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No One Should be Allowed to Exhibit at an Event Until They've Read This Article

Before you begin to think about exhibiting at an event, there is something you have to establish – Know Your Objective. Sounds a little bit elementary, doesn’t it…maybe too simple. But you’d be surprised. Most people say, “I know what the objective of my exhibiting at an event is – to make money. To make sales. To generate business. What else is there?” Well, there are lots of other things. Specifically, you need to decide if you want your exhibit to generate leads, generate sales, move somebody to the next step in the buying process or a combination of these things.

Many marketers assume that everyone who visits their exhibit will be ready to buy and waltz right in and plunk down cash or PO. But it depends on what you’re selling and to whom you’re selling. To illustrate this, here is an example of an Internet integration software-tool and services company that helped organizations weave together their computer systems using a combination of Internet services, some middleware tools (software) and the legacy systems (what the customer had been using to serve their data processing needs). They spent almost $22,000 on exhibiting and another $9,000 in travel and manpower (a huge amount for a startup) at an event that was a pretty typical e-business or integration event. Attendance was not heavy, but the people who were at the show were very qualified.

His booth signage, literature and even his conversations with prospects focused on things like “we can do this, this, and this. We are the only company that can do that. We don’t have any real competitors. We have over a million lines of proprietary code. We’re committed to the channel and directly supporting our clients. Our VCs have funded such and such companies.” Blah, blah, blah.

The indisputable lack of results proved that his exhibit strategy and tactics were horrible. Like many business owners, he concluded that exhibiting at an event does not and would not work for a company like his. But remember, there are 2 parts to every trade show exhibit. There’s the event itself and there’s what you actually say at the event and included in that is how you say it. In this case, it wasn’t the event that was bad…it was his strategy and messaging. He had assumed that the next step in the buying process for the people who attended this event was for the prospect to request or at least accept a meeting. The combination of seeing their technology at the event and then participating in a capabilities meeting would lead to an RFP. Sounds reasonable, right? What would you expect people to do after they saw a great new integration tool? Immediately request that the firm come on in and take a look at how they could help solve the companies IT problems. Of course not.

The problem was, they were missing a step. Instead of assuming that everyone at the show was just waiting to hear about his solution so they could finally find a place to empty their IT budget, he should have assumed that nobody had ever heard of his company, didn’t understand what they did and were skeptical that they would even be in business in a few years. What they really needed a very low-risk way to find out more about it before they would ever invest the time to have him come in and have a serious discussion or check it out further.

At a later trade event, the company changed their strategy. They focused on getting a speaking slot at the conference, investing in advance marketing to the events attendee list as well as targeted local mailings. They took the least expensive booth available but augmented that with a free workshop that focused on helping people identify integration opportunities, solutions, pitfalls and procedures. They made a whitepaper out of the workshop workbook and offered that free in all of their marketing, as a follow-up for the people who signed up at their booth and even convinced show management to offer it on their web site.

The results? First of all, they gained immediate credibility (and promoted it) because they were speaking at the event. They were able to separate their firm from all of the rest of the companies because they were offering the training on how to solve integration problems. They used the advance promotion, the speaking engagement and the workshop all to promote their booth as well as the free whitepaper. Even with a smaller booth, walk-in traffic more than tripled, but as significantly, they took 178 additional requests for the whitepaper from people who didn’t attend the event. Once they get someone on the list, then they had the ability to market to them as many times as they wanted. (In my next article, I’ll show you how to institute a system for following up on your leads—one that isn’t dependent on someone having the time to do it or having to remember.)

The point is this: sometimes it’s appropriate to try to generate hard sales contacts or even sales from your exhibit. In a lot of cases though, it’s smarter to try to generate leads off of an exhibit. You just need to make sure that you know exactly what you’re trying to accomplish before you start and then have a plan in place to achieve it. The company with the integration solution thought that people would come into the booth simply because they were there (plus had a great solution) and that they would want to take the next step when they heard about the solution they offered. They were wrong. There was actually an in-between step or two for many prospects…getting some further documentation, doing a bit of due-diligence–before they would even be put on the list to consider.

So think about your exhibits. What are you trying to accomplish? Do you need to add another step or do you need a whole new strategy? How can you get more people to raise their hand and at least say they’re interested in what you are offering? Can you offer something to lower the risk or to give information? Take a page from kids (and some of the nation’s top CEOs) keep asking yourself or your team “what,” “why” and “how”—till you can’t anymore. It’s a sure way to insure a winning event plan.

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