Why Our Hardware Company No Longer Hosts Booths at Conferences
As a phone company in our first year we had booths at conferences like MWC and CTIA (now merged with MWCA), to name a few. Although I am grateful for our first booth experience simply to gather data (where else can you ask hundreds of people A DAY about what they think about your product?), and meeting industry contacts is always a plus, our team quickly learned a few painful things about booths.
- Booths exhaust our team with all the advance preparations, staffing the booth during the conference, interfacing with hundreds of people a day (we had several people and still had lines), and following up with leads after we return — but only if we managed to scratch notes on their business cards in trying to get to the next person in the lineup at the booth.
- Running a booth is expensive. After you count in the cost of the booth, flights for all the booth staff (even if it’s just two founders), hotels (fingers-crossed you are the same gender and are comfortable sharing a room to save money), flights, meals, and marketing materials such as posters, flyers, etc., the total adds up very quickly. Our first outlay was for a booth at MWC in Barcelona, and even at the smaller 4YFN startup hall for two founders was $10K. Totally worth it (yes, contrary to this article’s title, but please see my Footnote (1) ), and yet painfully expensive.
- Our team observed the attendees were overwhelmed with all the conference stimulation and that our message was not sinking in. This fact was witnessed across all the various conferences where we had booths.
- Signup hurdles. We wanted to leverage the vast number of people we were seeing each day and in the very least convert them to our (infrequent) mailing list. At one booth we thought it would be smart to have people sign up for our mailing list on a tablet/laptop, instead of handing out flyers (which we assumed were invariably tossed). Yet zero people touched our device. In fact we quickly found that in this day and age people became visibly uncomfortable when asked to input their personal information via someone else’s device. We even tried out QR codes so people could use their own phones (not as successful for conferences in the USA where QR readers don’t necessarily come installed by default on phones like it does with WeChat, etc.). In the end we discovered that people were happy to sign up via an old-fashioned clipboard/notepad, paper, and pencil — particularly if the table was hand-drawn. The more casual the setup (“Oh, we finally just threw this together because so many people were asking if they could sign up for more information…”), the better. It was totally our style anyway, so we were happy. I admit that it is still a pain to read everyone’s writing afterwards, but worth it because it also made us feel connected to that person as themselves, including remembering when they wrote it down, how they wrote it down, what we were talking about, what they looked like, who they actually were (ex: they mentioned their daughter, who loves building with littleBits…), etc. Those extra minutes counted to us, and perhaps to them as well, as our unsubscribe rate is quite low.
- Social media/emails are a better bet in the beginning. We are living in the age of information. When people meet you in a booth it’s not like they can click a link above your product you are holding to check out its Amazon 3rd party reviews, or click a link above your head to investigate your LinkedIn profile. But most importantly, attendees do not have a link to BUY YOUR PRODUCT (or support your crowdfunding campaign) in front of their face. At most of our booths we were not even allowed to sell product (and some required a local license, etc.) since the conferences we attend are more of a B2B space, and when we first started we were exclusively B2C to gather more information about our customer. In contrast, when you send someone an email or social media post, the link to buy your product is right in front of them and they don’t have to explain to anyone why they might change their mind so they are even more likely to click…and, consequently, since they are right there any way, I mean I might get distracted in this day and age and forget, so let’s…just…purchase.
- Conference attendance in some industries is falling off considerably, especially for those without an educational track. We tried a booth at the 20-year-running Northwest Women’s Show for several reasons: we wanted more data points about female customers prior to launching our campaign, the show was local so there weren’t any expensive hotels and airfare, and the booth was inexpensive). The companies around us said they had had booths at the show for the last 7 years and made zero sales that year at the conference, whereas previous years had been profitable. The following year I attended an industry Northwest Gift Show, where my friend featured her new contact lens case. This show was designed for places like Nordstrom, etc. to buy product in large quantities for future seasons. The event probably had over 200 booths, yet I was one of only five people roaming around the floor. In contrast, about a year later CES had its 50th year celebration, and there wasn’t any room to walk amongst the booths in some places in the startup hall. Yes, the Amazon-age of click-and-it-will-arrive-tomorrow-on-my-doorstep hit in 2016 and businesses are indeed moving at different rates to pivot to where the customer has moved. However, I also observed that conferences which actually had an educational track seemed to be faring better than those without. For example, The NW Women’s Show seemed to fare better the following year after they merged with an educational track.
In the beginning I read articles by Salesforce executives to see how they handled booths and gained a lot of useful tips. Since then I have narrowed my focus and talked with CEOs at other hardware companies like Glowforge (which has successful booths at many Maker Faires) to find out how they make booths work. I get the sense that if your product is delayed (and you have the money to do so), booths can be a good way to spread goodwill by showing the prototypes you do have and allowing the public to complain to you in person and, more importantly, allowing you the opportunity to apologize in person. This can be a meaningful and important exchange, especially if the person can walk away with something made from your product (like a keychain, as in Glowforge’s case) in their hand.
Bonus Tip: For those of you who have read this far, you may be interested to know that some states have a special fund to assist companies in attending B2B trade shows abroad. If you are planning on expanding outside of the USA, this may be work for your company. Check with your state’s Department of Commerce, and search on key terms like “Export Assistance”.
In the meantime, although our company no longer hosts booths, as CEO I am a conference hound attendee at CES, MWC, and the Open Source Hardware Summit, and I conduct “Build Your Own Phone” workshops at the local Seattle Mini Maker Faire and at GeekGirlCon. Before each conference (even at SMMF!) I line up meetings with my industry contacts, attend sessions (like from IEEE), check out EVERY SINGLE BOOTH to scour the landscape for partners as I believe in-person meetings are more impactful for starting these relationships off on the right foot (and I want to make sure their team’s energy is the same flavor as our team’s energy), exchange cards and follow up with the promising ones, carry mock-ups of our latest version of the phone around, and get input from everyone I can.
(1) Even in paying that painful $10K bill up front for MWC, I thought in my head, “We may never get this chance again. This is THE conference for our industry. The faster we meet people and learn if we should stop now (before we input the next few years of our lives), the better.” In retrospect, it was a pivotal moment for our company because we were written up in over 100 articles which subsequently spurred over 1200 organic Facebook posts about out product and we were introduced to key industry journalists at CNET, Tech Insider, The Telegraph, and other media to whom we now send all our press releases. Most surprisingly, even though we were on the opposite side of the world from our office, we also made inroads with public officials from our home town who are now kindly sponsoring and supporting us for a future conference attendance (not a booth — whew!).