Done right, exhibiting at a tradeshow can be a quick path to increased business and profits. Done wrong, tradeshow marketing can be a quick way to blow a big chunk of your marketing budget.

Some tradeshow exhibitors will succeed, others will fail, and some will fail epically. If you intend to start exhibiting at tradeshows, you need to make sure you know what you're doing and that you have a plan. As the saying goes, failing to plan is planning to fail.

Foremost, you must avoid the following four sure-fire ways to fail at tradeshow marketing. Or, as I like to call them, the Four Horsemen of the Tradeshow Apocalypse. Listen carefully, and you may hear the pounding of their approaching hooves…

1. Selecting the Wrong Tradeshow: The First Horseman

Fortunately, selecting the wrong tradeshow is the horseman that's easiest to avoid. Before you decide the show at which you will exhibit, you need to determine why you want to exhibit—your goal—and who your target audience and potential prospects are. You can't select a tradeshow if you don't know whom you're targeting!

You also need to find the a show that will have a high proportion of your potential prospects attending. Do you want a show attended by consumers, or do you do business with businesses? If you're B2B, what businesses are you targeting? What people are you targeting… technical types or management? For any show you're considering, look at past-attendee demographics.

Also look at who has exhibited at the show in the past. Are companies similar to your company exhibiting there, and do they keep exhibiting year after year?

You must select the right show!

2. Having a Boring Tradeshow Booth: The Second Horseman

The second horseman of the tradeshow apocalypse is a ho-hum, fade-into-the-background, plain-vanilla, generic, unfocused tradeshow booth. Remember, there will be hundreds of other tradeshow booths competing for attention.

Hopefully, you'll secure a high-traffic spot on a main aisle and not get stuck at the back of the exhibit hall floor (yes, location matters!), but even then you'll get only a few moments of consideration as attendees walk past your booth.

Your booth graphics should include big, bold imagery to catch the eye of people walking by. Your design also needs to focus on what you can do to help people. How can you fix their problem or assist their business? People should be able to look at your booth from a distance and see (read) a reason to visit your booth and talk to you. Remember, your booth graphics need to grab attention and state a reason people should visit you.

Photo: Paul Kline "The Grim Reaper"

3. Attracting the Wrong Crowd: The Third Horseman

Attracting the wrong crowd usually results from overanxious new exhibitors' wanting to attract everyone and not realizing what they really need is potential prospects. Of course, you need to know who your target audience is and who your potential prospect is. (See No. 1: selecting the right show.)

Too many new exhibitors get caught up in generic promotions and they have something like a free 60" flatscreen TV giveaway. Suddenly, they find lots of people clogging their booth, but the people are there only to win the TV—not learn about the company. Worse, the attendees who might be prospects skip your booth because it's too crowded with other people.

Remember, the booth visitors you want are ones you can turn into customers. Find ways to attract potential prospects, not booth cloggers! The only thing worse than an empty booth is a booth full of people who will never buy what you're selling.

4. Procrastinating and Not Following Up: The Fourth Horseman

Not following up after the show is deadly. You can do everything correct at the show only to be cut down by the fourth horseman of the tradeshow apocalypse: procrastination.

It's tempting to catch up on the latest office gossip when you get back to work, and there will probably be all sorts of other things you need to get done, including reading the latest "industry news" online, but you need to follow up on the leads you generated at the show. Of course, that means that while you're at the show, instead of just handing out business cards and leaving it up to interested prospects to contact you, you need to get their contact information and then use it after the show to follow up.

There's always a good excuse to follow up on leads tomorrow, but often tomorrow turns into the next day and the next... and the follow-up never comes.

* * *

To summarize:

  • Make sure you pick the right tradeshow at which to exhibit.
  • Design a booth that grabs attention and makes clear what you can do to help prospects.
  • Get a good location on the exhibit floor if you can.
  • Make sure you know who your prospects are, and focus on drawing them to your booth. Focus your promotional efforts only on true prospects.
  • After the show, don't give in to procrastination: Follow up on your tradeshow leads immediately.

Don't let the Four Horsemen turn your tradeshow marketing into a tradeshow apocalypse.

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Four Surefire Ways to Fail at Tradeshow Marketing

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Steve Peterson is the director of marketing at Pinnacle Displays, an online supplier of tradeshow displays and graphics.