One of the most valuable aspects of tradeshow marketing is
the ability to reach markets you would not normally be able to reach. In fact,
it’s what has helped Bob’s Red Mill grow through the years. Bob Moore, the
iconic Bob of the company, recognized early that by exhibiting at regional and
national tradeshows, they could get their products into markets that would
otherwise be extremely difficult to crack.
It means going to the right shows where attendees are from
companies that can ramp up distribution, that can become good partners. It
means making those connections and deepening them over the years so that your
products are valuable to them, and their ability to distribute into outlets
that you would have a difficult time doing on an individual basis is valuable
to both parties.
Yes, selling and making connections at tradeshows is
important. But one of the most important things to recognize is that once you meet
and acquire a partner there, part of the purpose of the show is to use it as a
platform to introduce new products. Not only that, but when you’re in those longer
conversations with partners, you can dig deeper into what’s important to them
and their end users, the consumers. Feedback is critical not only to making
sure the right products are being created and manufactured, but for keeping the
lines of communication open and honest. When problems come up, if you have a
good partner, the communication can be candid, and problems can be addressed.
Often a tradeshow is the only face-to-face meeting that partners have each
year, and the value of meeting and shaking hands and seeing people in person
cannot be overstated.
Use the tradeshow as a way to find and open new markets. Keep in mind that relationships will solidify as time goes by and the face-to-face communication is an important part of those relationships. Which you get when you sit down across the table at a tradeshow.
Back in the dark ages of technology and social media, say
2008 or so, I read many prognosticators who predicted that tradeshows would
disappear. Or become shells of themselves, simply because everyone was going
digital. I remember seeing online ‘virtual tradeshows’ where you could navigate
from booth to booth and see what companies were hawking.
Except that virtual tradeshows never really got going so
much. And the real thing is doing just fine, thank you very much.
Why? My hunch is that it’s because people are face-to-face.
In real time. In real life. Instead of interacting online over Skype or virtual
Don’t get me wrong: there is a time and place for
interacting online, for social media, for Skype or Zoom.
But tradeshows are here to stay and they’re growing.
A recent (July 2019) post from Marketing Charts indicates that tradeshows have not only proven to be effective across all stages of the buyer’s journey, the channel has a projected annual compound growth rate of 4.3% through 2023.
The article shares other key points, including that tradeshows are the second largest and fastest-growing source of B2B growth. The B2B tradeshow market is expected to be a $15.7 Billion market in 2019, moving up to $18.5 Billion by 2023.
Yes, tradeshows as a method of marketing are critical to a
company’s success. The money spent on tradeshows often will take up as much as
a third of a company’s marketing spend.
There are lot of reasons that companies are successful at
tradeshow marketing (as well as many reasons they’re not successful!), but to my
mind it all comes down to the face-to-face aspect.
There are a lot of basics to marketing, and we all often think we’re doing everything we should. Then we hear someone like Ronnie Noize spelling out some simple steps and we think “hmmm…might have missed something!”
Ronnie Noize of DIY Marketing Center in Vancouver, Washington, joins me for today’s TradeshowGuy Monday Morning Coffee, and shares not only her top five marketing tips, but her top five “prosperity” tips as well. Good stuff!
As an exhibitor, try to schedule some time to talk to other exhibitors. Depending on how many other people you have on the booth staff, that may be easy or difficult. But give it a try. And I mean more than just the pleasantries with your neighbors that you’ll exchange when setting up and exhibiting. It’s easy enough to just show up, do your thing, and leave. But you’ll learn a lot when gathering information about other exhibitors’ experiences.
What to talk about and what information to look for?
At a recent show, I was curious to speak to exhibitors to get their sense of the show itself, and how they have fared. As a result, I spoke with quite a few exhibitors and got a broad look at the show. One exhibitor said she had exhibited at the show two years previously, and had written over $200,000 of business as a direct result of the show.
“Yes, indeed. Last year, we wrote about $50,000 worth of business from the show. A big drop, but considering our minimal investment, still a great return.”
Another exhibitor told me that he thought that the show had shrunk each year for the last couple of years, and there was even a chance it might have been cancelled.
“Why do you think it’s shrunk?” I asked (I was not sure it had shrunk or expanded; I was just playing along to see where he was going with this).
“There are a lot of shows in the industry,” he said, as if that explained things.
I also asked exhibitors if they went to any of the various breakout sessions. Most said no, but one or two said yes. Those seemed to be aimed mainly at attendees.
I asked several exhibitors if this was the only show they went to. Many said they do other shows, but not necessarily in this industry. Their company’s products and services can be pitched to other industries as well.
And finally, I asked if they were planning to come back to the same show next year as an exhibitor. A mixed bag: some said yes, others were noncommittal. But no one gave me a definitive NO.
