How to put on a better show

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B-to-b marketers struggling with flat to declining trade show attendance may have a lifeline.

A new class of lead management services is reshaping the ways in which buyers and sellers connect at industry events. Called "relationship networking," the computer-based tools match attendees with exhibitors, educational programs and other attendees. They can even generate a complete schedule of meetings and sessions customized to an attendee's self-identified needs.

The services address one of the stickier problems confronting trade shows. For all their cost and glitter, trade shows have historically been poor venues for lead generation. Exhibitors often must rely on happenstance to catch the right buyers in their booths and may miss opportunities to interact with buyers if they're away or otherwise occupied.

"You can't see more than five to eight people an hour anyway," said Sam Lippman, an event consultant. "The way to increase the value is by honing in on the people that you really need to see and then contining the discussion after the event."

"The pressure is on more than ever before to deliver results and not just to throw a great party," said Nancy Shenker, an independent consultant who oversees marketing at b-to-b company BDI Events.

More venues adopt new tech

The new technology will be turning up in a lot more venues in the near future. BDMetrics Inc., whose SmartBooth is one of the early leaders in the category, has almost 200 events under contract through 2011, according to CEO Rick Geritz. Leverage Software of San Francisco expects to have about 1,000 engagements in 2006, up tenfold from last year, according to CEO Mike Walsh. IntroNetworks Inc. has signed agreements with Network World, Reed Business Information, Ziff Davis Media and other major publishers.

Fans of the technology say it addresses a common problem: Exhibitors don't follow up on show floor meetings once the conference ends. With relationship networking systems, attendees are encouraged to create profiles well in advance of the conference and buyer-seller dialogues may go on for weeks.

Leverage Software usually launches its Active Relationship Network service a few months before an event and doesn't take it down until the next year's conference. "It's turning a point in time into an ongoing community," Walsh said.

Putt-Pal USA, a maker of brushes for golf course putting greens, got hooked on relationship marketing at the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando, Fla., in January. Out of 40,000 attendees, Putt-Pal was able to identify about 5,700 good prospects.

"It enabled us to immediately contact the people who were target markets for us," said Barbara Andrews, a VP at Putt Pal. "All of those 5,000-plus attendees received twice-a-week information on our company."

The advance work paid off with 219 booth appointments and a 300% increase in show-related sales from the prior year, Andrews said. "That is phenomenal. In typical trade shows, it's hit and miss," she said.

MetaSolv Software, a provider of service delivery software to telecommunications companies, found that BDMetrics' SmartBooth lead generation tool gave it valuable data to use in justifying its investment in last year's SuperComm conference. The company captured 131 qualified leads through the online service. "This is a great return on investment, so look for more SmartBooth involvement in the future for shows that offer it," wrote Carrie McManus, manager of trade shows and events at MetaSolv, in a post-show e-mail.

Costs, payments vary

Costs vary, and either the event organizer or exhibitor may foot the bill. Leverage Software charges organizers $15,000 for four months of service for up to 5,000 users. BDMetrics has a pay-for-performance model for exhibitors starting at $750 and extending to $5,000 per event.

Organizers say the costs are reasonable. "Exhibitors believe it's well worth the investment where they can define their ROI and show how many attendees were reaching out to them far in advance of the show," said A.J. Panosko, VP-global events at the Telecommunications Industry Association. The organization's upcoming GlobalComm 2006 conference will use a customized portal from BDMetrics.

Still, the technology—and the concept—is new enough that exhibitor adoption rates vary. About 40% of exhibitors and 65% of attendees at last year's GlobalComm used the portal, Panosko said.

Geritz said attendee usage rates average about 60%. Walsh said an average of 75% of registrants use the networking tool.

Nevertheless, in a trade show market that's desperate for an upturn, relationship marketing services may be just the tonic. "Just as exhibitors now buy lead retrieval devices, in two or three years they'll be using these kinds of matchmaking services," Lippmann said.

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