It's winter, the time many companies begin to ramp up for the biggest industry events of the year in January, February, and March. In Q1 alone, for example, retail businesses have NRF's "Big Show," tech companies have CES, and the digital music, marketing, and entertainment crowds converge on Austin for SXSW.

Whether you're a budget-challenged startup or a corporate marketer headed to a tradeshow for the first time, to prepare your company's branding for an appearance at one of the major events can be daunting.

Those challenges include determining...

  • What you really need in terms of booth signage/banners, props, tchotchkes, handouts
  • How early you start to get materials produced and delivered by the time of the event—and how much you'll need to budget for these materials
  • How can you establish and reinforce your brand's presence in a crowded field—among business prospects and media—without breaking the bank

As a veteran of too many industry tradeshows, and someone whose company helps thousands of marketers prepare for those industry events, I can share the following "Do's" and "Don'ts" to successfully maximize your ROI and achieve the best results at events from a branding perspective.

Do start early and shop around, particularly with regard to producing signage and banners for a booth or table.

Vendors can produce materials in a pinch (after you've nailed down the necessary specs and restrictions from the show on your booth and table space), but at least 4-6 weeks ahead of the show you'll need to send proofs of anything you need to print or produce, unless you're happy to pay outrageous rush fees... so plan ahead.

And there's more to produce than just banners and table toppers. For example, if you plan to showcase sample products at your table, you'll need smaller signage to identify and direct attention to items. Or if you want to offer attendees a promo code, you might create a four-color postcard for media and others to take from your booth so you don't lose that lead.

Don't forget to check any props, signage, and other printed items before you get to the event. Longtime PR pro and CES veteran Lindsay Stevens recalls a time she had to have several banners rush-printed to get them to a tradeshow on time, only to open them on the show floor to find one of the stands was broken and there was a glaringly awkward typo on another. Now she opts to travel with the banners, noting that the hassle is worth it to avoid the risk of typos or other snafus at a point too late to rectify.

Don't get sucked into the high rental prices from the show. It can actually be more cost-effective to purchase a monitor or projector, for example, and return it even if there is a restocking fee. On the other hand, there are reasons to pay the Wi-Fi access fees rather than risking the use of a hotspot on the show floor.

Do get creative and experiential. If there's a way to demo your product in a way that will attract traffic to your booth, go for it (but even gimmicky attention-grabbing tricks work if it gets people to stop and take a look). For example, workers comp insurance company Applied Underwriters features a giant "bobblehead" version of its corporate mascot (a St. Bernard dog) in its booth, inviting attendees to take a photo with the dog to post to social media.

Don't have the budget for a giant pooch? Sometimes even simple tricks like a popcorn machine or an oversized prize wheel can help break through the clutter and encourage interaction with your brand. I mean, who can resist the aroma of fresh-popped corn or the chance to win something?

Do use video to capture attention and illustrate your value proposition—but keep in mind you'll need to produce something that isn't reliant on audio (since it's likely going to be very loud in the hall). Your video should be able to stand alone, via visuals and text. And make sure you can play it on a loop successfully without your screen going into sleep mode!

Don't bother with boring branded tchotchkes such as jump drives, keychains, stress balls, or even more creative novelty items, because they are likely to get tossed shortly after attendees leave the show. An associate of mine recalls the time her company gave away sleeping masks; she still has boxes of them taking up way too much room in her office. More creative and yet still useful items can include personalized greeting cards, hats (especially if your booth is outside or in a hot-climate location!), and even tote bags.

Do use candy to lure people to the booth. It's the oldest trick in the book, but a fishbowl filled with Wintergreen lifesavers, Hershey's kisses, or Starbursts is a tried and true tactic that works every time. Not to mention, with all the talking you're doing, a mint or two in your pocket will come in handy.

Do wear branded attire—including execs (even if under a blazer). Why lose the opportunity to reinforce your company's name and identity at every turn?

Don't neglect to update your online presence as well. Make sure your website is up-to-date (correct and current contact information, and a press page with recent coverage and press releases, etc.) and, most important, mobile-responsive. Ensure your social channels are updated and that someone on-site is monitoring interactions throughout the weekend.

Don't forget the business cards—updated, and for everyone on your team, even at your agency. We know, we know... it's almost 2019, and we're still talking about business cards. But at events like CES, this seemingly archaic token from a bygone era can still be the best way to remind new contacts to connect after the event (and then promptly toss your business card in the recycling bin). That in mind, consider revamping yours before the show, and make sure everyone attending on your company's behalf has plenty to hand out. Leave some white space on the card for the recipient to write themselves a note after your meeting—along the lines of "don't forget to email this person!" (Also, often, there are some good raffles that require business cards for entry!)

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Tradeshow Branding Do's and Don'ts: How to Maximize ROI and Results at Industry Events

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image of Pamela Webber

Pamela Webber is chief operating officer of 99designs, a global creative platform that makes it easy for designers and clients to work together to create designs they love.

LinkedIn: Pam Webber

Twitter: @pamwebber_sf