Original insights in international business and marketing
You may have heard me say it before: I don’t care much for corporate participation at trade shows and congresses. Trade shows generate doubtful (or at best marginal) returns and take resources away from other, potentially more productive activities. Check out my article from last week (7 Reasons Why Trade Shows Don’t Work Anymore). I recognize that I am painting with a very broad brush here and that this may be more, or less true depending on the industry you are in.
So why do we keep doing them?
Habit. Tradition is a powerful force in our personal and professional lives. We keep doing things because there is often an implicit or explicit expectation that what worked in the past will keep working in the future. We are also suckers for tradition. Truth is that tradition just doesn’t belong in marketing’s arsenal today if it isn’t accompanied by a strong and regularly updated business case.
Convenience/Lack of Courage. Sometimes, it is easier to keep doing what has always been done rather than to challenge engrained business practices. Sometimes we just don’t want to let partners down or be the first to break a long track record of attendance. Shaking things up is unsettling and sometimes we just have to pick our battles. Because they are high visibility, trade shows hardly seem to be the right “battle” for many folks.
Absence of Performance Metrics. It is hard, but not impossible, to effectively measure the ROI of a trade show. Many times we keep doing them for “strategic” reasons or to “meet with key players.” Trouble is we have a very hard time pinpointing the actual value of these interactions. Where are the metrics? Please don’t tell me it’s the leads you generated. 300 unqualified trade show leads with no definitive follow-through or incremental revenues are NOT enough to justify returning every year.
Insecurity & Lack of Originality. Congresses are generally high visibility programs, which may allow some marketers to justify their existence. “See, we participated in 5 major congresses last year! We worked really hard on them and got lots of leads.” But is that a compelling enough reason to keep doing the same thing year after year? That’s old-school thinking. What is missing here is the exploration of new ideas and methods for generating more & better leads.
Signaling. Trade shows are often venues where one company can signal intentions or status to customers and competitors alike. For other companies, not attending an event is inconceivable because of the perceived message it might send to partners or other rivals.
Boondoggles. Let’s be honest. Many of these shows are in exotic locales and represent a nice opportunity for Marketing and Sales teams to “get out” and often “blow some steam” with other industry colleagues. They can be a lot of fun and represent an ideal opportunity to do some internal or external networking. I’ve done it. I get it. But if internal socializing and networking are valuable side-effects of trade shows, then why not organize more cost-effective company events that do just that, without the full-on expenses of attending an industry trade show?
I did a quick assessment of a congress we attended a while back. Everyone deemed the event a “huge success.” We generated the most leads ever for this type of event. Trouble is, when I did the math the story was quite different. Dividing the costs of the event (booth space, design, setup, sponsorships, fees, travel, expenses, etc…) by the actual number of (unqualified) leads yielded some startling facts. Our actual cost/lead was in the order of €1,500 or approximately $2,000 dollars for every booth visitor who had agreed to leave their contact info (regardless of purchase intent or decision making authority). I don’t know about you, but in this digital age, €1,500 for an UNQUALIFIED lead (i.e. not expressed purchase interest/desire/
authority) is simply outrageous. There are plenty of digital marketing programs today that can generate leads for a tenth or even a hundredth of this cost.
So what exactly am I advocating? I am NOT suggesting a unilateral, immediate and unequivocal withdrawal from all trade shows. They still have their place, especially if the metrics indicate a neutral to positive return on investment. But we need to be smarter about what we do, how we do it and especially why.
Here are 10 trade show strategies/tips for you to consider as you look at your trade show activities:
1. Audit your program and past performance. Take a long, hard and honest look at your trade show schedule. Conduct an ROI for each event. Calculate the cost/lead and compare it with other lead generating activities in your marketing arsenal. Do benchmarking across your industry and in others if you can.
2. Use better metrics. Implement clear performance metrics for any event you attend. Ensure there is proper follow-up on leads, i.e. don’t just hand the leads to your field sales team after the trade show. Make sure they contact customers and also track the outcomes. This is where having a CRM tool comes in real handy.
3. Don’t settle for average. Skip any show you are not 100% convinced about or which you do not feel you will have a noticeable presence. No sense attending if you will have a mediocre presence, nothing new to say/show, or poor/low staffing support. Even if you have pre-booked your spot for next year’s show! It is better sometimes to lose a 20K deposit than to plough in another 40K and still not meet your target metrics.
4. Take a sabbatical. Consider skipping all shows for one year to see what is the impact on your business. Alternatively you can rotate shows/attendance every year (i.e. attend a show only once every 2 years rather than annually) so that you don’t completely abandon a venue/association.
5. Double down on quality. Consider reducing your congress schedule by half or more but doubling up on key events to maximize impact. See if this approach (quality vs. quantity) yields better results.
6. Experiment with alternative formats and technologies. If you are cutting back on shows, update your marketing plans to indicate how/where you will make up for them and how these new programs will be funded/measured. Experiment with new tools and technologies that can be used to generate leads in the place of trade shows (e.g. Virtual trade shows, webinars, live chats, etc…).
7. Participate without exhibiting. Consider sending marketing team members to congresses as delegates rather than exhibitors. This way they can still meet with other participants while also benefitting from any lectures and presentations. It’s also a great way to collect industry and competitive information.
8. Consider off-site arrangements. Consider booking several hotel suites next to the congress hall where you can receive VIPs and KOLs in a more quiet, comfortable, private (and affordable) setting. You can then downsize your booth and turn it into a gathering/meeting point from which you can escort people to your private lounge or suite. You stay visible and present at the show but you don’t pay the outrageous fees for a larger booth.
9. Organize attendance better. Pre-schedule meetings with your key customers rather than hope to see them at your booth. Make appointments.
10. Re-negotiate with event organizers. Last but not least, reach out to the event show organizers and explain to them your concerns. What do you have to lose? Find out if they are prepared to help you get more out of your attendance. Can they change the format of the event to encourage more quality interactions between delegates and industry? Can they change their fees, schedule, sponsorships, locations or communications to make events easier, more productive or more effective for exhibitors? If they can’t accommodate your needs and concerns, then just move on. At least you gave them a chance to earn/retain your business and now you can close that chapter without regrets.
Got any other ideas, tips or strategies you want to share? Leave a comment!