The plane ride home churns that satisfaction into a touch of a hollow feeling. Did the messaging work? How good are the leads? How many sales closed?
The following week, back in the office reviewing the event with the brass, the questions become more pointed: What did you get from your half-million-dollar budget? How come so many of the leads were students looking for a free Nerf ball? Why didn't the trade press pick up on the messaging? Why is sales saying their contacts just weren't buying?
Smart companies are rethinking their trade show and conference strategies, according to experienced marketers who advise companies to focus their event efforts on relationship building and qualified leads. Marketers don't want to learn that a high percentage of the attendees who took the time to provide their names at their trade show booth had no memory of the visit just a few days later.
"It used to be that you went to events to collect leads. Now it's not about leads, it's about relationship building and experiential marketing, experiencing the product or experiencing the organization," said Katie Delahaye Paine, veteran marketer and CEO of KDPaine & Partners, a consultancy focused on public relations and marketing metrics. Paine discovered through a series of postshow surveys that 20% of attendees had "no memory" of booth visits.
Trade shows, with their clutter, crowds and noise, are still effective marketing vehicles, but changes in the workforce and technology are mandating new strategies.
"There are a million reasons we could have killed off trade shows a long time ago, because they may have lost their effectiveness for some people," Paine said. "But when you start to eliminate the opportunity to get together because everyone spends all of their time in front of a computer screen, you need the opportunity for human interaction."
Most important channel
Marketers consider trade shows and conferences the most important marketing channels in business-to-business marketing, according a study by Questex Media Group, which surveyed 767 b-to-b marketing professionals about their objectives, preferred channels and investment plans.
Respondents were a mix of trade show exhibitors and magazine advertisers across five vertical markets: technology, travel, beauty, home entertainment, and industrial & specialty. In that research, 39% of respondents said trade shows and conferences are extremely important. Expected growth in investment in events varied according to the five vertical markets covered by the research, although the growth in investment in events generally trailed online advertising and e-mail marketing.
Kristin Veach, VP-marketing at Live Marketing, a marketing agency, said trade shows still present value to exhibitors. "They've always been important, but I think people are realizing [they are] even more important these days, because there is so much information out there that they need to make a strong positive impression in that short time they have to interact with people."
A successful trade show calls for hard work long before the event.
Success comes from preshow planning and promotion, setting up appointments in advance with qualified prospects, making good use of your time at the show, getting the right corporate team and content into the booth and hard work after the event.
"I see preshow strategy as one of the most important levers in trade show marketing, and one of the least used," said Ruth B. Stevens, a consultant and author of the book "Trade Show and Event Marketing." She added: "People are so focused on the event itself-the three days, the logistics, the booth, the travel, the parties-that they forget they need to think of the thing as a six-month program that begins three months in advance and doesn't [end] until three months or longer after that three-day event."
Stevens advised marketers to make use not only of the preregistered attendee list provided by the show organizer but also their own customer and prospect lists. "Find out if they are going to the show, and set up an appointment on your own," she said.
Ongoing and in-depth communications between exhibitors and show organizers are key to preshow planning, said Sam Lippman, president of Integrated Show Management & Marketing and producer of the Exhibition and Convention Executives Forum, scheduled for June in Washington, D.C.
"The smart exhibitors should be managing the show manager throughout the entire process," Lippman said, adding that some companies-exhibitors and organizers-are finding success with predictive modeling and matchmaking software. In a typical application, the show manager identifies attendee interests and sends the attendee e-mail invitations to meetings with other attendees who have similar interests, information about relevant sessions or names of appropriate exhibitors. Attendees fine-tune their interests and make themselves available for meetings on an opt-in basis, Lippman said.
This type of system is good both for exhibitors and attendees, Lippman said. "Instead of looking for a needle in a haystack, instead of wandering around and wondering who might be able to solve your problem, an attendee can do a lot in advance via one of these systems," he said.
