How to Have a Winning Trade Show Strategy

Trade shows are a great way to promote your business to a targeted and captive audience. They allow you to get in front of a lot of interested prospects at one time. Trade show participants are there with a purpose: to learn and seek out what’s new in their industries. With a little planning these events can be productive networking and revenue generators.



I have been at trade shows where companies set up their booth displays, spread out their trinkets and sit behind their display tables waiting for show attendees to stop by. This passive approach can lead to a tchotchke fest where attendees scoop up as much free stuff as they can with no intent of doing any business with you. If your trade show objective is to give out as many pens, key fobs, zip drives, coffee mugs or other promotional gift items, you can stop reading now. If you are looking for a return on your trade show investment, here are a few recommendations to make your next event a winner.


Develop a Strategy

Trade shows should be a key component in your overall marketing plan because they are an ideal way to showcase your brand and your company. Taking a strategic approach based on carefully selected shows with specific goals, objectives and a budget, allows you to implement a more streamlined and focused effort that puts you in front of the right people and yields a positive return on your investment.


Pick the Right Trade Show

Selecting the right show is the first step to achieving your goals. Across all industries, there are countless trade shows to participate in. The most popular are often the most expensive, so with a limited budget you are challenged to select the show that will give you the best bang for your buck. Use your brand as a filter to decide what show fits best with your business.


It is critical to understand the way that your customers make purchasing decisions, as it will also help you narrow the choices of shows to participate in. Look for shows that decision makers or those that may play a role in the final decision will be in attendance. Realistic goals for your investments in trade shows are to:

  • Build your brand
  • Expand and broaden your audience,
  • Establish, improve and maintain customer relationships


 Build Your Brand

The people representing your company personalize your brand and are crucial in delivering a memorable and engaging experience.  They must be courteous, friendly and knowledgeable. If you have more than one person staffing the booth, take time well before the show to train them on their pitch. Develop a script for them to follow and master to ensure that each of them provides consistent messaging to visitors. Make sure your show employees are “pitch” perfect before you put them in your booth.


It is preferable that your show employees dress in company logo wear, if not they should at least wear similar colors. After all, you want to present the visual of a cohesive team, not a disorganized group. A tricked out booth with all the bells and whistles can certainly draw visitors, however, you must rely on your staff to complete the experience. That interaction will have a major impact on your success.


Booth displays come in all shapes, sizes and configurations, from custom high end modular exhibits to simple table top and pop up displays. Deciding on what’s right for you depends on your show objectives, your brand strategy and your budget. Go for the largest investment your budget can handle, keeping in mind that the more you invest in the show the more you must get out of it as a return.


When selecting a booth location, register early and try to not to have direct competitors near your booth. Early registration may get you better choices for your locations. Select high traffic areas for the most exposure. High traffic areas tend to be near the show entrances and exits, food concessions and major show sponsors.


Promotional gift items (aka tchotchkes, aka trinkets) are an unavoidable necessity at trade shows. However, going for the cheapest items may not be the best thing. Your brand strategy should inform your decisions about promo gift items. Your giveaways should be consistent with your brand promise and image.


Select items that effectively communicate what you stand for. Tying your giveaways to your brand will make a stronger impression on your prospects. Go for the highest quality item that your budget will allow. The more unique the item the better it is for getting people to your booth.


In a previous business life, I worked at a home show where we gave away branded fluorescent colored yardsticks. It was both practical and unique and resulted in several hundred people promoting our brand. It became a mainstay and a signature giveaway for several years.


Expand and Broaden Your Audience

While you can set up your booth and hope for show traffic, there are things you can do before the show to ensure that you will have visitors. Bring your audience with you. It benefits you and the increased show traffic would be viewed favorably by the show/event provider.


Prior to the show/event, try to obtain the list of registered attendees. Some associations make this information available. If it is an annual event, use the list of attendees from previous years. Use that list and your list of customers and prospects to recruit attenders for the current year’s show. Consider mailing to your customer and prospect lists an offer to redeem an enclosed coupon for a “special gift” at the booth or an invitation to a hospitality suite as your special guest.


All company outgoing customer communications in the weeks leading up to the show should promote the fact that you will be there. Give your booth number and invite customers to visit you. You can track the effectiveness of this tactic by telling them to mention a promo code or attaching a coupon for them to bring. It is important to be able to measure the effects of all your trade show tactics.


Customer Relationships

If you want to establish, improve and maintain customer relationships, give some thought to the type of experience you want attenders to have when they interact with you. When participating in a show/event you want to make meaningful contacts, set up future appointments or if at all possible make a sale. Your actions at your booth can determine the visitor experience.


Adopt a “no sitting” policy for your show and event employees. Have them get out from behind the booth and engage with the show attenders by making the first contact and giving people a reason to stop and talk.


Trade shows sometimes include seminars and workshops as part of their daily programs. This is where a business can build their brand and establish itself as a thought leader. Take advantage of any opportunities to make a presentation, sit on a panel, or conduct a workshop. Provide branded reference materials that participants can take with them at the end. You should also videotape your presentations for use as content for your inbound marketing efforts.


Be sure to get a count of the number of attendees. Also, if the show does not do it, you should provide a short survey for attendees to fill out. The feedback can be used to improve the workshops and could help identify future topics. It’s also another way to record the number of people in attendance.


Within 48 hours, follow up with the contacts you made at the event while it is still fresh in their minds. This is a good way to build customer relationships that could lead to sales.


Competitive Intelligence

Take advantage of trade shows to find out what your competitors are doing. Mystery shop your competitors exhibits. Find out what they are offering, how their booth is set up, what giveaways they have, and how big of a presence they have. Listen to their pitch and see how it compares to yours. Which benefits do they highlight? How do they position themselves against their competitors? All of this information can be factored in to future marketing plans.


The Bottom Line

The high cost of participating in trade show requires a strategic and goal oriented approach in order to justify the expense.  By picking the right shows, executing your strategy and measuring results, trade shows can provide a boost to your marketing effort. It’s not about how much free stuff you give away, but how much did you build your brand, expand and broaden your audience, and positively impact customer relationships. These are the metrics that matter when it comes to trade shows.

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