Promotion is a critical leverage point in tradeshow marketing. By applying a modest effort in planning and executing promotional strategies, you can double, triple, even quadruple the results of your investment.

Tradeshow marketers often get so preoccupied with designing and building their booths that they can forget to concentrate on driving qualified traffic. An investment in promotion is critical to your success, because...

  • You cannot expect show management to do all of your recruiting for you.

  • Business buyers generally plan their tradeshow time in advance. Research from the Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR) found that 76% of attendees use pre-show information for this purpose.

  • A fabulous booth is not an end in itself. The end is reached only by attracting qualified traffic.

  • Front-end and back-end promotions extend the impact of the event over a longer period of time and deepen the resulting connections with customers and prospects.

Your Tradeshow Promotions Strategy

A tradeshow marketing plan must include an integrated strategy for communications to support your objectives. The strategic planning process is actually easier than you might think. Let the optimal promotions emerge naturally from your show objectives. Here is an example:

Sample Business Event Promotion Strategic Planning Grid

Event Objective Associated Metrics Promotion Strategy Pre-Show Promotion Tactic
Generate sales leads
  • Number of qualified leads
  • Cost per qualified lead
  • Drive qualified prospects to the booth or the event
  • Pre-show mailing to show attendees
  • Pre-show email to house file of customers and prospects
Recruit channel partners
  • Number of partners recruited
  • Cost per recruited partner
  • Geographic penetration of recruited partners
  • Drive potential channel partners to our booth or event
  • Create good will among partner candidates
  • Set up show appointments with qualified partner candidates
  • Pre-show mailing to prospective partners
  • Cocktail event for partner candidates with speech by CEO
  • Outbound telemarketing to set up appointments with channel recruitment executives
Retain current customers
  • Number of customer appointments
  • Number of new product demos to current customers
  • Revenue closed from current customers
  • Maximize appointments with current customers
  • Show appreciation for their business
  • Outbound contact by account teams to set up appointments at the booth
  • Golf outing and customer appreciation dinner

In this example, if your objective at the tradeshow is sales lead generation, and you will declare success based on the number of qualified leads, then you want to select promotional strategies and pre-show tactics that support them. This table suggests some hypothetical pre-show promotional tactics that might emerge.

Notice how the promotional tactic is specifically selected to support measurable objectives. The neat thing about this approach is that it narrows the tactical field to the elements that will be most effective in meeting your goals. And it provides useful ammunition against the random tactical ideas that inevitably come up during the marketing process.

Budgeting for Promotions

According to CEIR, marketers spend a mere 6% of their entire tradeshow budgets on promotion. This makes no sense. How have marketers lost sight of the essential principle underlying everything they do? We have learned time and again how deluded is the attitude: "If we build it, they will come."

To counteract this 6% promotional spending average, Jefferson Davis, president of Competitive Edge, an event training company, advises his clients to budget 15% for promotion.

"Exhibitors' single biggest frustration when they get to a show is that they don't get enough visitors, or they don't get enough of the right visitors," he says. "That says that the current average spending you see reported in the industry is not working. So, my conclusion is, if you spend more than average, you'll do better. To find the money, you can manage your costs better in other areas."

Davis includes both pre-show and post-show promotions, including lead fulfillment and follow-up, in his 15% recommendation.

Executing Your Pre-Show Promotions

The most-cited goal of a pre-show promotion is to drive traffic to your booth. But not just any traffic: You want qualified prospects only. Think of it this way: You are front-loading the sales qualification process.

An effective pre-show strategy employs two prongs:

  1. Targeted communications to registered attendees. The first step: Cull the pre-registration list you receive from the show organizer to eliminate non-prospects and competitors.

  2. Communications to your house file. These people are already interested in doing business with you. If they are not planning to attend the tradeshow, your invitation will serve as a useful part of an ongoing relationship-building communications stream.

Pre-Show Promotional Tactic Checklist

Business marketers have used all kinds of tactics in pre-show marketing communications. You can use this checklist as a jumping-off point. Just be sure you don't get enamored of the fun and creativity of all this and so forget that your objective will be optimally supported by a set of tactics that grab prospects' attention and persuade them of the value of following your suggestions.

Your objective is not simply to gain awareness; it's to drive an action.

Also keep in mind that you want only qualified visitors to come to your booth. An aggressive offer should go only to very targeted audiences. With lists that are less qualified, use a message and offer designed simultaneously to attract the wheat and to repel the chaff.

  • Print up stickers with your booth number and the name, date, and city of the tradeshow. In the months before the event, affix the stickers to all kinds of communications—invoices, letters, packages, whatever you can think of. Provide each salesperson with a batch of stickers, too.

  • Create an electronic ad or tagline that can be dropped into your regular electronic communications (your Web site, e-newsletters, solo email).

  • Create a mini-site off of your company Web site that describes your activities at the upcoming tradeshow. Populate it with your press releases, product announcements, exhibit hall hours, contact information for staff working the show, speaking engagement schedule—whatever will inform or excite your customers and prospects. Mention the URL in all your correspondence before the show.

  • Send out free passes to the exhibit hall, or discount registration offers to the tradeshow.

  • Send a letter plus a map of the exhibit hall, with your booth location highlighted.

  • Advertise in pre-show issues of your leading industry trade publications.

  • Produce a show appointment book. Set up appointments with your key customers. Send each one as your confirmation the book with that appointment hand-written inside.

  • Do what everyone else does: Send a coupon, puzzle piece, or key that can be redeemed for a gift at the booth. But also do what only a few do: Narrow your target for this promotion to attendees who are likely to convert to qualified leads—and not every name on the list.

  • Offer a time-limited incentive to create a sense of urgency. "The first 30 people to visit our booth will get a special prize!"

  • Use testimonials from last year's attendees.

  • To get past gatekeepers at the executive suite, try a dimensional mail package.

  • When you rent the list of pre-registered attendees, review it carefully to eliminate competitors, students, and other exhibitors, as appropriate. Keep an eye out for obvious duplicates.

  • Always use at least first-class mail. Don't be among the pre-show mail pieces that attendees will inevitably find in their in-boxes on returning from a tradeshow.

  • Develop a series of contacts using all the media options available to you: letter, fax, postcard, telephone, email, personal visit from a sales rep.

  • For a stronger impact than the mail, have your sales people drop off invitations to customers and prospects by hand.

  • Stress the benefit. Don't say "Visit us at booth number x." Say why. Why should recipients take the time to visit you? Are you offering a show special? Launching a new product? What's in it for them?

  • Send your targeted list a coupon for a free gift that they can pick up at the booth.

  • Promote your tradeshow special offer.

  • Try mailing to the list of the tradeshow's prior-year attendees.

  • Send a personal letter from a senior executive at your firm. Include the dates and locations of your tradeshow activities, and explain why they should come. Use the executive's personal letterhead stationery and send it via first-class mail.

  • About five weeks in advance, have your sales people call their clients to set up appointments at the tradeshow. Create a master schedule of expected visitors and make sure you don't overbook in relation to the booth space and demo stations available. If prospects are unwilling to commit to a specific time, ask them to name an afternoon or a morning period when they'll come by. Follow up appointment-setting calls with a confirmation letter, and then an email reminder a few days before the tradeshow.

  • Make sure that appropriate staff will be ready and available to meet with the customers and prospects you invite. Match the seniority and technical level of your staff to the customer wherever possible. You don't want the CEO of your prospective new account meeting with a junior marketing assistant.

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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.