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Expert advice on making the most of a trade show

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In her forthcoming book, "Trade Show and Event Marketing" (scheduled to be published by South-Western in November), Ruth Stevens addresses the challenges and opportunities in trade show marketing. Stevens, a consultant at eMarketing Strategy in New York, offers advice on how to use trade shows as part of an overall marketing plan.

BtoB: Why is it so hard to demonstrate the value of trade shows?

Stevens: Business marketers tend to take trade shows for granted. They tend to run on autopilot. If you ask any business marketer why they have certain shows on their roster, you'll hear some horrifying answers: "Well, our CEO likes that city. Our competitor is always there. We're always at that show." If your customers aren't there and it's not an efficient way to reach customers and prospects, who cares what your competitor is doing?

Marketers tend not to set up specific objectives and corollary metrics and put data collection in place.

Also, there's an organizational disconnect between the marketing function and the event person. That person is driven by logistics and isn't trained or incented to think marketing thoughts. The sad thing is that the marketer is sometimes guilty of relegating responsibility of the show to that person.

Events and trade shows can be extraordinarily effective as part of a b-to-b strategy. Where else can you meet with 300 qualified buyers under one roof over a two-day period? But if all you're doing is setting up a booth and putting out a fishbowl and waiting for people to come by, you're squandering the amazing opportunity.

BtoB: How are trade shows being underutilized?

Stevens: Marketers see the event as beginning on the first day and ending on the third day. An effective trade show marketing effort probably begins 12 months in advance and ends 12 months after [the event].

Setting up ancillary events, setting up appointments, identifying your prospects in advance so that your show is as profitable as it can be requires planning and thoughtfulness.

Another area is followup. The show's not over when you pack up and go home. That's just the beginning of the relationship.

BtoB: What are b-to-b event marketers still getting wrong?

Stevens: My biggest bugaboo is the fishbowl. The cost per contact [at an event] is ... the highest in the marketing mix, other than the direct sales call. Why would you ever gather a qualified name in a fish bowl in that passive environment when you could rent the list [of show attendees] for 7 cents a name?

Another is not viewing the event holistically. There's a lot more going on than sales at trade shows. The PR opportunity is underleveraged. Events do an interesting job of combining all kinds of angles in the sales and marketing tool kit. They're about marketing, they're about sales, they're about PR, they're about lead generation and they're about acquisition. But you need to plan for that and execute.

BtoB: How can marketers improve event marketing effectiveness?

Stevens: Rather than relegate it to the exhibit manager or the event manager, [make it] a strategic part of the go-to-market process.

The second thing to do is to set measurable objectives. The [Business Marketing Association] did a survey of its membership in 2004 and found that trade shows represented 18.6% of the marketing budget. It was the No. 1 line item. That is a red flag for management. If the marketer can't demonstrate very specifically what is being gotten for that effort, you're looking at [budget] cuts.

The third big area is viewing events as part of an end-to-end marketing program. It's not just the event itself; it's the planning and promotion at the front end and the follow up at the back end.

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