Other things you can ask: how is job hiring going in your industry or your company? How well is your company doing against your direct competitors? Are there any companies here you would consider partnering with on any project or task? Are you looking to hire any positions soon? How many other shows do you plan on exhibiting at in the next year? Is this the only exhibit property you own, or do you have other elements you can set up to exhibit in a smaller or larger space?
When you find time to talk to other exhibitors, you’ll take away a larger sense of the show overall and how your fellow exhibitors feel about their place in the show and in the industry.
And you may make some good connections along the way!
As in any discipline, we can all end up very focused on just a few aspects of the overall skills needed to be a well-rounded and talented worked. For instance, in baseball, a pinch-hitter is great at hitting a pitch but may not be that great at fielding or running.
In the digital world, someone may be very good at engaging on Twitter or Instagram, but just doesn’t get LinkedIn or spend any time on Facebook.
A photographer may be an expert at photographing weddings but would have a difficult time to find a great landscape photo or have the patience to take a good night photo.
You’ve probably heard that it’s better to be focused on just one skill and become really, really good at that skill instead of being a Jack or Jill-of-all-trades.
I don’t agree. The more skills you have the better off you’ll be, even if those skills are only average or slightly above.
Take a writer. Some writers can be a great author but suck at promotion, social media engagement, public speaking and at other skills that would help them be more successful. There are lot of “average” authors that are very successful because they have learned how to engage on social media, speak in public, put together a solid promotion.
When it comes to the well-rounded tradeshow marketer, what skills should you have? Not necessarily be the greatest at, or extremely skilled, but all of the various skills to make you rise above the pack? Let’s take a look:
Organization: there are a lot of bouncing balls in the tradeshow world. Your ability to keep track of the many parts of tradeshow marketing is probably one of the most important skills.
Communication: whether it’s having a conversation or communicating with people via email, being able to understand, and be understood, is critical.
Social Media: you don’t have to have the most followers or engage with everyone that “likes” one of your posts, but you do need to know the basics of creating, writing, posting and engaging with those followers.
Scheduling: tradeshow dates on the calendar don’t move. Which means you’ll have to coordinate things such as logistics (shipping, travel, installation/dismantle), booth staff scheduling, updates to your exhibit (modifications, graphic printing, etc.) and more.
Photographer: maybe not the most important skill, but since you carry a camera around in your pocket, you’ll need to learn to take good photographs of the exhibit, and visitors in your booth. Learn how to frame people, get the lighting right, try not to let unwanted guests photobomb your photo, and more.
Labor: you may hire show labor to set up and dismantle your exhibit, or you may have to set it up with fellow staff members. Either way, knowing how everything goes together is a useful skill.
Networking: back to the communication and interpersonal skills. But networking on it’s own is critical to building a network of people you can call on when needed.
Finally, how to MacGyver things: you may not have to actually make your own parachute using a canvas and tie-downs, but being naturally resourceful is a gift. Don’t let it go to waste.
One of my favorite newsletters comes from Bill Lampton, Ph. D., otherwise known as the BizComunication Guy. When I invited him on to the TradeshowGuy Monday Morning Coffee several weeks ago, he offered to interview me for his weekly show as well. It was a pleasure to reciprocate. Bill is great interviewer and as you might imagine a professional communicator.
I couldn’t sleep last night, so I sat up and jotted down a few thoughts and observations from what I’ve seen in the past 17+ years in the tradeshow industry. I got to thinking about the exhibition industry, as it is often called, from both the exhibit-production side and the exhibitor side. What things do I observe in seeing how other exhibit companies work? By reading industry periodicals and staying in touch with industry colleagues?
There are thousands of exhibit companies competing for your business. They all want a fair share of business available from companies that are looking to upgrade or replace old exhibits. The industry supports a lot of very big companies, as well as a lot of companies that work with just a handful of loyal clients.
Profit margin for exhibit companies is substantial but there’s a very good reason. Things cost a lot. There is a lot of labor cost. Without substantial markup companies couldn’t survive for long. I don’t have enough information on other industries, but I’m told that the margin in groceries, for example, is razor thin. Same for gas stations. What they don’t make on the margin still makes them a good amount of profit due to the sheer volume of products they sell.
Yes, you can find lower cost items and companies willing to provide lower cost service but at what cost in quality and service? If you shop around to find the lowest price, are you giving up a warranty or guarantee, or are you trading a few dollars for an inferior product?
Some exhibit companies have large spaces and large staffs. Massive overhead means they need to keep developing new business and selling more things to current clients. I’ve seen those up close and understand that the pressure to produce can be immense.
Smaller companies such as TradeshowGuy Exhibits still need to generate profit to survive and thrive but are not driven to the levels as the bigger companies.
