Squishy Balls and the Successful Trade Show

I have done a lot of trade shows and conferences over the years. And I mean a lot. It sucked the fun out of Vegas and the warm fuzzies out of Chicago. That being said, there are a number of things I have learned about making this investment that can help pay dividends in the long run…and it does not involve giving away squishy balls. There are countless conferences and trade shows that offer networking, business development and educational opportunities, but with tight budgets and competing priorities marketing departments have to make tough decisions about the right shows to attend. That being said, I have found very few companies that are actually doing events well. Most don’t have the effective tools to measure ROI and many don’t measure success or failure at all. The response from many sales managers was “if we aren’t there, it will look bad for our reputation and brand”. In the end though, upper management needs to ensure that they get the most out of their investment in the event. So where do you start? Choosing the right show I don’t want to spend to much time here, but there are only two questions you need to ask yourself:
  1. Are your customers there with attendees that are decision makers? There are a lot of assumptions when people see their competitors are attending a show. Competition does not mean it is the right show. In fact, competitors may have the same lack of knowledge about the event as you do and everyone else is following them. Poll your sales people, your customers and research the event attendee list before committing.
  2. What presence do you really need? Exhibit, sponsor, speak, off-site events or simply attend. Of course a combination of these is best once you determine the right show, but budgets are never what you want them to be so choose an option based on your goal (customer demos, media exposure, lead quality, etc). The challenge is getting heard above the noise.
Now let’s focus on the meat of problem. Start with the problem at hand: Squishy balls Yes, squishy balls. Marketing and sales people alike focus too much of their time on the trade show giveaway (squishy balls) and literature rather than customer-focused engagement. Research from Exhibitoronline.com shows that over 80% of all leads never receive any form of post-show follow-up and that 43% of prospective buyers receive materials after having made a buying decision with another vendor. Pretty starling consider shows cost thousands of dollars, not to mention your time, time for your sales people to be out of the field, and technical staff in developing demos. One of the first things you want to do is to determine accountability for success. Who has it and how do you get it from others? Start with responsibility. Is lead follow up in the hands of your sales team or marketing? If it is in the hands of sales, you need to recognize that the purpose of the trade show is to generate revenue, not to socialize, catch up on email, or read. Booth workers are there to:
  • Engage with customers
  • Filter out the unqualified
  • Deliver a consistent message
  • Want to be there and want to sell
For larger shows, you will need to pull people in while on the floor. Candy, drawings, squishy balls and lots of literature are not the key here. You need people working the booth willing to literally work the event…identify prospects walking the floor, look for vendors that are also potential customers, sit down at tables for lunch where you network. If your sales team is not on board with this philosophy, then you cannot possibly succeed in an event and you should consider the investment. To create this sense of accountability, make your sales team a partner in the event. Train them to conduct outreach, demo your product, qualify opportunities and communicate a consistent message. Pre-show marketing Once you are clear on your goals and your objectives, it is important to choose pre-show marketing tactics that support them. You have a lot of options available based on the type of show and your level of sponsorship:
  • Conferences are typically smaller, more focused, and tend to have more senior people (fewer tire kickers) since they also can be more expensive. Get preshow registration list and reach out to set appointments with key targets beforehand.
  • For larger shows, they will sometimes do a mailing and even appointment setting support for you. Take advantage.
  • For both trade shows and conferences, contact your customers directly to arrange dinners or breakfasts. It is harder to get their attention while the show is going.
  • Get a speaking slot with a large partner or customer if you can. This adds credibility and pulls people in when you don’t have the largest booth.
  • Promote your company pre-show via social media, your web site, emails to customers, etc. especially if they are in the city of the event.
Measure success by tracking it If you don’t have a way to collect leads, follow up with them and report, all of your success measurement will be subjective and therefore unbelievable.
  • Set your goals and determine how you will measure them. Do you have a CRM or lead management platform? If not, it may be time to get one.
  • Choose your sales team based on the aforementioned criteria above (willingness to partner, engage, qualify, etc). Then determine what the sales team needs to know to advance sales post-event and train them on how to demo, communicate, follow up and report. Post event, set a follow up meeting with sales to review lead status and ask the sales leadership to lead that meeting.
Be prepared that if deals take 6 months to close that you will need that long to get ROI, but consistency in follow up and tracking enables the decision-making process for next year’s show evaluation an easier one. And lastly, dump the squishy balls.

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