As an exhibit manager with 20-plus years of experience, I think we could all learn something from this plucky little combatant. Far too often, the Davids of our industry ‐ those of us with small booths, tiny budgets, and/or minimal product or company recognition ‐ use our diminutive stature as an excuse for poor performance. Now don’t get me wrong. I’ve worked for both David- and Goliath-sized firms (including leviathans like Steelcase Inc. and smaller companies, such as my current employer, Iatric Systems Inc.), and life is generally easier with a fat wallet than a flat one. But exhibit-marketing success has less to do with size and more to do with your ability to select the right tools, critically consider your targets, and deliver smart, deliberate marketing strikes. Or at least that’s what has helped me keep my small but mighty programs going strong.
So to offer a helping hand to the little guys, here’s my down-and-dirty guide to giant slaying.
Get in the Game
It likely goes without saying, but small exhibitors need to ensure that every dollar spent makes an impact and that no part of the budget is improperly allocated. After all, a 10-percent budget cut to a small program could spell its doom, whereas a similar reduction to a large-budget endeavor might feel more like a pinch. What’s more, unlike many big-budget firms, you can’t throw money at a trade show and see what sticks. You have to get it right the first time, or there might not be a next time. That means exhibiting at the right shows, earmarking your investments wisely, and taking corporate objectives into careful consideration.
These critical budget- and strategy-related decisions, then, are made in corporate meeting rooms, not on the show floor. So if you want your petite program to thrive, you have to get yourself in the game. That is, you need to hold decision-making power, or at least wield significant influence, and to accomplish that you should be the firm’s go-to person for all things trade shows ‐ and, if possible, all things marketing. If you’re already exercising this prowess, hats off to you. But if decision-making power is currently beyond your grasp, it’s time to squeeze in your chair at the table.
To that end, you must arm yourself with critical data, which will be useful now and as you take further steps to improve your program. So first develop a thorough understanding of your company’s strategies, including product development, market aspirations, competitive differentiators, sales cycles and challenges, etc. Then take a deep mental dive to determine exactly who your customers are, what they want, and what type of history your firm has established with them.
Next, analyze the costs, demographics, presence of buying power, ancillary opportunities, etc. of the shows at which you’re exhibiting and the events you might want to attend in the future. One of the best ways to do this is through an annual report of sorts. For each show on last year’s calendar, track your deliverables, including everything from leads and sales to awareness and press mentions, and don’t forget time spent with attendees (both on the show floor and off), perception changes (as evidenced by surveys), costs saved compared to in-field sales calls, brand reinforcement, strengthened partner relationships, employee recruitment, and on and on. Then do a cost analysis to show how your budget is being allocated, and start to make some projections as to where you might want to adjust those allocations to better meet your corporate objectives. Finally, consider whether trade shows in general ‐ as opposed to corporate events, road shows, one-on-one client meetings, etc. ‐ are the right marketing medium to reach your strategic goals.
Armed with this info, then, find a way to strategically present your findings (either as a whole or piecemeal over various meetings), along with a few of your allocation recommendations, to your company’s internal stakeholders. Over time, if not immediately, this approach will help establish you as the company’s exhibit-marketing expert while giving you the data necessary to improve your program going forward. Once that decision-making tide starts to turn and stakeholders loosen the reins, ask to be included in all decisions that affect your program. Only when you can influence your fate can you attempt to elevate your efforts.
Reassess Show Selection and Budget
After you’ve established some decision-making influence, it’s time to take a few critical steps toward program improvement. Your first stride is a thorough show analysis. Many exhibit managers let the tail wag the dog. Most often spurred by internal company forces, we buy in to the “all our competitors will be there” mentality and exhibit at shows because “we just simply have to be there.” But particularly when every dollar counts, you need to turn that mindset around. Ask yourself, “What do we stand to gain by exhibiting at this particular event at this particular time?” Also ask, “If we don’t exhibit, are there other opportunities, such as offering speaking engagements or registering as an attendee and networking, that provide significant value at a minimal cost?” Finally, ask yourself, “If we didn’t go to the event this year, could we reach our goals just as ‐ if not more ‐ effectively via other means?”
To answer these questions, pull out all of your aforementioned research regarding costs and outcomes, such as the estimated number of target attendees present, leads gathered at the previous event, awareness statistics, cost per lead, total event cost, booth-staff show evaluations, ancillary benefits, unforeseen drawbacks, etc. Then approach each show with new eyes, trying to ascertain to what degree it meets overall company and marketing objectives. (You most likely already did a bit of this to get that seat at the table, but now’s the time to really dive in and put that decision-making power to work.)
As a result of your analysis, you might realize that some of your “have to be there” shows could be replaced with highly tailored customer events to attract the same audience at a lesser price. Or, you might determine that despite its lack of target-market attendees, a particular show offers more potential to generate marketwide awareness than any other marketing medium, and therefore simply must remain on your calendar despite lackluster lead returns. Once you’ve established a list of shows you’d like to keep, abolish, and add (and perhaps a list of new events you’d like to consider), seek stakeholder input.
