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Tradeshow and conference sponsorships don't come cheap, but they do bring prospects face to face with your company and brand. And, in so doing, they offer a unique opportunity to establish stronger, more-personal connections with potential customers, which can, in turn, generate solid returns on your investment—if you know how to make the most of that opportunity.

As MarketingProfs VP of Events Susanne Sicilian explains, that effort involves much more than a good booth. "It...has to take place before, during, and after the event," she says.

The following six steps will help guide you to that customer-relationship goal.

Step 1: Start building excitement before the event

To make a strong first impression and begin building the relationship, use the weeks leading up to the event, when attendees' excitement is intensifying and it's possible to capture their full attention without competing against other booths or the buzz of the event.

Often the organization hosting and managing the event will supply a list of registered attendees, complete with contact information, a few weeks ahead of time. Sicilian recommends researching that list to understand your market and then reaching out to the registered parties via email or regular mail.

The key is to not attack the list, says Sicilian. Instead, take a non-soliciting approach that intrigues recipients and encourages them to visit your booth. For example, you might mention the freebies you plan to give away, offer captivating clues into what your booth will offer, or send out qualifying lead forms that inquire about attendees' needs and promise to help better serve those needs when you meet in person.

When event management doesn't come through with a list—and even if it does—you can also strive for pre-event engagement by running ads in industry publications, sponsoring billboards near the event venue, and leveraging social-media tools such as Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn to help generate excitement and initiate the conversation early on.

By launching a special Facebook group or LinkedIn-member discussion, for example, you may not only spark that initial connection with attendees but also encourage them to interact among themselves, all under the color of your brand.

Step 2: Give them reasons to come to your booth

With plenty vying for attendees' attention on the day of the event, it's essential that your booth be both welcoming and worthy of a visit. Sicilian's advice for accomplishing those objectives includes the following:

  • Ensure that the individuals working your booth appear friendly and approachable.
  • Make your value proposition obvious to passersby.
  • Offer tantalizing incentives for visiting your booth.

Incentives often include some sort of giveaway (which you've possibly already alluded to in your pre-event communications). Whitepapers and desk gadgets are common handouts; but to really stand out, Sicilian advises, get creative and offer something novel that will appeal to your target users' interests.

One of her favorite incentives was a booth fashioned like a diner that served coffee and pie. "For the cost of pies and coffee, they were able to pull people in, and then talk to them and find out more about them in a fun setting," Sicilian recalls.

The following examples may offer further inspiration:

  • Pharmaceutical giant Wyeth's booth at the annual ACOG (American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists) Conference included a 12-foot-tall wall that attendees could sign in support of the company's Giving Circle cause. More than one-third of the show's 3,500 attendees signed the wall, and Wyeth registered a 22% increase in booth attendance over the previous year.
  • Online-invoicing service FreshBooks once hired an artist to paint a mural in its booth over the duration of the 2008 HOW Design Conference in Boston, which lasted three days. Attendees kept coming back to the company booth to check the mural's progress and see the finished product.
  • Professional employer organization Administaff used an interactive golf-simulation experience to draw attendees into its booth at tradeshows and golf tournaments.

Step 3: Take action inside the booth

Drawing people to your booth isn't just about filling a fishbowl with business cards. To get the most "bang" for your event sponsorship, be a friendly host, strike up conversations, and strive for ongoing engagement, Sicilian suggests.

At a minimum, you should qualify visitors as leads by making an effort to learn about their businesses, their needs, and other information that will help your sales team better connect with these individuals after the event.

But while you're at it, why not find ways to continue the conversation beyond the booth and the event, and beyond the simple exchange of business cards? An easy solution involves setting up an online connection in your booth so that you can connect with visitors on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other social networks—perhaps even your own branded community—before visitors leave the booth.

Attendees who participated in Administaff's golf-simulation experience in the company's booth were instructed to log into the Administaff Online Community after the event to view a personalized video golf lesson that discussed their golf swings, as recorded by the simulator. Fully 71% of booth visitors reportedly logged on and viewed those lessons, enabling Administaff to continue the relationship with a majority of its visitors.

Email-marketing firm Emma took another creative approach to extending attendee engagement at the MarketingProfs Business-to-Business Forum in 2007: It gave away branded coffee mugs and directed attendees to submit photos of the mugs in fun scenarios for a chance to win a $100 Starbucks gift card. The interactive element to the giveaway encouraged visitors to personally make contact with the company after the event.

Step 4: Engage attendees outside the booth, too

Rather than rely on the allure of your booth alone, find ways to also connect with attendees outside the exhibit hall.

Often, there are sponsorship opportunities at these shows, ranging from keynote introductions to nightcap sponsorships at the bar. Sicilian suggests contacting event management ahead of time to figure out your options; if the right opportunity isn't available, consider taking the initiative by presenting your own sponsorship ideas to the event committee. They may not accept your ideas, but if your suggestions will improve the attendee experience, chances are they'll take an interest in partnering with you.

When such opportunities aren't available, try organizing your own out-of-booth experience, such as a dinner or tweetup near the venue, or other occasion that allows you to directly interact with attendees in a more relaxed environment where they'll be more likely to open up and talk with your team.

FreshBooks, for example, has been known to bring the company RV to events and use it as a party shuttle to usher attendees around; the company has also held a pancake breakfast in the venue parking lot as a means of standing out and spending extra time with attendees.

In another example, marketing agency Exhibitgroup/Giltspur arranged to pick up attendees from the airport at a conference event in Las Vegas. In addition to providing a valuable service, the company was able to spend quality one-on-one time with customers and prospects before they even entered the venue doors—a tactic that helped generate more than 100 top-tier leads from a single show.

If nothing else, Sicilian recommends, sponsors should make an effort to go outside their booths and mingle with attendees in the session halls, especially when the presentation topic pertains to their own line of business.

Step 5: Share the love with those who couldn't attend

With travel budgets strapped for cash these days, there's a good chance not as many people as usual will be able to make the actual event, but that doesn't mean you have to automatically count them out.

Some shows now offer both physical and virtual event components so that non-attendees can access information and interact with sponsors via an online connection. When DRIFIRE, a manufacturer of fire-resistant clothing, exhibited at the Fire Department Instructors Conference, for example, it participated in both the physical show and the virtual portion offered by InXpo a provider of privately branded virtual events. Doing so enabled Drifire to increase brand awareness, booth "traffic," and lead generation by an estimated 30%.

When virtual elements aren't available, you can still engage with those outside the venue by posting tweets (don't forget to use or create a designated hashtag term for users to follow), blog entries, and event photos and video online during the event proceedings.

Step 6: Don't forget to follow up

You'll have worked hard to earn attendees' attention before and during the event, and to qualify them while in your booth, so don't let the opportunity to continue the relationship fall short once the event is over.

Sicilian recommends following up with contacts within two weeks of the show and using the information gathered from attendees during the event to personalize your communications.

Most important, Sicilian says, make sure you follow through on any expectations you set and every commitment you make during the show, even when the contact doesn't appear to be a top-tier lead.

"Just because they're not buying now doesn't mean they may not buy later, or that they won't end up at another company" where there's a need for your products or services, she says. "Treat them how they want to be treated, and they'll remember who you are."

Looking for additional tips on how to get the most from your tradeshows and events? Check out How to Quadruple the Results of Your Tradeshow Marketing a Premium-only article from MarketingProfs contributor Ruth Stevens.

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Kimberly Smith is a staff writer for MarketingProfs. Reach her via