5 Pre-Show Marketing Strategies to Improve Exhibit ROI

After 25 years of helping companies with their event strategies and marketing and sales plans for exhibiting or sponsoring, it still baffles me that so many companies do not have a plan before they show up at an industry trade show.  Events are one of the most expensive marketing channels, but can produce some of the best leads and brand awareness for the company if it’s done right.  Yet too often, exhibitors send their marketing and sales teams to the show without defining a clear strategy or executing pre-show marketing campaigns, leaving their team unprepared when attendees come to their booth.

Consider these exhibition industry facts:

  1. The average tradeshow attendee will visit approximately 26 exhibitors.
  2. 76% of attendees arrive with an agenda of exhibitors they plan to visit.
  3. As many as 3 out of 4 exhibit visits are preplanned.
  4. Less than 20% of exhibitors utilize targeted pre-show marketing campaigns.

(Source:  High-Impact Pre-Show Marketing, Jefferson Davis, Competitive Edge)

Your company can gain a huge competitive advantage over your competition just by developing and executing an effective pre-show marketing program to ensure the right attendees visit your booth.  Here are 5 key things to consider when developing your exhibit strategy: and pre-show campaigns.

1. Assess your exhibit strategies and results from previous years.   Doing the same thing every year and expecting different results is the definition of insanity.  Review what worked, what didn’t and brainstorm new ideas.  Think about the type of buyers that will be at the show and who you want visiting your booth.  What will draw their interest to your exhibit?  What will your sales team say when they come to your booth?  How will you capture the lead and what questions should you ask to qualify them?  What is the sales plan for lead follow up?  All of these questions and others should be answered before you get to the show so you can maximize your exhibit results.

We recently supported an RV sales and rental company that were exhibiting in a consumer RV show and did not have a strategy to capture leads from the show.  We developed an exhibit strategy and a sweepstakes campaign, “An Adventure of a Lifetime,” for a free weekend RV rental by completing an entry form with their contact information.  We recommended they exhibit at another travel event (the same weekend as the RV show), and because we knew the trade show organizer, we secured a front row position for their RV on the show floor.  Marketing materials were created that conveyed the benefits of renting an RV for the attendees’ next vacation.  The company was a big hit at both events, generating thousands of consumer leads for sales follow up and great brand awareness for the company.

2. Define your sales and enterprise goals.  Determine realistic lead and conversion goals as well as other enterprise objectives you want to achieve at the event, such as improve media awareness and editorial coverage, improve thought leadership, identify new partners, conduct competitive research, etc.  Then, develop strategies and campaigns to achieve them.

I worked with a large medical device company on their exhibit strategy for the leading trade show for surgeons.  I discovered quickly that sales and marketing were not aligned and the teams were pointing fingers at each other because of poor event ROI performance.  A meeting was called with the regional sales leaders and marketing to discuss leads and how to better qualify them.  When I asked the sales team what they considered a “qualified lead” you could hear a pin drop in the room.  The sales meeting turned into a facilitated strategy discussion and eventually, a ‘qualified lead’ was defined so marketing could better support sales by capturing critical data  from attendees needed for sales follow up.  That year, the company had their best exhibit results; generating many more highly qualified leads for sales with the right data for efficient sales follow up.

3. Develop sales messaging that demonstrates your company’s value.   Attendees hear the same thing as they pass by exhibitor booths– sales pitches about what the company does, the features of their software, or how they know they can help the attendee because they are the experts.  Make sure your sales team is prepared and trained to discuss the challenges and issues facing the attendees and how your company can solve them.  It can change the conversation into an engaging discussion versus the attendee grabbing your giveaway and quickly moving on to the next booth.

4. Be creative.  Business professionals are bombarded by sales calls and marketing campaigns all day long.  So, how can your company break through all the clutter?  Be creative and do something unique and different at the show to stand out from the crowd.  I don’t mean setting up a putting green at the booth – that can be an attendee draw to your booth, but it doesn’t get your product or solution message and value across to the attendee (unless your company is a golf equipment manufacturer).   Make sure the campaign messaging, signage, and marketing material is consistent and reinforces your company’s value.

For example, I developed an exhibit marketing program for a government contractor specializing in financial management solutions for the Department of Defense.  They were exhibiting in a military financial association trade show reaching DoD financial managers.  Instead of showing up in a booth with a capability statement like every other exhibitor at the event, we created a character called a FMja (a ninja for financial management or Financial Management Warrior).  We knew this character would resonate with our audience of military professionals.  One of the company’s financial managers was an incredible artist who created the FMja character, which I brought to life by creating the FMja persona and exhibit marketing program centered on helping DoD financial managers to improve their organization’s financial performance by achieving FMja status (much like a black belt in karate).

I develop the exhibit strategy months ahead of the event, including the lead goals and expected contract results, as well as sales messaging, booth signage, marketing materials, and a premium giveaway (microfiber cloth to clean glasses) all with the FMja theme.  Messaging included the challenges faced by DoD financial managers and demonstrated how the company could help them overcome their issues and achieve their goals of better financial performance.  I also arranged a networking happy hour with the FMja theme immediately after the first day of the show at a local landmark with views of the entire city of Seattle.   In addition, I found a ninja costume that we customized and I hired a local person to appear as the FMja at the show.   I developed pre-show campaigns to reach financial managers (emailing our prospect list and pre-registered attendees), inviting them to the booth and networking event.

Not only was the show a huge success for the company, generating tremendous traffic at our booth (sometimes two and three people deep to talk to the company’s financial management experts) and hundreds of highly qualified leads for our sales team, our company was the ‘hit’ of the show and the buzz among attendees was all about our FMja warrior and networking event.  Attendees took pictures with our FMja and he led them back to the booth to talk to our team.  We had so many attendees come to the booth asking for a ‘ticket’ to our networking event that we ran out of tickets.  We generated three times the number of expected leads, we reached capacity at the networking event, and our sales team converted over a $1M in new contracts for the company within nine months.

Use all marketing channels for your pre-show campaigns.  Make sure you use every marketing channel to promote your presence at the event, including updating your website home page and news section that you will be at the show and your campaign theme, create posts for your social media sites, develop email, print, and PR campaigns, and create booth signage and onsite programs with integrated messaging.  Campaigns should be targeted by job function and role, with effective messaging and a strong call-to-action to drive attendees to your booth.  Contact the event organizer to see if you can market to the pre-registered attendee list via email or direct mail along with your prospects.  This is a great opportunity to reach all your prospects even though they may not attend the trade show to let them know what you are doing.   Find out what publications will be there and contact them ahead of time to discuss your news and announcements.

If you follow these pre-show marketing tips, your company can have a much better exhibit ROI and convert leads to sales faster.  Stay tuned for onsite programs that can help you drive attendees to your booth, build better brand awareness, and achieve enterprise objectives.