Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Defying the Trade Show Conundrum

Corporate marketing executives often acknowledge their inability to clearly measure the return on investment from their programs. That’s why there is a cliché in the industry that half of the marketing budget wasted. The problem is no one knows which half.

This is especially true when it comes to a company’s participation at a major industry conference or trade show. There are lots of costs, including the purchase of space, development of a booth and signage, marketing and sales collateral materials, and on-site advertising and sponsorships to draw traffic. Then there are the employee-related expenses incurred from travel and hotel, as well as the time to staff the booth.

The budget required for participation at even a modest-sized conference can easily top six figures. Even for such a significant spend, the return often remains fuzzy. Yet, the opportunities for lead generation, networking and branding presented at trade shows make the marketing investment a must-spend for most companies. It is just rare for a majority of an industry to come together in a single location.

This trade show conundrum was top of mind recently when I spent a few days at Access Intelligence’s Satellite 2008 industry conference (http://www.satellitetoday.com/satellite2008/) in Washington, DC. Despite the overall economic softness, providers of satellite technologies, services and products are faring quite well. The number of exhibitors and attendees was up, and the calendar was filled with interesting panel discussions during the day and vendor-sponsored networking events at night.

All of this activity created a challenging environment for an exhibitor to achieve its objectives at the conference, thereby realizing a measurable ROI. I spoke with a number of marketing and sales executives to learn what tactics they employed to make Satellite 2008 a smart investment for their company.

Even at big shows, think small. While a trade show allows a company to reach a broad segment of the market in a single location, it’s critical to personalize messaging for each high-value prospect in attendance. The weeks leading up to the conference present an ideal opportunity for sales executives to contact targets to invite them to visit the booth or, even better, arrange for one-on-one meetings.

At Satellite 2008, Ken Siegel, sales director at satellite services firm Knight Sky, LLC (http://www.knight-sky.com/), booked six prospect and partner meetings at the conference through his pre-show outreach.

View a conference as a platform to make a major announcement. We often tell our privately-held clients that a contract win, product launch or significant executive hire is only news when you choose to announce it. Trade shows present the ideal venue to issue a press release as it’s possible to increase analyst and media interest via in-person meetings.

Give a lot of consideration before deciding on a formal press conference though. Journalists often have meetings throughout the day and just don’t have the bandwidth to attend a group briefing.

Define a plan to qualify booth traffic. I typically take a few hours at every conference I attend to walk the exhibit hall. It gives me a chance to learn about new products and technologies on the market. Rarely am I a qualified prospect though. However, most corporate representatives are content to rattle on for 10 to 15 minutes without asking me a qualifying question, such as “what do you do?”

Exhibitors should train its staff to quickly assess who presents themselves at the booth. Prospects and partners get time and attention. Competitors, wanderers and mouse pad collectors get a brochure.

Be everywhere…without the spend. A number of companies at Satellite 2008 did an exceptional job leveraging partners to increase their own visibility. Thrane & Thrane (http://www.thrane.com/), a satellite terminal manufacturer, invested in their own booth and a hospitality suite. Yet, it was their display of product and demos with distributors that elevated their presence. I counted Thrane terminals showcased in about a half dozen booths.

Promote your corporate thought leaders. Most conferences offer a myriad of speaking and panel opportunities to exhibitors and industry experts. Public relations representatives should be on the phone with the conference organizers months in advance to offer up executives.

There are also typically one or two speakers who cancel at the last minute. Make a call a week before the show to see if you can slot an executive in to a recently opened spot on the conference agenda.

Finally, once a presentation opportunity is secured the prep work is more than pulling together a few Powerpoint slides. Will the conference organizers let a panel discussion be videotaped? It’s worth asking as that content makes for an excellent YouTube video to share with prospects who couldn’t attend the show.


Anonymous said...

Marc, thank you for this analysis and for your comments regarding SATELLITE 2008. I'm glad we got a few minutes to visit. May I use some of your ideas in future editions of the SATELLITE 2009 Downlink newsletter, with appropriate attribution, of course.

All best,

Scott Chase

Marc Hausman said...

@Scott -- great seeing you as well and many congrats on a successful conference. FYI...my article as also picked up by Fast Company and Gooruze, a social community for sales and marketing professionals.

Please feel free to use the content for the Satellite 2009 Downlink and any other promotional activities for next year's show.