"Sit in the audience and listen to them describe their strategy, what products and services they use and in what direction their enterprise is moving. Learn what trends are happening in their industry and how they plan on responding. It can be amazing. You'll never learn more about what’s happening in an enterprise than you will in these sessions."
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I’ve attended and worked many trade shows over the years, as a business owner, a general manager and as a division manager. Just about every show can be productive if your expectations are in line with reality, you plan a bit in advance and you have a solid approach. Below are some techniques to get the best return on your investment no matter what trade show you attend.
Driving Traffic to Your Booth
Driving traffic to your booth before the show is a simple technique but often under-valued. The idea is that you want maximize the number of prospects you talk to, to create excitement that will draw in other prospects to your booth and give your sales team a chance to close any business that has been “dangling”. Having current happy clients mingling with future clients can also be very productive.
So start by inviting all of your clients, anyone you have ever presented to, leads, prospects, friends of your firm and colleagues in related businesses, to stop by your booth (provide the booth number). Explain that you will have the latest information on your product or service and will be offering some element of your service for free (I prefer this as you will get people who want your service but want a deal, rather than people who just want a free iPad). If your company will be presenting in a break-out session, panel discussion or keynote address, make sure you include that information as well.
If you have or can get last year’s attendee list there’s a good chance most of them will attend again this year. It's the same with exhibitor lists (if they can be prospects for your business). If the list does not have contact information, the names and contact information can be found using an online company database like Data.com or one of the free ones (try your local library). This takes a bit of time and energy but it’s well worth it, since the list can be updated every year and used again and again. When we provide this service, if we don't have a specific name to search for, we try to match on the most appropriate title. Remember to take out competitors and other non-buying names.
Email everyone on your list, providing your booth number, inviting them to stop by and providing information on what you are giving away and your breakout session (time, location, title, speaker). Provide the same information to your social media connections on LinkedIn and Facebook.
When we’re promoting an event for a client, we go a step further. We try to reach individual attendees by phone, requesting that they meet with our client on a specific date and time at the booth. Since trade shows often have uncertain schedules, we ask for the person’s cell phone number so that our client can reach them during the show to firm up the time and location. Those who provide their cell phone number are generally serious prospects.
Making Meals Productive
Trade shows offer terrific networking opportunities. You’ll want to try to meet several prospects at every meal. At the same time, you don’t want to appear overly aggressive or desperate. Remember, anyone can make everyone around them feel uncomfortable. The skill is in meeting people in a smooth and transparent manner.
First, attend all the meals, especially breakfast. Even people who skip meals like to have coffee (or something) so make sure you’re there on time. I like get there early and sit at a table that’s empty. As people approach or sit, I immediately say “Good morning, I’m Jerry” and offer to shake hands in a low key, friendly manner. After they shake I slide them my business card. If they don’t offer one back, I don’t immediately force the issue. There’s no sense in pushing if he or she is not a prospect.
So have a little small talk ready (the weather, sports, current events) that anyone would be able to relate to. It’s always useful to know where someone’s from and what company they work for, so ask them. It’s also a qualifying step but more on that later. Since I’m now having a friendly conversation with the person at my table, more people will usually approach. I’ll briefly interrupt my conversation to say good morning, offer my hand, slide them my card. Usually at least one person will offer their card in return and that can trigger a general exchange of cards, even with the people who were reticent.
When the table is mostly full, in your mind you should start to separate the individuals into categories. Are they a prospect, referrer or an information source?
If they are in the right role, in the right kind company, in the right geography, they are a prospect. You’ll want to engage in a meaningful way with all prospects at the table. Open ended questions are a good way to do this, for example “How are you involved in (product/service) for your company?” You can also ask if they’re familiar with your firm and then take the opportunity to tell them a little. Don’t take too much of their time and try to get them to accept an "advance", for example have them agree to speak by phone in the weeks after the show. Make sure you connect with all prospects (if you can) before moving on to referrers and information sources.