Messaging before a show is valuable, but it will only work if the marketer is clear on the nature of the event and has a strategy for making the most of it. "Find out exactly how the exhibitor's strategic plan and marketing objectives will be served by the show management's plan and vision for the event. That's a simple thing, but it just doesn't happen enough," Lippman said.
Consultant Paula Turk, principal at Main Event Marketing, said marketers have to define their strategy well in advance of the show. "Some people still waste a lot of money on events by not doing them well," she said. "Events are very time consuming and can be extremely expensive. So it's important that you know what your goals are, how you're going to measure it and that everyone knows what they are doing."
Making a hit list
Turk added that strategy has to define the exhibitor's target audience, what the attendees know about the marketer's company and its positioning, and what the competition is doing. "Do you have a hit list of companies that you want to meet with? Some do, some don't. If you do, maybe you offer to sponsor a dinner or a reception, or you invite people out for coffee," Turk said. "You try to get them prior to them showing up at the show. If nothing else, you exchange phone numbers and get them to give you 10 minutes at the show. Even if you don't connect with them at the show, you've made an inroad."
A key part of the preshow strategy is a clear understanding of the nature of the event and the demographics of the attendees, according to several experts.
For Marisa Edmund, director of marketing for optical manufacturer Edmund Optics, defining the event makes a big difference for a company such as hers that each year exhibits at more than 20 shows serving diverse markets (see case story, page 47). Different shows serve her company in different ways, ranging from product announcements, corporate branding, lead generation for catalog sales or extending relationships with existing customers and prospects. Once she defines that part of her strategy, Edmund can determine who will staff the booth and how the industrial optics supplier will attract and serve attendees.
"One key point for us is always coming up with a very clear, easy-to-understand demonstration that is eye-catching, that may have movement, that has lots to look at. It has to be very engaging with the customer," she said, noting that some vendors shield their demos behind plexiglass or otherwise move them away from the crowd. "We have great success with things that are out on the floor that people can come up to, touch, look at."
What goes on in the booth?
Paine said marketers are wasting their time if they don't have a new or improved product.
"If you don't have anything new, you had better invent something new or you had better pull out of the show," she said. "Why, with 50 million places to go on the show floor, am I going to go to your booth, which has nothing new or different versus another booth that has all the sexy new products?"
While most marketers have heard attendees complain about the noise, confusion and frivolity of a show floor, Bob Burk, marketing and communications manager for specialty chemicals manufacturer King Industries, is an advocate for blending fun and business. King Industries occasionally will sponsor musical entertainment in conjunction with a show, and may have the entertainers or antique cars in the booth. It also isn't shy about fun giveaways, such as the toy stuffed moose with a marketing message it is giving out at an event in Canada this week
"Everybody kind of appreciates a little sense of humor behind promotions, yet it has to have a serious message behind it about what exactly is new and how it can help you," Burk said.
Once King Industries gets an attendee into the booth, the conversation turns seriously technical. "For in-depth conversations, the technical services staff and R&D staff support the regular sales staff," Burk said. "When you are developing a product that is going to require years of testing and a sizable investment on the part of the customer, it's reassuring to know that there is someone that does speak the language."
A booth visit 'experience'
Amid the noise and crowds of a show floor, it is still possible for marketers to turn a booth visit into an experience, Lippman said. He cited the case of a printing press manufacturer that had a successful trade show because it attracted attendees with an MTV-style music video set and advanced sound and lighting.
"The flash is only going to get people's attention," Lippman said. "If the booth staff, the messaging, the graphics, the script, if it's delivered by a presenter [or] isn't all targeted toward the wants and needs of attendees walking by, then you are just wasting money."
Experts say that preshow research will tell the marketer who they need to have in their booths. Have the wrong staff in the booth, and your prospects will walk away.
