How to profitably generate leads and sales from trade shows

Updated: July 26, 2009

Trade shows represent the marketing channel sales & marketing people everywhere love to hate. High costs, LOTS of time (before and during the event), typically followed by less-than-exciting leads and few converted sales.

But as much as I also typically shy away from trade shows as a front-line marketing channel for demand generation, they do have their place in delivering solid, profitable revenue. You just have to get a few things right. This list is by no means exhaustive, but it's a start in the right direction.

  • Pre-show expectations: First and foremost, make sure you understand what trade shows can do, and what they likely cannot do. Trade shows are busy, attendees are scattered and flustered on the show floor, so having a lot of high-quality conversations that lead to short-term revenue isn't likely the expectation you want to set. Fast deals are bluebirds, with the majority of attendees earlier in the buying cycle which means a longer lead time to being ready for your sales pipeline. Most trade show revenue, therefore, will be long term. Go into the show with that mindset and you're already a step ahead.
  • Establish & estimate required ROI: Before going any further, do the napkin math to make sure your fully-burdened spend (including out-of-pocket budget, travel costs, as well as the opportunity cost of the team's time) is worth the expected sales. Know up front, before the show is green-lighted, whether it has a chance of being a profitable effort, ideally with an expectation of exactly how many sales need to come directly from attendees. More often than not, this ROI will either keep you from wasting further time on a show that's destined to be a failure, or at minimum will give you guidance on the investment and strategy required to make it a success.
  • Pre-show buzz and "appointments": Get a copy of the attendee list if possible, and give expected booth visitors ? before they're inundated with messages at the show ? a reason to stop by. This is where knowing your audience and their pain points well can make it easy to map that knowledge to an offer or message that prioritizes a trip to your booth over others. If they plan for it, they're more likely to not only stop by but invest a little more time in your presentation.
  • How you approach prospects: At the show itself, how do you engage traffic? How do you get browsers to break their gait, pause in front of your booth, and engage with your staff? The answer is likely not a cheap giveaway or in-booth game. What message or offer can your booth staff deliver in three seconds or less to a passing attendee that will get at least 50% of them to stop? It's likely something related to your value proposition ? a sample, a no-risk trial, or even a challenge. These types of offers will likely generate the most visitors and better prospects.
  • After-show follow-up: Sadly, this step is ignored, forgotten or just plain dropped by many sales and marketing teams. But it's arguably the most important step of all. You've just invested a significant amount of time and money to capture sales leads early in their purchase cycle. At the show itself, they were overwhelmed with messages. And few of the other exhibitors will do anything coordinated to follow up. Think in advance, before you attend the show, what you want your follow-up to look like. Whether it's all from marketing, or combined with some sales team follow-up directly, plan for this in advance so your team can hit the ground running as soon as the show is over. Even if you decide to give attendees a day or two to get home first, having this done beforehand will ensure the plan is well executed and measured.
  • Nurture nurture nurture: Knowing these leads are early in their buying cycle, make sure they are added to your broader lead nurturing efforts. If you don't have one, come up with a plan that ?touches? these leads on a regular basis with relevant information, messaging and offers to ensure you stay top of mind well after the show. If you made a good first impression at the booth, that's a great start. If you fail to follow up and build momentum on that early start after the show, your expected ROI will fall as well.
  • Track results regularly and long-term: If you know going in that collected leads will likely take longer to close, you're less likely to deem the event a failure after just 30 days of follow-up. But no matter how long your sales cycle, measuring conversion and close results from collected leads is critical. If you're a Salesforce.com user, putting all collected leads into a unique Campaign is your best choice. But no matter what you use, have the patience and discipline to watch conversion over time.
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