remember it.

    I have received the "please come visit our booth" cards before but this makes the recipient save the card and remember to bring it with them and then of course a special landing page for the event is developed to track responses.

    Happy trade showing !!

  • by Nikki Gore Thu Jun 23, 2011 via web

    A follow up to number 7 is not only should sales people or anyone working the booth staff not be on the phone, but they should also not be spending time talking to each other or with their backs to the aisles.

    So many times I have scolded sales reps and stand staff to face the crowd, engage, etc. Even if they aren't the ideal target, they are good to use for continued practice and honing the pitch and demos.

    Let the stand staff know that they are there to meet with new people and not socialize with each other!

    The other point I would make is that if you have been going to a trade show for years, and it's no longer delivering the audience, don't be afraid to stop going and find a new show or conference that better suits your marketing objectives. Just because your competitors are there, doesn't mean your customers or potential customers will be there. Remember when IBM pulled out of Comdex? You would have thought the marketing world had ended! But trade shows and IBM carried on.

  • by Bob Hebeisen Sun Jun 26, 2011 via web

    Thanks for all the great comments here. I especially like Wil Porter's comment about sending out pre-show postcards offering a drawing at the booth to drive visits from your existing database.

  • by Wil Porter Mon Jun 27, 2011 via web

    Mr. Hebeisen, I appreciate your comment. Having sent the same post card to attendees over 5+ years it has become part of my image and brand for that conference and something the attendees remember.

    Side note - Just returned from a national industry conferece where a trade show give away was 6 oz bottles of hot sauce.
    I can't pack that in my carry on because it's over 3ozs and liquid - also i am not about to pack that in my checked luggage in the event it explodes al over everything ...

  • by Bob Hebeisen Tue Jun 28, 2011 via web

    @Wil Porter: another funny (?) story related to trade shows & carry-on luggage. I finished packing up a trade show once in NY and took a mad dash cab ride to JFK to catch my flight home. I started to relax when I hit the security line and saw it wasn't too long and realized I would make the plane. Then the baggage scan went haywire when they found my razor blade knife in my carry-on -- I had absently shoved it into my briefcase after packing the last box. TSA was not amused! ;-)

  • by Wil Porter Tue Jun 28, 2011 via web

    @Bob Hebeisen,
    In regards to point 1 - planning early - My trade association is having their annual convention in June 2012 in Orlando. I sit on the board and we are looking at building on some great momentum from this year and are looking to line up some talent / expertise.
    Perhaps we could talk more offline about topics and opportunities
    wporter@ansaphone.com

    All the best

  • by Bob Hebeisen Tue Jun 28, 2011 via web

    @Wil Porter, it would be great to talk offline. Why don't you reach out to me through my LinkedIn profile: http://www.linkedin.com/in/bobhebeisen. One caveat: I am the father of a newborn (1 week old yesterday), so please forgive me if it takes a little while for my to respond.

  • by Alex Dzipkovic Thu Sep 22, 2011 via web

    Good thing to read and from my experience all truth. One more thing - do not wait for prospects to come to you - go to them. Let your sales people visit potential customers and customers at their stands and promote your goods.

  • by Bob Hebeisen Thu Sep 22, 2011 via web

    Good point, Alex, and thanks for your comment. Yes, your sales people should be aggressively selling, not just hanging out in the booth in "reactive" mode. Get out into the aisles and interact with people passing by. Give your elevator pitch a good workout!

    I don't normally advise entering another company's booth to try to sell your product to their booth personnel. If that happened to me when I was exhibiting I would not appreciate that distraction. Perhaps you could do it during times when you are waiting for the exhibit hall to open so they are not busy engaging in their own sales activities.

    But also remember that booth staff is typically junior marketing and sales people and they are probably not your target buyer. I suppose if you want to sell to someone else in their company you could press them for the name of the right contact within their organization.

  • by Sarah Tue Oct 25, 2011 via web

    Tradeshows are not dead in industries where buyers need to see & feel the product. A good example is the specialty toy industry. You do need to make sure you connect with & follow up with potential customers in a relevant way in order to maximize future sales.

    The reason customers care about you is they're interested in your products, so it is much more powerful to create a connection directly to your product catalog, rather than engage in email & calling campaigns in an effort to build the relationship.

    You can use a cloud-based platform like Rocware (http://www.rocware.com) to connect with customers directly through your product catalog. This lets customers easily check in to take a more in depth look at your products anytime in the future, you can keep them up to date on new products, and you are perfectly positioned to make the sale when they're ready to buy.

  • by Mike Ross Fri Aug 16, 2013 via web

    I know this article is a couple years old but I think that it still has a lot of good points and tips. I've noticed that if you have a good trade show display then it can still be a really good source of marketing. I have been using trade shows as part of my marketing for my business for a while and we always see good things from it.
    http://nomadicdisplay.ca/_en/product-exposition-stand-exhibition-display.php

  • by Bob Hebeisen Wed Aug 21, 2013 via web

    Sarah, a belated thanks for your comment. You are absolutely right that some industries are better suited for trade shows than others. For example my company does a lot of medical technology trade shows to support the sale of our software into hospitals. Doctors are compelled to attend these trade shows to earn Continuing Medical Education credits, and hospitals are being forced to modernize their medical records handling by federal government incentives & penalties. So attendees at these trade shows are very motivated to engage with us.

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