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Improve Your RTS (Return on Trade Show) With These 10 Important Tips

Return on Trade Show Investment

Update 5/6/2015 – you can now download an update of this article and a 24-page tradeshow planner free when you sign up for our email list.


I’ve worked a lot of trade shows. Until 2007, I exhibited at 3-4 major trade events per year for 30 years, most of them for at least a week each. I’ve worked trade shows in the apparel, electronics, publishing, video, and jewelry industries. Since 2007 I’ve worked just as many trade shows, but it’s been on the other side of the exhibit – walking aisles, watching exhibitors, and finding new sources. All that time, measured in foot-years, has given me important insights about what to expect from and how to work a trade show. I teach these concepts a few times a year in seminars, but here are a few of the main take-aways for those of you frantically preparing for the next event.

Is there a Return on Investment for Trade Shows?

Yes, but to be successful you need to understand what trade shows are good at.

Tradeshows are good at providing exhibitors with qualified leads. That is the trade show’s most important function.

The second most important function of trade shows is to create a personal connection between a company and its qualified leads. This personal connection provides a more tangible foundation for marketing and sales follow-up.

The third most important function of trade shows is on-site sales.

That third bullet may surprise you. Most exhibitors measure their trade-show success by at-show sales. Some of you remember to add on immediately-after-the-show sales as a success metric. But trade shows aren’t always a great place to engage in the sales cycle – particularly if your sales cycle requires a certain amount of trust-building, which takes time.

Remember that the primary goal of buyers at trade shows is to take in as much information as they possibly can in a condensed time-frame. The larger the show, the greater the pressure to keep moving. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to make appointments and sit down and write orders. It just means that there is even more value to be had at trade shows if you know how to work them. Here are 10 important pointers for how to get even more out of your trade show experience.

  1. Set lead goals and daily targets. You probably already set sales goals, so I don’t need to tell you that. But have you set lead goals? Have you identified how many new potential customers you want to make even brief contact with, contact sufficient to yield their contact information for future marketing efforts? Head into every trade show with a lead goal. Make it a contest among your staff and award a prize to the person who captures the most qualified leads. Have a tracking system in place, and measure your lead-collecting success each day relative to your goal.
  2. Be more focused in your pre-show and at-show promotions. Many companies offer a small gift to everyone who comes by their booth. Consider shifting some of that budget to a special gift available only to your most valuable prospects and buyers. Let them know that you have a gift for them, tell them what it is, and make sure they know they must visit your booth to receive it. Even if you only spend a few minutes with each customer and prospect on your high-value list, those few minutes will reinforce your face, your brand image, and your relationship in that person’s mind.
  3. Be specific in your information gathering. Do you know which customer information helps you most when trying to sell to them later? If you don’t, think about it now! If you’ve taken my strategy course you already know about the Critical Customer Questions that matter to your brand. If you don’t, here’s a quick exercise: Identify the characteristics that are common among your top 20% performing customers. Are they in particular geographic zones? Do they serve particular types of customers? Do they share similar needs? Once you identify those characteristics, frame questions around them. These are the questions you should slip into conversation with your trade show visitors. This will help you separate the cool leads from the hot ones. (If you want to know more about qualifying and approaching customers, buy my video on Mastering the Sales Cycle).
  4. Be interested! Start by asking questions rather than immediately showing your product. Draw customers in by showing interest in them. Not only will you have a greater impact on your visitors, but you will also be able to quickly identify those who are not viable leads.
  5. Be interesting! Unlike other marketing media, trade shows offer you a face-to-face experience with prospects. Learn to use this to your advantage! Consider offering demonstrations, experiences, stories, or other captivating elements that will engage the senses and draw your prospects in. Standing there and smiling is lovely, but rarely sufficient.
  6. Work on your trade show skills. The most successful lead-gatherers at trade shows are the most sophisticated sales people. This doesn’t happen by accident – it takes practice. Prepare in advance the types of open-ended questions most likely to engage a walk-by or to keep a visitor in conversation for a few moments longer. Commit your line details and your prices to memory (make sure your show staff is equally trained). Role-playing builds muscle memory, and you want even your fist hour to be productive. Practice your trade show sales technique with a friend before the show to hit the ground running. Trade show success requires that you be able to gather information quickly and effectively, so do your trade show training.
  7. Master Trade Show Graphics. I walk several jewelry shows each year and every booth features pictures of . . . wait for it . . . jewelry. Well, yes, of course you sell jewelry. You’re at a jewelry show. While some jewelry is clearly more differentiated than others, product pictures alone are insufficient to draw trade show attention. Trade show attendees are notorious for glazing over quickly. Make sure your trade show graphics include a few critical bullet points of information, or a question, or a statement; anything that quickly and clearly spells out your differentiation. Use your booth space as a marketing vehicle, not as a decoration.
  8. Manage your image. Standing, smiling, out front when possible, greeting, and gathering are important trade show behaviors. In all my years of working trade shows from inside the booth I had one rule: No booth staff sits. Ever. Is it difficult? Yes, it’s definitely difficult. Is it worth it? Yes, for both the booth staff and the customers. Trade show days are long and even physically painful. If you have ever sat down at 2:30 in the afternoon – with three-and-a-half hours to go before the end of the day – you know that your energy crashes the moment you sit. This means the rest of the day is even more painful for you, and you lose energetic engagement with the customers during those last hours. You probably spent a lot of money to be at that show. Don’t sit down 20 feet from the finish line.
  9. Have a data plan. You need tools – either at the booth or at your office – for managing the data you gather. Think about them ahead of time. Customer ran out of business cards? Snap a picture of their last one. Snap a picture of a badge and compare it later to the attendee report the show provides. Even better, snap these images in Evernote, where you can also add notes about your conversation or observations. Best – make voice notes in Evernote throughout the day. It’s faster than typing, you can keep your eyes out on the attendees, you’ll have less risk of forgetting an important insight, and you’ll have a treasure-trove of valuable data to mine when you return to your office.
  10. Analyze your leads every night. Do this before you head out for dinner and drinks. Why? Because by tomorrow morning you’ll have forgotten all those conversations. It’s best to do this throughout the day – making notes about people you spoke with, their answers to your questions, and your observations about the interaction. But in addition to real-time note taking (and sometimes we know that’s just impossible), go over your lists of leads each evening and make any additional notes you can remember. You won’t remember everything, but you’ll have a lot better data than if you skipped this step.

When you return home from your trade event, begin the follow-up activity immediately. Sort your leads into ‘hot’, ‘warm’, and ‘cold’ categories. Schedule time in the next week to call the hot leads. Put the cold leads into your marketing database for some priming before you try pursuing those sales more actively.

If you follow these steps, you’ll see your RTS metric (return-on-trade-show) increase dramatically. And that’s good, because after aging eight or nine foot-years in a single week, you deserve the success.

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2 Responses to Improve Your RTS (Return on Trade Show) With These 10 Important Tips

  1. Kirsty says:

    Some of the most successful exhibitors I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know make the most of the in-person interaction at a trade show and use this to create unique, powerful lead generation and product marketing opportunities.

    For example being able to sit down with an advisor to discuss something for free (such as “free marketing audit” or a “free exercise session” or whatever. This type of opportunity can be a great way to rapidly build rapport with individuals and rapidly move them down the sales path.

  2. Kevin Davis says:

    Very well written article. I’ve also seen businesses measure their success by product sold but do a poor job of getting leads. The key though is that follow up that you mentioned, contact them while that relationship is still top of mind.

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