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Holding court: Trade show marketing

  • SIMA
- Posted: June 1, 2015
By Debora Babin Katz

Whether you are launching your first trade show at a local chamber of commerce business expo or exhibiting annually at a national conference like PRSM (Professional Retail Store Maintenance), the rules of the game are the same for successful trade show marketing. This is largely due to the fact that exhibitors whose marketing strategy encompasses strong preshow reach, a simple and clear show marketing message, and a focus on client relationship building with immediate post-show follow-up achieve higher results.

Ask any marketer, regardless of the company’s size, why they exhibit at trade shows and they will say brand awareness, lead generation, and relationship building. Trade show marketing for B2B marketers continues to constitute their largest budgetary line item with nearly 20% of spend associated with trade shows in 2014, according to Forrester Research. The stakes are high given the resources required - time, money and people - for effective trade show marketing. The good news? According to a recent study by the Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR), 81% of trade show attendees have buying authority. In simple terms, at any given show, four out of five people walking the aisles represent a potential customer. 

Preshow marketing
Trade shows offer an opportunity to not only generate new business but also build upon existing client relationships. Outreach to the attendee audience should start well in advance of the show’s opening day by:
  • Announcing your participation via social media, press releases, email and, most importantly, regular mail
  • Calling on existing customers and important prospects to plan a get-together outside of show hours
Companies often communicate via email because it is the least expensive, but people are inundated with email. Snail mail is still considered by experts as the best method to reach your audience, especially if delivered via an oversized or unusual postcard.

“It’s critical to make use of your exhibitor’s attendee list,” Denianne Gardner, Marketing Director of Divisions Maintenance Group, said. “It may sound obvious, but only spend your time marketing to the people and companies that matter to you.” 

Preshow marketing efforts may include advertising in the association’s publications and taking advantage of new product/service editorial opportunities. Sending a brief press release on something new that your company will showcase can sometimes pique the interest of an editor. 
SB0615_TradeShow (278x300)
An oversized, preshow marketing postcard can be used to pique the interest of trade show attendees.

Show marketing
Attendees are easily overwhelmed by the amount of stimuli bombarding them at trade shows so it is important to keep your marketing graphics simple with a clear message about your offering. Make your space inviting and as Gardner said, “a little fun.” The best exhibits offer flexibility so they can be utilized in big and smaller booth spaces. 

A short video can emphasize your message and attract attendees. “We use video in the booth to show a quick hit on our services and add to the visual flavor,” said Gardner, who advises marketers to see video more as “a billboard that someone can digest as they drive by.”  

When exhibiting at smaller venues, video can still play a part. When exhibiting at conferences that only offer tabletop space, TrucBrush Corporation of Massachusetts utilizes video on a tablet with a stand. The attendees naturally gravitate to the table to see what is playing and then the sales rep can engage them in conversation.

At larger venues, how do you stand out in a sea of exhibitors? Gardner admits that her company has tried many things over the years, but a few stick out as effective:

Signage. “For a 20-by-20 booth, there’s nothing like having that big hanging overhead sign. You can see our booth from any location on the floor,” she said. There is a large price tag for installing this type of marketing. Gardner says she has paid $3,000 to as much as $10,000 for installation. For this reason, they, like many companies, are moving toward a less expensive solution supported from below or that has simple rigging to the ceiling. 

Room drops. “We utilize the attendees list to do a targeted hotel room drop,” Gardner said. “Usually this includes a $5 voucher for whatever coffee vendor is at the venue, a schedule of any conference sessions Divisions is delivering, and an invitation to our customer entertainment event,” she said, noting that the sales team has extra vouchers at the booth to offer attendees.

Speak out. Participate as a speaker or as part of a panel discussion. “If there’s an opportunity for you to give an educational session or a presentation, you get a lot of mileage out of it,” she said.  Your name will appear in all conference materials and the session is likely to be covered in the post-show issue of a trade magazine. You can also stay engaged with attendees (and increase your followers) by tapping into the association’s social media campaigns during conferences. 

Giveaways. For most marketers, this is an aspect of trade show marketing that is a love-hate relationship. There are differing opinions regarding giveaways since they often attract nonquality leads. “We don’t do anything specific to lure people into our booth. No iPad giveaways. No carnival games,” Gardner said. Giveaways should express your company’s message and those that are highly visible during the show are often winners. At a safety conference, TrucBrush Corporation gave attendees logoed orange water bottle holders that clip to a golf/gym bag since the conference included a golf tournament. The safety guys loved them and the company’s brand was displayed all over the golf course the next day. The most successful giveaway for Divisions, Gardner said, were rubber mini-basketballs with “Team with Divisions” for March Madness.

Get together. The old adage, “the more you give, the more you get” holds true at trade shows when it comes to spending quality time with your clients and potential customers. “If you want to build a relationship with someone, share an experience with them,” Gardner said. Consider hosting events during nonshow times. Reserve a private room  and then use that preshow list to extend a special invitation. “Customers have a plethora of dinner invitations at these shows. You need to offer something different that you can experience together and gets people out in the city,” she said.

Post-show marketing

Whether you utilize a lead scanner or business cards, contacting leads post-show must happen immediately. Send strong leads a quick thank-you email with the information they requested during the conference to keep them engaged, and then immediately follow up with phone calls after the conference. “Formally, I will send out a thank-you note to any customer who attended our event, and our sales team follows up personally with any leads that have real merit,” Gardner said. “This is something that should not be done as a generic, mass email.” 

Measuring ROI

Most companies have some kind of process to track leads at shows and will utilize customer management systems, like Sales Force and Goldmine. However, because shows also focus on building brand awareness, it is not always easy to trace every sale to a conference. 

“The most important things we do at shows is build relationships and create awareness about Divisions. Because we are working at the national account level, it is rare that we can pin a specific sale to something we did at a trade show,” Gardner said.
Debora Babin Katz is Snow Business magazine’s editorial advisory committee chair and vice president of TrucBrush Corporation. Contact her at
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