In some industries, trade shows are among the most important aspects of a company’s sales and marketing efforts. They allow companies to do what they can’t normally do on a day-to-day basis (even with social media): Talk face-to-face with potential customers and clients. Therefore, it’s important as small business owners to treat these events like the NFL treats the Super Bowl and plan for them months (if not a year) in advance. Your skills at trade show marketing can be the difference in whether a new product takes off or crash lands. Before going to the expense (in time and money) of investing in trade shows, review these important considerations.
The SmallBusiness.com Guide to Trade Show Marketing is one of a growing collection of SmallBusiness.com Guides.
Hold on: What’s a “trade show”?A trade show is an event that takes place—usually over several days—where employees and owners of companies in certain industries get together to talk shop, meet new customers, and let old customers and media know they’re still thriving. In some industries, tradeshows are the living marketplace where billions of dollars of transactions take place. In other industries, they are the marketing events where new products are revealed to the world.
And when we mean “other” industries, we mean everyindustry. For example, if you own a line of self-tanning products in Alabama, you may want to set up an “exhibit” (or a booth with your logo and products) at the 22nd Annual Southeast Tanning Expo in Winston-Salem, NC, January 23-25, 2015.
Are trade shows really worth your time and money?That depends on a lot of factors, really. How far along is your business? Are you making enough money to afford three days of expenses (including hotel room, meals, rental car, and entertaining clients and prospects)? The best thing you can do is research ahead of time. Find out if the show might be worth your while—particularly if you are in a seasonal industry like fashion. Industries tend to have several trade shows throughout the year, and it may benefit you to attend just one instead of the rest. (Continuing with the fashion idea, the beginning of the year may be better than the end, as buyers are looking to purchase items for the rest of the year; thus always consider seasonality.)
Early in the life of your business, you may want to check out as many trade shows as possible. They can be great for research and networking. You can learn which shows are must-attends, and which aren’t. If you find it’s worth your while—as in, it produced meaningful and profitable relationships—return. If not, don’t be afraid to cut it out of your schedule the following year.
Aside from venue and season research, preparation is your primary focusWe’re going to break this section down in four steps. Just keep this mantra in mind: Prior planning prevents poor performance. (Say that five times fast.)
Step One: Identify why you’re going
One of the biggest mistakes you can make going into a trade show is not first nailing down your strategy for the event. Another way of looking at is by asking the question, “What are we using the trade show for?” There are generally three reasons (each with a business buzzword version):
While the goal of any trade show is to develop relationships with new paying customers, it’s best to know which one of the three goals you’re going for, as this will help you focus your efforts. If you’re going to grow your database of potential customers, you may want to focus on expanding your exhibit from the previous year—to show company growth and continuing prosperity. If you’re going to launch a new product, you may want to focus more on your presentation (e.g. hiring a host, producing a video). If you’re looking to increase brand awareness, you’ll want to focus on talking with media (and setting up interviews/reviews).
Knowing why you are attending the show, and what your focus is will enable you to measure its success later.
Step Two: Send out a series of invitations, starting far in advance
Another mistake companies make is not arranging customer/client meetings prior to the trade show. This isn’t a Field of Dreams kind of thing, where “if you build it, they will come.” You have to do more than just spend a bunch of money on presentation and staff; expectations won’t get you far.
Reach out to potential clients/customers with a series (a campaign) of email and traditional (paper) mailings. Be clever or memorable, as they will be receiving other messages from competitors. Give them an incentive to stop by your booth. It’s a trade show, so being a little bit out-of-the-ordinary will make your teaser more effective.
Step Three: Choose the right employees to attend
Unless you’re a brand-new startup, your company likely employs a variety of people who have specific strengths and weaknesses. With this in mind, the team you select for trade shows should have a talent for rapid-fire conversations. These are generally people in sales, who either make phone calls all day or have numerous conversations that require them to stay on their toes. However, having someone who can answer technical questions can be important in some fields. Always have someone who is “the organized one” who will make sure that all of the contacts get recorded and processed for follow-up response. One last thing: Some people are great tradeshow people, they can work a crowd and have never known a stranger. If you’re not that type, bring along someone who is.
Step Four: Train like olympians
One of the most important tasks you’re going to have at a trade show is discerning who among the attendees are likely customers and individuals who can influence purchases. And the only way you can really do this is by making sure your employees are well-versed in your product and your strategy for selling it. By doing this, they’ll be able to identify and cultivate the network of individuals who are important to your business.
Lack of preparation can reflect poorly on you if an employee isn’t able to answer questions posed by media, customers or distributors. Thus, taking considerable time to prep everyone attending the trade show in what they need to know and how they need to execute sales pitches will be vital in your success.
A warning, however: You never know who may or may not be influential. Treat people who have interest in your product with respect, even if they don’t seem to work at the right company or have the right title you believe makes them a potential customer. In many industries, this year’s intern can be next year’s buyer.
The exhibit and presentationThis may be the most difficult part of attending trade shows, mainly due to budgetary issues. You have to take a lot into consideration when designing your exhibit—all the while keeping money in mind. So here we advise just doing the best you can with what you can afford. Here are some things to keep in mind (with help from ClassicExhibits.com):
Second, follow-up with your analysis of the show. Were the attendees who you expected? Should you do it again the next year? Was there anything you could do better? While preparation and presentation matter, none of the hard work and money invested will be worth a thing if you don’t take some time and reflect on what you accomplished and use that knowledge for converting leads into customers and improving your performance in the future.