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Companies struggle with trade show marketing

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More than 75% of companies exhibit at trade shows each year, and Michael Brandt, co-executive director of the Business Marketing Association, understands they face a conundrum.

Finance departments look at exhibits as a sales tool, use them for several years and measure their effectiveness in terms of new business leads. But that leaves marketing departments, which refine their message annually, using outdated marketing tools and unable to easily quantify the results.

"You change your ad program every year," Brandt said. "Things move so quickly now that your trade shows have to keep up with the movement of the Web, and blogging and all that stuff. You're caught between a rock and a hard place."

Survey data released by BMA and Catalyst Exhibits at the association's annual conference last month in Las Vegas reveal the disconnect going on in the corporate offices. The crux of the problem: Most companies say they go to trade shows—an average of 18 annu—with one set of goals in mind, but are dissatisfied with the events and sometimes pull out if they don't achieve a different goal.

More than 80% of companies said they exhibit at trade shows to generate sales leads and increase brand awareness. But when companies were asked how they measure their return on investment from shows, 82% said it was number of leads generated, while 47% of respondents said it was the number of people visiting the booth. When marketing managers were asked how senior management measures the value of an exhibit, only 32% said it was the number of people who stopped by the booth.

"They go to a show for awareness, but they're leaving shows for a lack of ROI," said Tim Roberts, president of Catalyst. "It's what's been beaten into everybody, and it's wrong. [Shows] are about impact, and awareness and getting senior executives involved. They're all focused on [leads.] Isn't it more important to change someone's perception of your company so that when a salesperson does follow up, you've built up the brand?"

The survey also found that while trade shows account for the largest part of a corporate marketing budget—2—almost two-thirds of companies spent less than 20% of their time developing and implementing a strategy for trade shows.

Some 60% of companies own their own exhibits and that's part of the problem. Chief financial officers want to let those capital expenditures depreciate over five years before another investment is made, said Roberts, whose company creates trade show rental exhibits.

"The trade show exhibit has to represent a given place in time," he said. "That changes year to year. How can you have an exhibit that represents your company at that place in time if you have an exhibit that never changes? It's like running the same ad for five years."

UTStarcom Inc., among the converted, makes an effort to change its trade show exhibits every two years.

For its 2007 trade shows, the company wanted to create a booth centered around the marketing message of being able to take technology with you. The result was a 60-by-60-foot booth at NXTcomm07 at Chicago's McCormick Place last month that looked like a section of an airplane fuselage. It drew the attention of attendees, who sat in the seats and watched presentations on a screen every 15 minutes.

"In a lot of markets, we're sort of an unknown player," said Aaron Claessens, an application engineer at the company. "This grabs some attention, and at least gets people in, and gives them our message and lets them take it with them. Most of the other communications companies aren't doing anything like this."

The survey sample included 847 corporate members of the BMA and 9,009 subscribers to BtoB's e-newsletters and print product. The survey, completed in April, included responses from 416 corporate marketing professionals.

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