If they are the right kind of company but not the right role or geography, they are a referrer. You’ll want to give them enough information about your offering to help them understand who the best contact would be. Then ask for a name. One of the advantages is they may only know the name of the person in charge of your area of interest so you will be getting a high level contact. You'll also have the name of the referrer to help you get their attention.
If they are not a potential buyer but they are in a related business that also calls on prospects in your space, they could be referrer but more importantly, they can be an information source (this is especially helpful if you are new in the space). They may know the best industry groups, trade shows and have many contacts that could prove useful. As a referrer, they will need to be cultivated over time since they will be protective of their clients. You’ll want to get them to agree to talk after the show to discuss how you might help each other moving forward.
Once you've done what you can with that table, excuse yourself and make your way to another table unobtrusively. Then start the whole process again.
Prospecting Booth to Booth
If your product or service is likely to be purchased by people working in the exhibitor booths (business owners, CEO/President, VP Sales, VP Marketing of small and medium sized businesses), then it makes sense to visit each booth, dropping a card off and taking the card of the potential buyer. Some of them will contact you after the show but that's fine. Be sensitive to the fact that they are trying to make sales for their own company so don't tie them up talking about your offerings when their booth is busy. During a lull, it's fine to take a moment to introduce yourself and tell them you'll follow up after the show.
Break out sessions are terrific for meeting top executives in large enterprises. They're good for meeting people in other top roles too. Here’s how to go about it.
When you get to a trade show, the first thing you should do is sit down with the show program and a pen. Review all of the break-out sessions, panel discussions, seminars and keynote addresses looking for speakers who are potential buyers of your products or services. These could be people who are the CIO, VP HR, VP Marketing or CFO in companies like Fidelity, Bank of America or Exxon (prospects who have tremendous authority but are virtually inaccessible).
Go to their session. Sit in the audience and listen to them describe their strategy, what products and services they use and in what direction their enterprise is moving. Learn what trends are happening in their industry and how they plan on responding. It can be amazing. You'll never learn more about what’s happening in an enterprise than you will in these sessions.
At the end of the session, when everyone else is walking to the rear, walk to the front of the room. The speaker will be in a good mood since their presentation is finished and presumably went well. Introduce yourself and tell them that you really enjoyed their presentation. Hand them your card and ask if they would mind sending you a copy of the slides. Often they’ll look at your card and ask what you do, giving you the opportunity to engage for a moment. If they don’t offer a card, politely ask them for one so that you can email them about the presentation. If necessary, jot down their email address on the back of one of your cards. After the show, wait a week then email them, restating that you enjoyed their presentation and asking for a copy of the slides. Once you have them, wait another 3 weeks and email them asking if they would be interested in taking a closer look at your products and services. Be prepared to receive a referral since the the evaluation may actually begin at a lower level in the organization. With the top executive's endorsement, you should be able to parlay that into a meeting.
After the Show
There a few schools of thought on the best way to handle post show follow-up. Cherry picking the top handful of prospects and putting the rest in a drawer are not among them. But that's what many companies do. So, to quote a good friend of mine, "Do something, even if it's wrong!" This is another way of saying doing something is better than doing nothing, even if it's not perfect. So do something!
The challenge is that within 4-5 days of the end of the show, everyone who has a plan for following up will do so. All at once. The prospects will be inundated and it will be difficult to get their attention. So ideally, try to come up with a way to get the leads into your system during the show. That way you can start contacting them via email immediately, while they're still at the show. If you are getting the leads electronically, it's pretty simple but there are other ways. We use a little Cardscan device to scan business cards as we get them. This will give you a jump of the rest of the exhibitors.
You can also use social media to connect with prospects and that has the benefit of being almost immediate. For example, if you meet someone and exchange cards, using a smartphone, as you walk away, you can invite them to connect using LinkedIn.
Finally, any leads collected need to be contacted at least 6-12 times over the next year, in a sort of email drip marketing campaign. When they start clicking through your links and completing forms on your website requesting more information, they're ready to be contacted by your sales team.