Present your data on each show along with your recommendations as to future participation and the scope of participation for each. Then ask stakeholders to weigh in. This conversation serves three purposes. First, it further establishes you as a credible source of vital marketing information that clearly has the company’s best interests in mind. Second, it gives management the hard facts about benefits versus investments (and if you present a detailed cost analysis, it can open their eyes to “invisible” costs such as transportation and drayage). And finally, it spreads the responsibility for show selection, focus, and overall spending across the board. While you’re hopefully making the final decisions, stakeholders will have had their say and an opportunity to redirect your course of action. This is an opportunity to prevent a lot of “Why did we ‐ or didn’t we ‐ do X?” conversations after the fact.
Once your team has established a show calendar, focus your attention on the scope of each spend. No two shows are identical in terms of the number of target-market attendees they draw, associated costs, awareness benefits, and so on. As such, your budget allocation should also be different. For example, the ABC Show might attract a handful of critical C-level attendees that wouldn’t typically accept field-sales calls or attend corporate events. Meanwhile, the XYZ Show might have zero C-level attendees but a massive amount of key industry influencers who can generate awareness for your firm far beyond the show. You may find value in attending each show, but your tactics, goals, and overall approach should be vastly different. Especially for the small exhibitor, playing to these differences and carefully leveraging your spend are paramount to your program’s success.
At Iatric Systems, we use a two-pronged exhibit-marketing strategy that’s tailored to each event. We create a traffic-builder element to engage walk-by attendees; plus, we target our key audience by trying to set prescheduled meetings and/or attracting them to the space with high-value giveaways and messages that meet their pain points. The amount of money we spend on each of these prongs, however, varies by event. At one show where we have minimal brand awareness, for example, we may spend very little to woo people to attend prescheduled meetings and pour everything into awareness-generating traffic builders. Yet at another event, we might drain our traffic-builder budget to get the show’s whales into our space. Bottom line: Carefully pick your battles. Then meticulously allocate your spend according to each show’s goals and attendee makeup.
Locate the Level Playing Fields
If you’ve identified the right shows and established a proper budget allocation for each, you still need to think like a David, but act like a Goliath. In other words, implement clever strategies that make you look like a leviathan. One of the best ways to do just that is to identify opportunities where both the Davids and Goliaths are on the same level playing field. The floor of a typical trade show favors Goliath, but the following locales and tactics offer more equal footing.
Speaker Programs ‐ One such tactic is to establish a speaker program whereby your company’s experts and executives offer educational sessions at industry trade shows. Speaker programs help establish your company as a thought leader in an off-floor arena where gargantuan companies and itty-bitty businesses all look the same. To get the most bang for your buck, implement post-event follow-up and an opt-in opportunity. For example, you might pass around a sign-in sheet and offer to follow up with more information after the conference, or you could encourage attendees to sign up for your newsletter or follow your blog. Speaker programs can help you generate massive awareness and maybe even collect a few leads with a minimal time investment. It is important to note, however, that most educational organizers forbid you from mentioning products or solutions during your speaking engagements. But this actually creates an effective environment to establish your understanding of customers’ issues and to position your presenters as industry experts.
Custom Sponsorships ‐ Another off-floor option is a custom-crafted sponsorship. A carefully placed, memorable sponsorship that provides a high perceived value for attendees can generate as much if not more awareness than a colossal exhibit. More often than not, however, the highly visible sponsorships have similarly lofty price tags that most small exhibitors can’t afford. However, this is an opportunity to think like a David and to develop your own sponsorship concepts carefully tailored to your audience and its needs. Our most successful sponsorships were ones I brought to show-management reps as opposed to programs I bought from them. So put on your thinking cap and identify sponsorship concepts that hone in on your target audience and/or generate massive awareness. Then talk with show management to work out a price for your tailored endeavor. And while you’re at it, try to develop a strong working relationship with your show-management reps. Many will assist you in establishing new concepts as long as the strategy is a win-win for all involved.
Off-Floor Activations ‐ Along these same lines, brainstorm for off-floor stunts or activations. (Just be sure you are adhering to the show’s rules.) You might have a tiny 10-by-10 booth, but with a clever activation, you can generate sizable visibility off the show floor, where nobody knows how big your booth is ‐ or isn’t. For example, I recently read about a company selling bed-bug removal services. It had a tiny exhibit, but it obtained a city permit to picket the area outside the venue. Here, staffers carried tongue-in-cheek signs about bed-bug rights and seemingly rallied against the company with the bed-bug killing services. Almost every show attendee saw the signs (and the company name), and most probably walked away with positive perceptions of the clever firm. And best of all, the ingenious strategy cost the firm nothing but the price of some picket signs, a permit, and a few temporary staffers turned protesters.
