Want to stand out? Plan ahead and skip the tchotchkes and gimmicks. Clowns, costumes, caricaturists: they're staples of nearly every trade show, attempting to bring an audience to an otherwise lackluster booth. And don't forget the beguiling ladies, handing out fliers with a side of flirtation. Does any of the showiness of the showroom floor actually work to draw in attendees that become reliable leads?
"Don't get me started on booth babes," said Susan Friedmann, an industry consultant who goes by "The Tradeshow Coach." "People really have had to get more serious about exhibiting. When you're investing often several hundred thousand dollars going to a trade show, you have to get a return on your investment."
Whether your desired outcome is to fill a spreadsheet with sales leads, generate buzz for a new product, or just increase brand awareness, relying on random booth traffic isn't usually the wisest strategy, experts tell Inc. Plan early for not just creating an inventive and effective booth, but also for getting the right people to seek you out.
"A lot of show marketers leave it to the show organizer to drive traffic on the show floor," said Ruth P. Stevens, a consultant on business-to-business marketing and president of eMarketing Strategy. "You cannot cede responsibility to the show organizer to get all the traffic you want to get – you need to take aggressive action."
Drawing Traffic to Your Trade Show Booth: Plan Ahead
Trade show consultants and experts cite a statistic illustrative of the risk of leaving convention or show traffic to chance: Roughly 70 percent of show attendees plan a list of whom they're going to visit before ever entering the convention center doors. They say that number makes plain the power – and necessity – of pre-show outreach.
Stevens advocates taking a two-pronged approach. The first would be to contact your in-house file – that's your regular customers, local contacts, and solid prospects. The other? Registered attendees of the show. "Most organizers, if you are buying a booth, will give you access to this list," Stevens says. "You should conduct some outreach to them - or a segment of attendees that might be interested in you - either through direct mail, e-mail, or even phone."
While e-mailing a contact list is by far the most cost-effective way to spread information about an upcoming trade show or conference appearance, David Brull, the vice president of marketing and membership for the Trade Show Exhibitors Association, says snail mail not only still works, but might be the best means of communicating an upcoming event. "A postcard is pretty much the most effective – and odd sized is even better so that it doesn't just blend in and end up in the trash. I know one person that shaped theirs like a fish once, and that really brought people in."
While you're at it, make a substantial effort to contact and make appointments with your local clients, suppliers, or anyone you do business with in the geographic area of your show. It's a simple way to get face-time with folks you might not otherwise be able to sit down with – and a way to make sure you or your employees aren't wasting time standing around in an empty booth.
Drawing Traffic to Your Trade Show Booth: Offer an Incentive, But Be Selective
Getting a piece of mail into a potential client's hand isn't enough, though, Stevens says. They'll also need a solid reason to show up. If you have a new product launching – especially if there's at least an aspect of it that will be completely fresh to consumers – promote that.
"Or, if you don't have something new, you might want to make a special offer," Stevens says. "It might be a price promotion, or a show discount, or you might want to give them a special gift for coming by."
But, there's a big difference in having special gifts for the people you've contacted before the show and doing a random promotion to draw foot traffic into your booth, Friedmann says. "You have to give your target audience a reason to come and see you, based on your goals and objective," she says. "I'm not an advocate of just giving away an iPad or a camcorder, because you're not attracting someone in your target audience."
That's because the old put-your-business-card-in-a-fishbowl-and-win-a-prize ruse to generate leads has proven itself stale.
"Putting a bowl out and asking people to drop in a business card is a waste of energy," Stevens says. "The real way to generate good leads is to have a conversation and kick off a business relationship. You can rent cold names for 15 cents each, so why would you spend hundreds at a trade show to get cold names?"
And the value of pricey giveaways can be lost if your company doesn't get quality warm leads out of the very thing that's supposed to draw people to your booth.
"You have to know your attendees," Stevens says. "If there are going to be a lot of unqualified people, like students or spouses, know that. If it's going to be prowled by a lot of tchotchke grabbers, you might want to keep the gift under the table."
There are other ways to bond with your target audience at a trade show. Friedmann suggests hosting events away from the trade show floor, in more private conference rooms. Reserve space ahead of time, she suggests, and use it for special product demos that you might not want your competition to be privy to – but that you do want your best customers to see.
Another option is to speak on a panel. Talk early on with the conference or trade show's organizers about possible topics that you and your company are experts in – or even a niche of a current industry trend. Being in the middle of the debate or on the edge of innovation, explaining it as you go, is a great place to be. The bonus: You'll be sure to attract those most interested in your work. Offer them additional conversation, a free book, or something else useful, if they'll stop by your booth later.
Story by Christine Lagorio a writer, editor, and reporter whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Village Voice, and The Believer, among other publications. She is executive editor of Inc.com. @Lagorio