Ensuring trade shows ROI : 7 rules to live by

Trade shows and conferences season is right around the corner. Summer is the time for decision making and quickly start with the very rigorous process of preparing everything that you need to ensure this substantial investment in time and budget materializes into real results. Here are a few things to keep in mind while planning for your presence at a trade show:

1. Which one? choose wisely

In every industry there are many relevant conferences and trade shows, with one or two that are the biggest, and then all the rest. While it would make sense to choose the most prominent one in your field, there might be a few reasons why you should reconsider. The first reason is price. The biggest trade shows are the most expensive ones, not only because renting a booth space is more expensive. Yes, that would also be true. But it’s more than that: It’s about how much you would need to invest in order to to raise the awareness to your product or offering above the noise. So if this is your first time, experiment with a smaller trade show first. Check to see where your competitors are exhibiting, and where they started exhibiting a few years ago. Go for a more niche target audience then a general audience. What you learn on a smaller scale, you can take with you to your next trade show, and over time go bigger.

2. Define your goals before you start the planning process

What would you like to achieve? Is it awareness, leads, trial users, or sales?
Put hard target numbers for your goals. These numbers will help you plan accordingly for your budget, resources needed, and marketing tactics. For example, if your main goal is to present your product to 20 decision makers in your chosen industry, you may need to target them before the conference, which requires an additional budget and dedicated resources for over a month prior to the actual event.

3. Cross-company planning process: A must for a trade show success

This is an outcome of the previous rule. Since a trade show integrates marketing and sales goals, it is not only the marketing team’s planing process. The objectives should be defined by the marketing and sales team leaders, and sometimes – for smaller organizations – involve the CEO.

4. Trade shows planning: The three-legged stool

Your trade show success will not be based on a brochure, a pull-up banner, or a demo. These are all deliverables and tactics that can help you, but they are only outputs of your plan. Think about your trade show as a three-legged stool: Pre-conference activities, in-conference activities, and post-conference activities. Essentially, your trade show is a campaign with three parts, each leading to the next in support of your goals. One will not be successful without the other.

5. The basics: Your pre-conference activities

How you plan your pre-conference activities can very much determine your success in the conference. There are the basics, of course, like letting your customers and prospects know that you are going to be exhibiting, but you can do much more. You can use social media to reach trade show participants way before the event. The Twitter hashtag makes it relatively easy to find people who are attending. Some conferences and trade shows have their own internal networking tools that you can use. You can also do online advertising to target the audience that might attend. Think about what you would like to achieve if you engage with the trade show conference participants beforehand: would you like to direct them to your booth? Would you like to schedule sales meetings? Or maybe you would just like to get their email addresses? Your marketing tactics should be carefully planned to meet your goals.

Note that pre-conference activities should start at least a month before the conference. Your marketing team is going to be deeply engaged with planning and delivery for at least six weeks before pre-conference activities. For small companies or startups, this is a burden, since all other marketing activities will take a hit for quite some time. Plan accordingly.

6. Your in-conference activities: It’s more than about the booth sweepstake

There used to be days when giving away an iPad in a sweepstake is all you needed to do to drive people to your booth. Those days are gone. Consider Dreamforce, one of the biggest tech conferences in the world. Over 100,000 attendees and over 400 exhibitors. Giving away cars is not even enough to drive engagement and booth attendance. If you have a small booth and a small budget, what do you do? For one thing, you should treat the booth as only one touch point – an important one, but definitely not the only one. Your on-the-ground team should do lots of work outside the booth. Your sales team should have the tools they need to engage – whether a demo, a good elevator speech, or a giveaway (consider something useful, not your typical tchotchke).
Take careful consideration of the venue’s limitations and use it for your own advantage. For example, if it’s an extremely big conference, your playground expands way beyond the conference floor and the expo hall. The hotels, bars, and public areas surrounding the conference are also your domain.
Each trade show and conference has a certain flavor – character, if you will. Some are just big parties. Others are more formal. Play the game accordingly, and invest time in figuring out the right creative hook that would fit that specific character.

7. Your post-conference activities: Don’t leave the planning for the last minute

The follow-up is where it’s all coming together. And just when you thought you’re done with all the work, the heavy lifting has only just started. This is where most companies fail – the ability to take the momentum created on the trade show floor and  carry it forward and up the sales funnel. This, again should be planned ahead. There are different lead nurture and sales processes that should follow, depending on the pre-defined goals of the trade show. For lead capturing, a well-orchestrated lead nurture should follow a few days after. Sales should follow individual leads with very specific messaging. If pilot users were obtained during the conference, ensure you have the customer success processes in place to support them.
Because everyone comes back exhausted both from the travel as well as from the adrenaline rush of a trade show, it is important to not leave the planning of this phase for after the conference.

Do you have any other tips to add? Have you seen any specific successful campaigns for conferences and trade shows? You are invited to share them with us.