From a “making more sales” standpoint, there’s no one single thing that is the magic button to generate sales for exhibit companies working to drum up more business. I’ve talked to numerous sales account executives at different sized companies and they all say about the same thing: sales are hard to make, there is a lot of competition, no one thing works, so they all do a combination of what you might expect: phone and email prospecting, advertising (print and online), meet and greets at tradeshows, and networking groups. Some are more creative than others, some more persistent than others, some more organized, and so on. But they all love it, because they like making their clients look good when the exhibit is finally set up.
Lightboxes (aluminum extrusion silicon-edge fabric graphics) can be a bit tedious to set up, but damn, they look sharp.
From the Exhibitor side
Many companies seem to be somewhat naïve about how the industry works. Shipping, logistics et al are almost like a black hole mystery box. There is a world of moving stuff around from the warehouse to the show site that many people rarely get involved with. Those that are involved are always looking at ways to shave dollars. And to a person, I hear them say, “tradeshow stuff just costs a lot.”
Most companies don’t have a sense of how much things cost and how much extra cost will be added along the way. Think drayage, Installation & Dismantle, shipping, graphic design and printing.
Many companies fail to take advantage of all of the various steps: preshow, postshow, staff training, in booth activities, social media, etc.
More and more companies I work with are hiring labor to setup and dismantle their exhibits. I find that of exhibit crews, about one out of three is a real pro and knows exactly how things work. One out of three know pretty well what they’re doing. And the third hired hand is usually there just for his willingness to schlep heavy things around – and you hope they do what they’re told. I also find that many crews assume that with a simple glance or two at the setup instructions, they know how it works. Often it does. But I’ve seen a number of occasions where a lot of time could have been saved if they’d only read the instructions in greater detail. Time wasted on a tradeshow floor is expensive.
Growth can happen quickly with tradeshow marketing. Many companies I’ve worked with over the past few years have seen substantial growth and are regularly increasing the size of their exhibits. As Bob Moore of Bob’s Red Mill famously once said, “Tradeshows have opened doors to markets that we would not have otherwise been able to open.” Or something like that – but you get the idea.
Opportunity abounds in today’s tradeshow marketing world, but it’s easy to lose $$$ if you make a misstep. Larger companies with deeper pockets have a natural advantage, but that doesn’t mean they are always doing the best they can. Smaller companies with few dollars can still use tradeshow marketing to attract people to their booth with creative marketing, great interactivity, attractive exhibits and more – and still crack open doors to new markets. Which leads to more growth (see the previous paragraph!).
For those companies that do get involved in tradeshow marketing – and certainly not every company does – they spend roughly a third of their marketing budget on tradeshows.
From the Personal Side
I’ve been in the industry since April 2002. It took years for me to get used to the industry and a few more to like and then love the industry and thrive in it. I came from the radio industry, which from a sales standpoint, moved very quickly. Yes, there are deadlines which don’t move and keep you on your toes in the tradeshow world, but it’s not like the radio world where a sales person could come in and need something to be written, voiced and produced and on the air within the hour. Which happened frequently. My first impression of the exhibit world was that things moved at a glacial pace. Boy did that take some adjusting!
Ever since I was a kid I wanted to work for myself. That radio thing was great for 25+ years, but in the back of my mind I was trying to figure out how to be my own boss. When I entered the tradeshow exhibit industry on a fluke when the radio industry changed, I was still working for someone else. It wasn’t until the owner of that company retired and I was thrust into the unknown (ever try to find a good-paying job in your mid 50’s?), I figured it was now or never. I’m still surprised by how well it worked out. There’s no guarantee, of course, but for now it’s good.
I can do marketing, blogging, podcasting, prospecting, phone calling, meeting people at shows and following up regularly – and yet when it comes time for a company to purchase a new exhibit, it seems no matter how much I try to stay in front of people, it’s easy for them to go elsewhere. Again, back to that magic button: how do you manage to stay in front of a decision-maker so that you’re there at the exact time they need you? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller?
One way to differentiate myself was to write. Starting as a blogger in November 2008, producing ebooks and more, and finally writing a pair of books (Tradeshow Success in 2015 and Tradeshow Superheroes and Exhibiting Zombies in 2018) was my way of doing that. I couldn’t tell you how much it’s contributed to my success or helped make sales, but I like giving the book away to potential clients – and hey, a few even sell on Amazon now and then!
Another way to differentiate myself was to go back to using my radio skills. First as a guy who knew how to record digital audio and post it on our company website (anyone remember Real Audio?), and then as a podcaster on this blog. And of course, video is a gas, as well. My viewpoint is that the more real you are, the better chance you have of making a personal connection with someone who wants to do business with you. That’s always been my philosophy. Share who you are, what you like, and how you do things. In today’s world, making a personal connection is a way to get ahead.
