We've all read about the business benefits of face-to-face interaction: It creates personal connections, builds trust, and fosters engagement. Tradeshows are one of the most common—and successful—examples of face-to-face interaction because they allow for a brand to connect with a high number of customers and prospects at once.

However, it's unrealistic to expect that just because you have an exhibit at a show you'll be flooded with hundreds of qualified leads. Real effort needs to be expended to ensure you spend time with the right people—and know how to disengage with the wrong ones.

The good news is that achieving that goal is simple: Just develop and implement a thorough qualifying process for all booth visitors. Here are a few tips you can use for your next show.

1. Identify the ideal customer

Every tradeshow attracts a spectrum of attendees, but not every single one of them is a target for your business. Recognizing that and understanding the attributes of your ideal customer are critical to ensuring that you channel your valuable time and marketing dollars toward prospects who are likely to result in real business.

Start by building a profile of your ideal customer several months before the show's doors even open. Perhaps he or she works for a company you've been targeting for years, has a specific title that gets you beyond the decision maker you currently work with, or is part of a new market sector where your company is looking to grow business.

Most events give exhibitors access to lists of registered attendees and provide a breakdown of business category, job title, and purchasing authority. Take advantage of that gold mine! Merge the information with your company's internal sales database to create a master list that will serve as the foundation for all of your pre-show and post-show marketing efforts.

2. Dangle the carrot

Now that you've identified your top prospects, you need to get them interested in who you are and what you can do to help their businesses. That can be a challenge, since there may be hundreds of other exhibitors vying for their attention during a very short time frame.

Start by understanding the attendees' motivation for attending the show. Tap into your sales team for insight into key business issues that prospects may be facing, and combine that knowledge with general challenges confronting the industry you serve.

Make sure that the tools you use to communicate with customers before, during, and after the show contain messaging that clearly demonstrates how your company can help them resolve their problems. You can also consider offering special incentives that attendees can't find elsewhere at the show, such as special pricing or market research.

The bottom line is that attendees will give their time in return for something of value—communicating that value is the key to a successful program.

3. Train the sales team

Effectively engaging key prospects and customers onsite is another critical step in maximizing event return on investment (ROI). Part of that is identifying the employees that will be the best representatives for your brand and putting them front and center in your booth. Offer incentives to maximize their performance, and task them for a specific level of interaction. Practice "prospect hand-offs" so visitors experience a logical and comfortable series of encounters on their quest for information.

Reviewing responses to anticipated questions about your product or service and being aware of the weaknesses of competitive offerings will ensure that conversations are guided in a positive direction.

4. Qualify through data capture

Developing an effective process to capture data is essential. Whether you choose to make that process fun with giveaway drawings or educational with an interactive game, collect the vitals—name, rank, and serial number—as soon as visitors begin their experience at your booth. Every name you collect at a tradeshow can be valuable. However, make sure to train your staff to quickly identify qualified decision-makers with the help of a script; there is no time for casual conversations that don't lead to some form of business transaction. Of course, if you are looking to build a personal connection with a good prospect, make the time investment.

Your script should also include tips on how to politely disengage with unqualified visitors as quickly as possible. If you calculate the cost of every minute you spend at a show, that simple rule of thumb will surely resonate. You need your staff free and able to interact with real prospects with real interest and real decision-making power.

5. Say goodbye with a smile

Once you've concluded your conversation with booth visitors, thank them for their time and give them a small token that will help them remember your company, then move on. Save the extended conversations for after the show, when you have more time.

For your most-qualified prospects, engagement shouldn't end when the show does. Your initial follow-up may be something as simple as mailed collateral, but it must effectively respond to the needs the prospects expressed at the show. Showing them that you really listened to their challenges and want to help them find a solution will increase your chances of getting that second meeting.

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Tradeshows remain one of the most effective ways to market your brand. But it's essential to understand who your key targets are—and aren't. Implementing a well-thought-out engagement strategy will ensure that your sales team maximizes the time they have on the show floor and the overall event ROI.

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image of Rob Murphy

Rob Murphy is the former chief marketing officer of MC2, a global exhibit and event marketing company. Check out the eConnections Digest blog and find MC2 on Twitter (@MC2experience_ and @MC2_FastTrak) and Facebook.