"If you are dealing with engineers, you better have the technical people there to answer their questions," Lippman said. "People come in with questions. They might be ready to buy and have to negotiate terms, but there is nobody in the booth that can help them." He added: "If you are dealing with more of a high-level executive person, you probably don't need the technical people but you need to have executives to greet them and talk strategy and long-term goals."
Experts caution that overrelying on the sales staff for booth duty is a mistake. They say it is good to have sales present, but that the key booth staff should be from marketing or the relevant technical, engineering or executive teams. They also say that sales representatives may be more effective if they are out roaming the show floor or meeting prospects off-site, whether over meals or a round of golf.
Whoever staffs the booth needs to establish relationships with prospects and customers and also help qualify leads on the spot, according to marketers. That will enable postshow contact, whether by the marketing or sales team.
"Lots of leads are a serious drain of resources. The risk in volume is that you will tie up your people in following up with nonessential leads and you risk losing the ones that you really want to reach," said Carrie Higbie, Global Network Applications Market Manager, for Siemon Co. "Questionnaires are a great way to weed them out," Higbie added. "In order to qualify for the prize, the attendee takes a one-minute questionnaire that clearly asks if they want you to follow up. It is also a great means to communicate new products and offerings to end-users and continue to expand on existing relationships."
Edmund, a client of Stevens, added: "We do quite a bit of postshow follow up, and we'd like to do more. The key to good postshow follow up is good qualification of leads while you are at the show. If you don't do a good job of qualifying the lead, getting your basic industry information or getting your initial qualification questions answered in person, follow up becomes incredibly difficult. Sometimes that takes a lot of training for your booth staff to get them to get really good at qualifying leads."
Edmund Optics typically asks booth visitors three qualifying questions in conjunction with a raffle or other offering. "Once we get those three questions answered, we know what type of customer we have," Edmund said. "It may be a catalog customer or someone who is taking our product and putting it into some type of assembly. That's the line between sending a catalog or have a sales rep call them."
Live Marketing's Veach said a variety of technologies and strategies can help a company succeed with its postshow follow-up.
"You've spent all this time getting people there, you've educated them about your solution. Then they leave," she said. "You have to follow up with them too. So depending on your target audience, what are the best tools for them for receiving information? If you are talking about a highly technical audience then maybe it's text messaging-or an e-mail blast is a better way. If you are talking about an audience of, say, physicians, maybe that's not the best way. So, you kind of have to map the technology to your audience."
Off-site events add value
Good plans make for good trade shows. Yet sometimes the plan or overall marketing strategy calls for more than a trade show booth. Off-site events in conjunction with a trade show or corporate events are important supplements to a trade show strategy, say experts such as Donna Wotton, president of consultancy Unconventional Promotions.
Much of Wotton's work focuses on events such as executive seminars and social events like tent sponsorships at professional golf tournaments. These are good opportunities allowing customers to do peer-to- peer networking and sales representatives to get close to their clients. "You are nurturing a relationship, but in many cases you may be dramatically moving the sale down the sales process," Wotton said.
She said the benefits of a smaller event with 50 to 60 carefully selected attendees include the opportunity for potential buyers to hear about another company's positive experience with a product. For the sponsor, these events may give sales representatives hours of close contact with key customers. "The trade show is shotgun marketing; this is sniper," Wotton said.
Burk said King Industries also relies on a mix of trade shows, off-the-show-floor events and seminars. Whatever the event, the bottom-line goal is the same. "It's about anything that will drive the conversation, the face-to-face contact. So much of the world today is e-mail and phone that really effective trade show and event marketing is getting the face time, being able to interact," he said. "Anything that can drive that type of dialog works. The fact that too many people don't get out there and strive for the face-to-face contact is the problem."
Paine said one of the best services a marketer can provide through an event is a setting for industry networking, perhaps through an off-site function. "I'm an engineer, you're an engineer, let's compare stories," she said. A company that sponsors an off-site event or integrates peer communications into a corporate event can benefit through branding or a halo effect if the participants enjoy their discussions.