Of course, we always want to make sure our tradeshow best practices are out on display for everyone at all times. But as Steve Miller says, “Perfection is your enemy.”
And…we’re only human. That means you’ll find that your booth staff will sometimes be eating in the booth, or on their phone when people are walking by. Or they’ll fail to direct a visitor to the person with the right answer for the question. Or maybe you realize that your pre-show marketing efforts were lame this time around. Or your post-show follow up really left something to be desired.
Sometimes your graphics will be scuffed or torn. Perhaps your flooring is ripped and mended. All of these are irritating, aren’t they, because you want to always have the best presentation at all times. But perfection is not attainable.
So, keep moving forward. If one of your staffers is sitting in the back of the booth with hands in pockets, put on a smile and ask them to move to the aisle where they can be helpful. And vow to schedule a trainer who can teach staffers better habits. If your hanging sign or large graphics look great but are outdated because some minor branding thing changed, take a photo and plan to get together with management to find the dollars to make upgrades.
There are times that you’ll come up short. There may even be times you consider your tradeshow efforts a failure.
Improvement doesn’t happen all at once. But keeping tradeshow best practices in mind every time you’re involved in setting up the booth, planning upgrades, scheduling your booth staff and related show logistics, you will see improvement. But chances are you won’t see perfection.
Is there an inside game of tradeshow marketing success? Hey, it could be just a catch phrase designed to get you read.
But let’s explore for a moment.
If you’re a baseball fan, you might be familiar with the phrase “inside baseball.” It’s a term used mostly in the United States, that refers to detailed knowledge about a subject that outsiders are usually not privy to. Deep knowledge about any subject down to the minutiae often means that unless you have spent years doing whatever it is, you are not going to understand a lot of the talk. Hence, “inside baseball.”
Even though the term was around since the 19th century, by the mid-1950s the term was being used outside of baseball, particularly it was used in politics. To use the term in another field, such as business, technology or science is not unusual.
In using the term as applied to tradeshow marketing, let’s think about what that means.
Knowledge. You have the knowledge of what it takes to go from Point A to Point Z with all of the twists and turns.
Discipline. Not only do you have the knowledge, you have the discipline that it takes in the event industry to organize all of those moving parts in a coherent and effective way.
Skill. Skill comes with doing something over and over again, learning what works and what doesn’t, ironing out the rough spots and then learning some more so that you know what to expect, you know how to deal with issues as they come up because – hey! – they’re not that much of a surprise.
Networking. The event industry – like most industries – is a people industry. People make it run. People know how things work. People ask for and offer help. And face it – the events / tradeshow / exhibiting industry is built on getting far-flung people together under one roof face-to-face to do business. Networking skills are at their highest level and their most useful in this industry.
Inside baseball means you know why a pitcher is throwing a curve ball when the count is 3 and 2. You know that between pitches, players and coaches communicate strategy by pulling on an earlobe, brushing their thigh or arm, and of course keeping an eye on the opposing team’s silent communication to try and suss out the essence of the message.
Inside tradeshow marketing has to do with, for example, knowing how to position your brand in the marketplace, how to talk to booth visitors, when to book travel and hotel rooms, what restaurants are the best near any given conference venue, how to take advantage of those three or four days when the exhibit is set up in a competitive marketplace where thousands of potential clients are roaming the aisles. Having the right graphics and messaging can mean the difference between 250 and 350 leads. Having a booth staff that knows how to ask the right questions of visitors can mean the difference between and ROI of 10% and 100%. It all makes a difference.
And if you’ve done this for years, you know what works and what doesn’t. You know what companies are putting up a great exhibit and have a fantastically enthusiastic and well-trained staff and which competitors are just showing up because they think they should.
If you know all of that stuff, you know inside baseball. In the tradeshow world.
Selling anything, whether in a clothing store, a car dealer showroom, or a tradeshow, means in some sense you have to understand your buyer. You must have empathy for what they’re going through or the sale will be much more difficult.
When you put yourself in the shoes of your potential buyer, you feel what they feel. You understand what they understand. You know what problems they are facing. You know what it would feel like to have a solution to the problem that your product or service would provide. You must know what makes them feel good, what makes them feel hurt.
Your marketing strategy should include efforts to understand those potential clients or customers. Ask yourself these questions:
Do you really understand how they feel prior to learning about your product or service?
What is the perspective of your customer in regard to your product or service?
How do your prospects view the world?
What challenges do they face?
How do they view companies such as yours?
There are other related questions that will come up, but the goal is to see the world from their perspective as best as you can. The more you’re able to do this – and the better you’re able to communicate that understanding back to them – the higher your chances of converting them from a prospect to a client.