Are Trade Shows Even Relevant Any More?

Copyright 2012, Jeanne-Elise M. Heydecker. All rights reserved.

As any company will tell you, marketing is the money you invest in order to generate leads that will culminate in sales revenue. There are many places to spend your marketing budget and some have dropped off the radar since I first started marketing. I don’t do bulk direct mail anymore — not since 1996. I haven’t done print advertising since 2002. I don’t do outbound cold calling anymore either. As soon as I had my first compuserve email address (1993?), I was hooked on the internet and developed bulletin boards for my target audience and another one for my colleagues marketing to them (I love you, you object-oriented programming geeks). I built my first web site in 1994 or 1995. That job was also my first at running trade shows.

Trade shows and conferences are interesting beasts and they have also changed with the times (some more than others). Are they still relevant? Maybe. Depends on what you’re marketing and to whom. They are hideously expensive and determining ROI is spectacularly difficult, especially if you have a broad marketing mix including social media, advertising, content marketing, web sites, PDF sales collateral, etc. When sales people are approached on where the lead came from, even the prospect may not say the show if they saw an ad, read your blog, or shared something of yours on social media. Because one trade show can consume any small company’s miniscule marketing budget, it is important to choose the right ones and set clear goals for engagement.

Why They Are No Longer Relevant

The cost per sale is prohibitively high. Unless your product or service can handle a cost per sale of hundreds, maybe thousands, of dollars, it may be best to use your marketing dollars elsewhere. You really need to work the numbers and understand the myriad ways sales can falter due to the distraction of producing and executing a show.

Your best sales people will not be focused on closing sales because they have to man the booth at the show. You want your best people there. They are the first professionals many people at the show will meet and the impression they make is critical. Having them at the show means they are not back at the office on the phones closing. These delays in generating revenue may mean, for a small business, that you don’t have enough revenue to make payroll that month.

Booth babes. Need I say more? They are an anachronism. Not only are they a distraction, they have little knowledge to share with prospects and draws flirters, not buyers. And those flirters stay. Try getting them out of your booth. The same can be said of bringing celebrities to your booth. When Leonard Nimoy published one of his books, we invited him to our booth to sign attendee copies. Boy, did we have a LOT of traffic, but the cost to hire security to manage traffic, along with the bad vibes we got from our neighboring booths (the show organizers had to set up queue lines with ropes to manage the people and they were upset with us, too), along with less than average sales, made the idea so wrong in so many ways.

Many companies aren’t sending decision makers to trade shows. You’ll find a lot of lower level employees that aren’t empowered to sign contracts. Be observant of the badges attendees are wearing. You want to talk to those that spent money for the conference, not the day trippers with exhibition badges. Most of them are just glad to be out of the office for the day. They’ll take your information, make promises, but like a bad blind date, they’ll disappear before the check shows up.

Why They Remain Relevant

Trade shows are a great way to solidify relationships with existing clients and sometimes clients will bring their colleagues who can significantly add to your business. Asking clients to visit you at the show can reap big dividends. It supports their buying decision to see you in the mix with your competitors. Be sure you are the prettiest girl at the dance, though. Sad, worn out booths, with two lonely people looking like they’re waiting for their next speed date, won’t make a good impression. For many companies, it may be the best way to reach a lot of buyers, where a product demo in the field for each prospect would be unfeasible. If your product or service requires long sales cycles, you may be able to significantly shorten that cycle if your leaders can meet with their leaders at the show. You’ll need to coordinate this with your sales team before the show and not just expect this to happen. Engage pre-show and lock in times to meet your clients.

If your product or service is new to the industry, making a big splash at a major show could propel you beyond expectations. If you are planning to launch at a show, leverage all your PR strength by hosting a press conference and use all of the show’s pre-show marketing options to ensure solid attendance. Make sure whatever you provide to the press is memorable (we passed out Suntrica solar mobile phone chargers one year with our materials). If you need to educate the press on the unique features and attributes of your cutting edge product or service, start with a press conference and maybe an external lunch where they can talk individually with your top officers. (When doing shows internationally, we catered 120 covers per day of Indian cuisine inside our booths — we made sure all of the press knew there was free lunch at VNL every day of the show.)

More about the press. They love a good story and the people at your booth need to be memorable. My personal story, as an American who moved to India and was living in a house with no running water or electricity at the time, and working for a solar powered telecom and internet infrastructure company, made me very memorable. Members of the press would show up each year to hear how that solar LED light I had been testing last year worked out, or if I’d found a more useful way to store fresh water. It solidified media relationships in ways that went beyond the standard “press release and a product demo” schedule that journalists dread when assigned to do a story on a show. I’m still in contact with many of them years later, even though I am no longer in that industry.

Determining Your Options

There are literally thousands of trade shows and conferences occurring all over the world every year. They wouldn’t exist if conference goers didn’t see value, sponsors did not reap a decent ROI, and exhibitors weren’t making sales. You need to decide if the investment merits a return. I’ve worked with companies living with a single 10' popup booth to others with huge international trade show budgets in the millions of dollars each year, involving up to 70 staff and interpreters per show. If you have never invested in a trade show program, you may not need one. It may not make financial sense. But for companies that are introducing new products or services, or have technology that requires educating the press and then prospects, trade shows can be ideal. Time to get out that spreadsheet and see whether a trade show program could be relevant to your organization.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Jeanne Heydecker’s story.