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B2B conferences and trade shows once consisted of cookie-cutter booth constructions and sales demos but they have evolved into major opportunities to generate leads and make lasting brand impressions on attendees. From offering a place for attendees to charge up their devices (and charge up on caffeine), attend exclusive after parties, or take a picture in a photo booth for some free swag, events now offer B2B marketers the chance to really treat their event audience like consumers, and earn face time with potential prospects that they’d otherwise need to wait weeks or months to get in touch with online.

In 2017, we aimed to maximize engagement through our sponsorship of MarketingProfs’ B2B Marketing Forum. We developed a theme around a simple call to action: “What happens when you leave your marketing to chance?” and placed a Plinko puck in the attendees’ conference bags with an invitation to visit our booth and play Plinko, a popular game of chance. No software demo, no sales gimmick, just a low-risk opportunity for attendees to meet with us, win prizes, and have some fun along the way.

We also gave away our integrated B2B Marketing Strategy template for free, which encouraged attendees to architect their marketing strategies based on revenue goals and the needs of their audience, rather than chance.

What felt like a big branding risk ended up generating a crowd of potential prospects around our booth, a couple hundred new leads, and post-event praise as “the hit of the show.” This year, we’re returning to the B2B Marketing Forum as the platinum sponsor, which means the stakes are higher and we’re on the hook to one-up ourselves with a new experience.

We’re looking back at what made our 2017 sponsorship a success and sharing some key planning tips to help you make the most of your next event or sponsorship.

Start with a simple question: why should attendees really come to our booth?

For many B2B tech companies, event sponsorships help them achieve three goals: build brand awareness, showcase products or solutions, and generate leads.

And while a physical booth space can help marketers break down the typical barriers they experience when engaging with prospects online, an in-person event is a completely different marketing channel, and event attendees are still on a buying journey—one where they may not be aware of your brand or solution, may not be the right person to influence a decision, or aren’t ready to talk to a sales person.

And yet, a large majority of today’s booth experiences are built to mimic that of a digital landing page, where attendees of any buying stage are asked to hand over contact information via a badge scan in exchange for a free giveaway or software demo, followed by an awkward conversation with a sales person.

When this type of transaction is the expectation, attendees begin wandering the expo hall with an increased perception of risk. Having lost the power to digitally window shop for solutions behind the safety of a private browser, their desire to engage with an exhibitor or sponsor is outweighed by what they’ll need to give up in return.

This simple, seemingly obvious idea—that the event experience should be built to serve the audience, and in turn, meet our own goals—was what really shaped our strategy for last year’s B2B Marketing Forum. We saw an opportunity to flip the traditional sales-oriented event script so that our audience would visit us without pressure, get something in return for doing so, and help us build excitement with other attendees at the event.

“The difference between you and the rest of the sponsors is that you made this about your audience, not yourselves.”
2017 B2B Marketing Forum Attendee

When you and your team are trying to answer the question of why attendees should visit your booth, think about your conference audience just like you think about your buyer personas. What do I know about the accounts and prospects attending the event? How can we help them solve their challenges without pressuring them to buy? Where does this event fit into their journey?

Put yourself in the shoes of the attendees to really understand what they need and want from a conference—not to mention how you’ll get their attention in a room full of exhibitors—and create an experience that balances their time and interest with your goals for the event.

Land(ing) the event experience

Once you have a strong enough reason for your audience to engage with you at the event—one that may initially offer the audience more return than you originally planned—you need to bring the experience to life.

And if we revisit the analogy of the expo hall being a room full of of real-live landing pages (which is a scary thought), then you’ll need to build the most attractive, user-friendly, and conversion-optimized landing page experience you’ve ever built.

But the key word here is experience, which means thinking bigger, brighter, and louder than your typical “landing page” to create something that will sell itself—rather than just your product or solution—to the audience at the event.

We can’t give you all the answers here so we’ll give you some of our own examples from last year and a simple place to start: the human senses.

  • What attendees hear: You might assume that the expo hall will be loud, with hundreds, maybe thousands of attendees walking around, but that’s even more reason to create a sound to help your booth stand out from the rest. And that doesn’t mean loud and obnoxious music that will make conversations difficult. For us, the sound of the Plinko pucks dropping down the Plinko board were enough to capture initial attention spans, and the roar of the crowd whenever someone won a prize helped us organically spread awareness with attendees.
  • What attendees touch: This is where creating the experience can get really fun, from setting up your booth as a place for attendees to hang out between sessions, to perhaps even getting attendees to help construct a part of your booth—such as a puzzle wall or data visualization. In 2017, the Plinko pucks given to attendees not only offered a physical connection to our booth, but it put the rest of the booth experience in the hands of the attendees.
  • What attendees taste and smell: Tread carefully here. This is the one sense that has the potential to really make an impact … or go horribly wrong. Coffee, cocktails, or some popcorn in the booth? Maybe. Food, drink, and scents that could potentially spark an allergic reaction or stink up the rest of the expo hall? Not so great. (Full disclosure: we almost built a craft beer bar in our booth last year, but nixed the idea for one other reason to keep in mind here—the cost.)
  • What attendees see: More than just the design of your booth, this is where the rest of the senses really come together to create a vision for your experience. Does your booth look inviting? What will attendees see when they’re scoping it out? Will they see a line of people waiting to get into your booth—and if so, is that good or bad? Demand to play Plinko at the Yesler booth last year led to a line snaking around our booth and a growing crowd for giveaways, which in turn inspired the rest of the audience to find out what the hype was all about.

Do you have this event in the bag? (No, really.)

Think back to your last experience at a conference and what you remember most. Was it the best practices and tools you learned from top influencers and sessions? The new connection requests you received on LinkedIn? The after party?

What did you really bring home? (Hint: We’re talking about the swag.)

The backpacks. The tchotchkes. The endless supply of branded keychains, pens, sunglasses, device chargers, and water bottles—enough to set up your own merch table at the end of the year.

It’s probably a good idea to stock your booth with some generic swag, because attendees will ask for it. But what if you could give them something that they weren’t expecting? Something that would require them to take one more step with your brand or solution after the event? Or even better, something they would start stealing from other attendees?

“Would it be wrong if I went digging through other attendees’ bags for their Plinko pucks?”
2017 B2B Marketing Forum Attendee

Your options for swag and giveaways may be endless, but how you choose to use merchandise could make a big difference in the level of engagement you see from attendees.

The Plinko pucks that we put in every conference bag at the 2017 event were not only an unexpected, dimensional item that stood out among the items from other sponsors, they also served as a “ticket” of sorts that attendees had to bring back to us to receive something else—the chance to win a larger prize, and a pair of marketing strategy dice to serve as a reminder to take an integrated approach to their marketing efforts, not a tactical one.

Swag, bag inserts, and giveaways are your opportunity to reinvent the transaction that attendees expect from sponsors and exhibitors. Give them something that offers more ren than they expect, and you may see the same for your company at the event.

Don’t drop the ball.

There’s much more that goes into building an event strategy than what we’ve covered here, but if there’s one tip to take away from this post, it’s that a tactical, piecemeal approach to event planning won’t get the job done—for you, or for your audience. Use physical events to make a lasting impact on your audience of brand advocates, partners, prospects, and customers.