"Marketers who consider the show to be the main event are making a big mistake," said Ruth P. Stevens, president of consultancy eMarketing Strategy and author of "Trade Show and Event Marketing." "Preshow promo and postshow follow-up are two of the areas that have the best leverage."
Preshow planning helps marketers not only draw a crowd to the booth but also target the best prospects in that crowd. Postshow planning provides a strategic means to manage and nurture leads generated during the show.
Together these strategies move marketers toward their real goal: return on investment.
"In order to ensure you've got ROI on the back end, you've got to plan for it on the front end," said Ann Cave, VP-strategic planning and marketing at Cramer, a digital marketing and events consulting company. "What is the goal and what are we trying to achieve? Otherwise it's just about traffic."
Choosing the right show
Marketers have different reasons for attending shows—everything from launching new products to netting new leads.
"I sit down and I look at the business needs," said Mitchel Ahiers, senior manager of marketing communications at Infineon Technologies, which markets semiconductors. "What are the drivers moving the business forward?"
Once a marketer identifies specific objectives, a show should include everything from audience statistics to the attendance of competitors, said Kevin Shaw, president of Great Circle Productions, an events consultancy. Companies should be willing to look outside traditional markets to find new opportunities, he said.
Marketers fight to attain central booth space with ample foot traffic, casting a wide net that attracts both real prospects as well as tire-kickers—attendees who don't hold the power to make purchasing decisions or who aren't thinking of buying until next year.
With a finite number of representatives on the ground, the success of a show depends on a company's ability to weed the best prospects out of the crowd, Stevens said.
"Your constrained resource at the show is your time," she said. "The key strategy is to understand who's going to be on the show floor. You want to mine that audience in advance so you can penetrate it more deeply."
Segmenting the list of attendees provided by the show organizer and then personalizing preshow mailings helps generate a bigger buzz than simply blasting everyone with the same marketing approach, Cave said.
Innovative giveaways can draw key prospects to the booth, said Rob Everton, creative technology director at Cramer—and segmented mailings that turn up in the booth can help single out prospects.
Tailoring your content
Training representatives to identify and pursue solid leads is essential, Cave said.
"There should be consistency in the message and the approach, and it's important to get everybody on board with that," she added.
But preshow planning can help representatives do more than simply stay on message, marketers agreed. It can also serve as a vehicle for checking the pulse of the audience, Ahiers said. Infineon representatives have called clients to find out their interests and then developed content to meet their needs.
Ideally, preshow marketing can include sales letters and incentives that draw big fish to the booth for a scheduled, one-on-one session of tailored content, marketers said.
A fishbowl that collects business cards has no place in a booth, Stevens said.
"The show is about conversation," she said. "It's not about contact information. The secret is qualifying. Sales should never be handed an unqualified lead."
Marketers should segment leads, giving the hottest prospects to sales and nurturing the remainder, she said. Questions about purchasing authority and timeliness, for example, can help identify good leads.
Technology in the booth helps marketers organize and sort leads based on various data points, Cave said. It can also automate the follow-up, an opportunity that marketers often miss, Shaw said.
"That's where 95% of people fall off," he added. "The leads go in a drawer."
And lead generation does not have to end with the show.
Photo marketing and webcasts can be used to drive traffic to a Web site where visitors provide information about their interests before viewing content, Cave said.
"Provide a valuable destination for them to go when they get home," she said.
While sales tracks the hottest leads, event marketers can continue to develop and nurture the remainder, experts said—a process that extends the value of the face-to-face event.