Last week, I attended a major technology conference on behalf of a B2B software client. My assignment was to gauge the marketplace, understand the key trends, research what competitors are doing, and gain insight from prospects and partners. In prior jobs I’ve spent hundreds (maybe thousands!) of hours at industry conferences, and it was good to be back in the saddle (so to speak). It was interesting to note how things have changed—and the many ways they have stayed the same. Here are a few observations.
What is the same:
- Booth giveaways can still attract an audience. Almost every vendor at the show I attended had a giveaway offer of some type. More often than not, the drawing was for something like an Apple iPad Mini or smartphone.
- Differentiation is still a challenge. Trust me on this one. In a sea of vendors selling similar solutions, it is tough to stand out from the crowd. Your competitors also went to marketing school and some have large budgets to come up with clever, wide-bore campaigns. This is not to say that you can’t be unique, but you may have to do this with a strong offer and flawless execution.
- Booth staff is still untrained. There are exceptions, of course, but many exhibitors send staff members that are unqualified and inexperienced in the art of attracting visitors to the booth and converting them into legitimate prospects.
- People still love a good demo. Prospects (especially the qualified ones) like to touch the merchandise, and the closest they can come with a software company is to see a live demo. Personnel who can customize quality demos on the fly are invaluable, and the job of the other folks at your booth should be to make sure the demo person stays busy!
- Pre-show and post-show promotion is still critical. Your goal should be to develop and communicate an offer and creative theme that is compelling enough to draws tons of people to your display. Follow-up is equally important. Eight days after returning from my conference, I have been contacted by only two exhibitors, despite the fact I registered at over 10 booths. This is pathetic performance. Don’t waste your money and time on trade show event marketing if you can’t follow up quickly and professionally.
What is different:
- Quality is better. Unlike the old days of sending a large staff to an attractive conference locale, most of today’s attendees seem to be quite serious about their mission. In other words, they are influencers and decision makers, not just tire kickers.
- Prospects are smarter. A large percentage of attendees have done a bit of pre-conference online research, perhaps at your website. They may be familiar with the feature sets of leading vendors. Also, their questions tend to be tougher and more perceptive, and they are less prone to accept canned or shallow answers. This is good news for the well-prepared exhibitor and not such good news for those who are ill-prepared.
- Less emphasis on the social aspects. Adding to my earlier point about the seriousness of today’s show attendees, there is more of a business focus as opposed to a party atmosphere.
- Technology is everywhere. From laptops to pads to smartphones, technology is a ubiquitous part of the modern trade show. Attendees use technology to capture relevant information and to connect with each other through social media. It is not unusual to accept someone as a LinkedIn connection five minutes after meeting them.
- ROI is crucial. Trade show marketing used to be one of those things you did because everyone else was doing it, and of course you had to show up if your competitors were going to be there. There is still some of this attitude, but more executives these days want to know more about the show metrics in terms of touches, leads, and qualified prospects, and less about what a great time their staff had.
That’s my quick synopsis of the differences and similarities of trade show marketing over the past couple of decades. My final admonition is that if you are going to practice event marketing, you might as well do it right.