No Business Like Trade-Show Business Even a simple booth can be a powerful marketing and sales tool for small and midsize outfits. Preparation and planning are the keys to making the most of your investment For executives at small and midsize companies, trade shows can be a highly effective marketing and sales tool to gather leads, build branding, interact with new and current customers, and launch products. Trade shows let you control your environment and the image of your company, and even the smallest company can make a big splash. With all the positive activities possible at trade shows, there are a few tips to make sure your time and money are well spent. As a consultant to exhibitors and a former trade show organizer, I've observed successes and failures. I continually gather exhibitor feedback and want to share these insights because there is no better way to create a good first impression than via the face-to-face meeting place -- the trade show. But first, before I go any further, let me sum up the key to what should be every sensible entrepreneur's trade-show strategy in this simple formula: Management Involvement + Planning = Success For positive results, senior management must take an active interest in the show. It's critical for you to define goals that are quantifiable, set up measurement tools, and challenge marketing and sales staff to align tactics with their marketing strategy. Consider your goals. The top 10 reasons exhibitors invest their marketing funds in trade-show space are: • Collect qualified leads from prospective customers. • Launch new products or relaunch mature products. • Meet with current customers and build relationships. • Re-connect with former customers. • Conduct research among your target audience. • Showcase the expertise of exceptional staff (e.g. engineers) that may have little customer interaction. • Re-energize your sales force with training activities around the event. • Find joint venture organizations. • Sell to other exhibitors. • Sell products/take orders for future delivery. THE RIGHT SHOWS. If your company is like so many others, chances are you from show organizers on a regular basis, each with his or her own pitch aimed at persuading you to buy a booth. But before signing the contract, it's critical to assess the strategic fit between the buying power of those who will attend and the products and services your outfit will be showcasing. Make sure your marketing team asks the right questions of show organizers so that you'll exhibit at only the appropriate venues. These should include: • Describe the event -- and tell me what makes your show different from others? • Which outfits and people are you inviting to attend and as visitors? Which magazines' lists to you use? What mailing lists do you source? How many marketing messages will you deliver? Do you use both direct mail and e-mail marketing to attract attendees? • Request detailed demographics of last year visitors. Get job titles, company size, how many people will be attending who actually buy your product category. Has the show has been audited by an outside organization. • Determine what marketing tools the show organizer includes as part of the basic exhibit package (e.g. Web listings and links to your Web site, free attendance tickets to your prospective clients, etc.) • Inquire about the availability and cost of buying lists of attendees from prior years to which you can do your own preshow marketing. By doing this analysis, you'll be sure the show meets your needs. If it doesn't, you will be better off redirecting these marketing funds into other avenues -- things like the Web, ads in trade magazines, Internet paid search, more sales people, private customer events. You've decided to exhibit -- now what? Now that the homework is done, you can plan your show activities. Because each organization is different and goals vary, let's stick to some general rules and principles: Before the show begins, market to your prospective customers. Make sure they know you will be there, tease them with what they'll see, and attempt to schedule meetings. Your sales force is a key driver in this effort, but marketing staff can also to help source additional lists of potential buyers, ones your sales team may not know. The most important goal is to be on the "A list" of your most important customers and prospects. In one event, for example, an exhibitor took its own customer file and melded it with a highly targeted segment from event's registration list. The result: a postcard mailer that promoted a fun special offer. The results: a 300% increase in highly targeted booth visitors. • Make sure your booth graphics are very clear. Many show attendees have just a few hours to check out an entire event. If your graphics are unclear, buyers will be confused and move on without stopping to meet your team. If graphics are tired or dated, get an independent second opinion and consider making the investment to freshen up the artwork. • Make sure your booth team is well versed in products relevant to the show's target market. If your products are technical, have engineers staff the booth alongside sales people. • Conduct a short session to polish your staffers' skills in "booth selling." Your team teams need to quickly engage attendees, qualify them, and deliver a well considered sales message. If an attendee doesn't have the makings of a prospect, politely disengage, so you'll have more time to speak with appropriate potential buyers. • Appoint a "booth leader" to oversee onsite activities. Allow that person to make modifications if necessary -- e.g. change booth schedules, create signs onsite, provide feedback/training on delivery of sales messages, and supervise staff. Convene daily preshow and end-of-day meetings to share experiences, issues, opportunities, show gossip, competitive intelligence. • Provide your booth team incentives for achieving your goals. Even modest incentives give them a chance to demonstrate their abilities and ingenuity. • Schedule rest breaks to keep your booth team fresh. Shows are hard on the legs, voices, and backs. • Banish cell phones from your booth. You have but one chance to engage buyers -- don't allow your team to miss opportunities while yakking. Consider eliminating chairs, except if you have adequate space for customer meetings. • Never break down your booth before the show ends, even if you team is bored and the show seems dead. One exhibitor told me that in the last 15 minutes of a recent show, a prospective customer who never had time to return telephone calls stopped by his booth and placed a $1 million purchase order. The client explained that his own business was so busy, he had only been able to get to the show in the last two hours of the show's day. • Use the event's slow times to meet with other exhibitors. You'll be surprised at the number of deals and alliances that are created this way. • Make a record -- a legible one! -- of all qualified lead contacts, and identify the specific follow-up action items required. A written or digital record is critical so that you can track follow-up and quantify show results. CRITICAL FOLLOW-UP. As odd as it may seem, after-show follow-up of qualified leads is where many exhibiting companies hobble their potential for success. Some tips to ensure you'll reap the benefits of your trade show investment include: • Send specific product information to qualified leads within 48 hours of the show closing and follow-up with a phone call within a week. Nothing delights prospective customers more than responsiveness. • Create a database or at least a mailing list of all qualified leads. Put this list in your tickler file and ask your sales manager for a monthly update on sales conversion. Your focus on sales productivity will demonstrate commitment to lead follow-up. • Debrief with your sales and marketing team after the event to identify: what worked, what didn't and what you'd do differently next time. Ask for comments in writing, so that you can revisit the insight for future events. Trade shows can be the single best investment in lead generation and marketing exposure for small and midsize companies. If you follow these planning guidelines, provide exceptional onsite presence, and create follow-up programs, your trade shows will provide extraordinary value and results.