The Lean Marketer Blog

Trade Shows: How to Survive & Thrive

After the business lull of Christmas/New Years, suddenly the world seems alive with giveaway vendors, booth panel printers, and the question of “how do we get all this stuff from here to there?”. That’s right, the Trade Show season is beginning. Whether its CES (starting tomorrow!),  Mobile World Congress, RSA, CeBIT, or any one of dozens of smaller conferences happening in the coming months, your company may be considering attending or even exhibiting at a trade show very soon.

For many startups, the first foray into a trade show is just to visit, and this approach has many merits. After months of lurking on user groups and getting initial impressions from face to face meetings with local potential customers, visiting an industry trade show or conference can be an eye-opening experience. If you have chosen the right event, it’s the one location at that moment when all the players in your space – competitors, potential partners, potential customers, journalists, analysts – are in one place. So how to make the most of it?

1) Make sure you choose the right event

This might seem obvious, but unfortunately it is often overlooked in the ecstasy of planning an overseas trip. Review the Web site from the previous year’s event carefully. Look on the site or on YouTube to see if there are any videos of sessions from the conference. Carefully pick over the list of attendees and exhibitors – company size, job titles, any demographic information the organizers provide — in order to measure the overlap between this and your target customer base.  It doesn’t have to be 100% fit, but at least 25% is a good rule of thumb. It may have all the right companies there, but the completely wrong job titles. This would NOT be a good event to attend.

2) Define your goals for the event

Are you attending to learn more about the competition? To find new partners? To generate new deals? Each of these goals would require a different approach and preparation.

3) Find out who else will be there and make appointments

Most events will publish an exhibitor list, and some will even post a participants list, or a list from the previous year. All shows will publish a speakers list, and some of the speakers may be useful targets for you.  Some conferences will even offer a matching service for a fee, in which you post what you are looking for and a bit about your company, and they provide a platform for arranging meetings. This is ideal, but unfortunately may not be available to you if you are not exhibiting.

Find out the trade show’s Twitter hashtag, and search for it – often people who plan to attend an event will write about it beforehand. If they are relevant to your business, you can even reach out to them via Twitter and arrange to meet. You should post on your own Twitter that you will be there, and what you are looking for. You might be surprised who responds. Similarly, you should post a question in all of the relevant LinkedIn groups you participate in about who will be there, and even suggest a meeting. Identify yourself in all of the social networks (Google Plus, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc) as someone who will be at this event, and start participating in the online conversations about the event.

By starting the networking long before you arrive, you will have a much easier time with the face to face networking once you get there. Try to memorize the faces of people you really hope to meet, even if you haven’t managed to schedule an appointment with them. You may be surprised at who you run into at the hotel lobby.

4) If you are exhibiting, don’t just wait around for the right people to land in your booth

This is the corollary to #3 above. You might think this advice is only for companies that are not exhibiting. You’d be wrong. A trade show booth is a huge investment of both money and time. Make sure your time and budget are not wasted by just hanging around, twiddling your thumbs while you wait for the big fish to drop into your net. Take proactive steps to bring the relevant people there by contacting them in advance. If you have difficulty arranging appointments, you can run a special promotion specifically for people with the  relevant job titles that you advertise in the show catalog or daily show paper, highlight in your booth, and so forth. But your best meetings will often be those you arranged in advance.

BTW I know one marketing guru who invests all his focus on #1 – selecting the right show – and then does crazy stunts at the show to collect as many badge swipes / business cards as he can, figuring that since a very high percentage of people at the show are in his target market, he wants to collect as many contact details for them as he can. He does this by offering very high value gifts like cruises. The decision to approach a show this way, or the way I’m suggesting, comes down to #2, your goals for the event.

5) Look for local companies you want to meet with

The event is most likely held in a locale that is not your hometown. You are planning to travel a long distance to reach this location. Make the most of it by arranging meetings outside the event, either in the days before or after, or simply by inviting local companies to meet you on the trade show floor or at a nearby cafe.

6) Don’t forget about the press & analysts

Exhibitors at an event are entitled to receive a press list, with the names, phone numbers and email addresses of all registered members of the press who will be in attendance. If you are not an exhibitor but know someone who is, they may be willing to share this list with you. You also can look for the “media sponsors” list on the show’s Web site, and simply call up the publications and ask which journalists will be attending.  Search for stories that were published the previous year about the event – some of these journalists will attend again the following year. And don’t feel guilty trying to get a meeting with a journalist just because you are not exhibiting. Your story may be 100 times more interesting than the official exhibitors s/he is meeting with and the journalist may be pleased to have an excuse to step off the show floor, especially if you offer to treat for coffee or a beer.

Similarly, many industry analysts typically attend industry conferences, often as speakers.  Don’t overlook this rare opportunity to meet with your key analyst face to face. If you subscribe to one of the analyst services (e.g. Gartner, Forrester, IDC), you should ask your reps if they know of any relevant analysts going to the events you plan to attend, and they may also be able to help you arrange a meeting.

7) Even if you’re not exhibiting, you can market that you are/were there

You don’t have to be an exhibitor to make a press announcement during the show, with the show’s city in the dateline. You can blog about it. Add it to your social network statuses. Post photos after the event. This is where the industry is, and you want to be seen as being in the right place at the right time.

8) Wear Comfortable Shoes

And bring a spare pair. It’s amazing how UN-comfortable your supposedly comfortable shoes can be after a full day of walking and standing, so a spare pair is a must.

What are some strategies and tactics you’ve adopted to survive and thrive at industry trade shows? 

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