Business marketers spend more than $20 billion annually on tradeshow marketing, and another $15 billion on proprietary corporate events, such as client conferences and road shows. But most business marketers are unclear about what value they are getting from their investment.

The best value results from a combination of careful planning, dedication to measurement and—above all—a strategic focus. First and foremost, you must consider the fundamental principles that drive successful business event marketing—boiled down here to 10 essentials:

  1. Business events are a hybrid sales and marketing activity. They combine elements of selling, lead generation, public relations, research, brand awareness building and account penetration, to name a few. In fact, among marketing activities, business events are about as close to sales as you can get. You might say they are akin to a sales call combined with an ad and PR campaign. If you think of them as simply "sales" or simply "marketing," you'll lose some of the leverage available to you.

  2. Business events must be an integral part of the marketing mix. Consider them within the larger context of the entire go-to-market strategy. When seen as mere tactics, something "we do every year because we always have," they will quickly devolve from an investment into an expense. Marketers must consider the entire marketing mix—the annual program—and fit in the business event opportunity where it will drive the best result. In many cases, a business event is not the right lever to meet the business objective.

  3. Targeting is everything. A great business event is only as great as the visitors it attracts and their value as customers and prospects. At a tradeshow, a fabulous booth is useless in front of the wrong people. So, tradeshow selection deserves your attention and your discipline. When you plan your participation at a business event, design your activities to attract the real potential buyers and minimize the non-prospects. Be very clear about whom you want to meet and what conversations you want to have.

  4. Set clear, specific objectives. Plan—and fund—the metrics by which you will measure your results. This should go without saying, but business events have been managed with less than due diligence in this area. As a result, business events as a whole have developed an undeserved reputation for being "difficult to measure." They are no more difficult than any other marketing activity. Events can, and must be, measured.

  5. Don't ask a business event to deliver on its weaknesses. Tradeshows, for example, tend to be inefficient venues for generating awareness. They are an expensive way to build a mailing list. If those are your objectives, you will find other, more compelling options in the business marketing toolkit. Nor are business events effective opportunities to keep up with the Joneses. If your competitors at a show have fancier booths, a bigger footprint or splashier sponsorships, you can congratulate yourself. You are probably driving better business results than they, with your focused, targeted and measurable business event marketing activities.

  6. The business event itself is only a few days in the midst of a larger, multi-month program. It's the tip of the iceberg—it's what you see, but it's only a minor part of business event marketing. Some companies think that if they pull together a booth and show up at the tradeshow, they are all set. Keep in mind that you are conducting an end-to-end marketing campaign, with the business event itself as a part of the overall campaign.

  7. Promote your business event. At a tradeshow, you cannot simply rely on show management to get you all the possible business opportunities at the show. Pre-show promotions are perhaps the greatest under-leveraged opportunity in tradeshow marketing today. This is where the right targets are identified, and attracted to meet with you face to face. For corporate events, promotions are required to drive attendance in the first place.

  8. Capture and follow up on your business event contacts. Post-event is where the real revenue-driving business is done. At a tradeshow, go for the quality, versus the quantity, of contacts. Lead capture and management is a process; it simply requires attention and diligence. If you don't have a lead management process in place at your company, stop now. Go build one before you invest another dollar in business event marketing.

  9. It's all about people. If business events are an efficient face-to-face medium, then the leverage to be gained is in the people involved on both sides of the interaction. Success is about targeting the right audience and persuading them—and only them—to interact with you at the business event. It's equally about selecting, training and motivating a strong staff to interact with them.

  10. The business event serves business goals. Don't neglect the forest for the trees. Managing events is an extremely complicated activity, what with the glamorous exhibit and the fun hospitality on the one hand, and the rigors of the logistics and the myriad details on the other. But these activities are simply the trees—they are a means to an end. The forest lies in the business result and the planning that drives it. If you are paying attention to the trees alone, you miss the true power event marketing.

Note: Want more? Ruth Stevens leads a MarketingProfs virtual seminar on January 19, at noon (Eastern), titled "Tradeshow Strategies: Ways to Get Bigger Bang from Your Marketing Buck." Get more information or sign up here.

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image of Ruth P. Stevens

Ruth P. Stevens consults on customer acquisition and retention; teaches marketing at business schools; and contributes to AdAge, Biznology, and Target Marketing Magazine. Crain's BtoB named her one of the Most Influential People in Business Marketing.