For a personal example, I employed an off-floor stunt that involved a white van a few years back. I plastered the van with magnetic signage with our company’s logo, messages, booth number, etc., and hired a driver to maneuver it in a continuous loop past the show hotels and convention center during show hours. Granted, each city and venue will have its own rules about who can drive what and where, so do your due diligence if you want to try something similar. But this simple tactic scored us awareness, booth visitors, and show-wide visibility for a minimal $200 investment.
Private Dinners ‐ Restaurants are another off-floor locale with a level playing field. Big brands often host blowout receptions for hundreds of people, and while they’re certainly fun for attendees, I often question their memorability. After all, when’s the last time you did business with ‐ or even remembered ‐ the company that sponsored the show reception? So consider selecting a handful of your top prospects or customers and personally inviting them to a special dinner. For example, we just hosted a dinner for 28 guests at the California Grill at the Walt Disney World Resort. We provided town-car transportation to and from the site, and after our delicious dinner on the venue’s patio, we all enjoyed Disney’s free fireworks.
Private dinners give us valuable time to foster relationships ‐ time we might not get from attendees on the trade show floor. Plus, since our booth space is often a wee bit cramped, the unique venues are far more spacious and enjoyable, and they offer participants a one-off experience at the same time. If you opt for a private dinner, just make sure the entire evening is about building relationships, not force feeding attendees sales information.
Pre-Show Promotions ‐ Pre-show promotions can be hugely successful because at this point in time there are no big or small exhibitors, since attendees haven’t encountered a single booth just yet. Again, however, spend your dollars wisely, taking your goals and audience into consideration. For example, if your objective is to reach VIPs at a particular show, your pre-show promotions should target these VIPs (as opposed to the entire attendee base) and perhaps offer them a personalized gift for visiting the booth or booking a meeting. Meanwhile, larger exhibitors throwing a much wider net will likely produce less personal ‐ and less memorable ‐ pre-show tactics. Sending fewer highly targeted promotions may help you make a greater impact than those big firms that blanket the masses with pre-show missives.
Press and Influencer Tactics ‐ And when it comes to VIPs, always include members of the press and industry influencers. Most of these folks are inundated with press releases, but very few exhibitors do anything truly special or customized to woo them. In effect, they’re often treated like second-class attendees instead of the VIPs that they can be. After all, a single product mention in a key publication or within a well-read blog post can generate awareness far and above what an exhibitor (large or small) might have garnered at the show.
So my best advice is to select a handful of key media targets and industry influencers and give them the royal treatment just as you might a more traditional VIP. Research their publications or online forums, know their pain points, and reach out to them individually with a skillfully aimed pitch as to why your company or product is worthy of a mention. There’s no better way to turn off the media than to pitch them something completely off topic, as doing so communicates that you haven’t taken the time to research the publication and therefore have no clue about the type of information it requires. On the other hand, a laser-tight pitch and a little VIP treatment can capture media attention and elevate a small exhibitor to big-dog status in a heartbeat.
Traverse the Road Less Traveled
So you’ve followed my advice, but now you’re on the show floor staring those giants straight in the kneecaps. What else can you do to generate results? Employ a few atypical tactics. Cross Promote ‐ First and foremost, enlist the help of your friends. Granted, some shows prohibit any kind of cross-exhibitor participation or promotion. But co-exhibiting and cross promoting can generate awareness over and above that of your square footage. Consider sharing a booth space or sponsorships (and their costs) with partner firms or developing promotional tactics where attendees earn a special gift for visiting multiple booths.
Barter and Trade ‐ Also look into bartering and product-placement techniques to cut costs and generate awareness. I recently heard of an example from a glass-industry show. In exchange for in-exhibit promotional signage, a provider of glass-cleaning products offered its wares to various exhibitors selling custom glass. The exhibitors maintained spotless glass throughout the show, and the cleaning-solution provider enjoyed increased awareness across the show floor.
Opt for Atypical Messaging ‐ Consider atypical locations where you might incorporate your messaging. Analyze after-show environments and attendee travel patterns, and take a close look at hotels and show venues. Perhaps you could employ taxi toppers, bus signage, Uber promotions, specialty drink menus at the hotel bar, etc. to generate attention for a fraction of the price of a traditional sponsorship. Again, some shows forbid promotion in these venues without spending sponsorship dollars, but it’s likely worth your time to investigate your options.
Leverage Staff Apparel ‐ Another nontraditional messaging platform is your own booth staff. Certainly your staff need to dress appropriately for your audience and industry. But they are walking promotional opportunities from the minute they leave their hotel rooms until they scurry back into them at night. Something as simple as a wacky pair of shoes can generate attention and help staffers strike up conversations, and even an electronic pin with scrolling text can deliver a message beyond the show floor.
As you can see then, a diminutive stature need not be a death sentence, and it should never be an excuse. In fact, being small can have its advantages, as long as you employ a few smart strategies to counteract any deficiencies. If, like David, you select your weapons carefully, scrupulously assess your shows and budget allocations, and then exact strategic marketing strikes where Goliaths least expect them, you can generate leads, sales, and awareness ‐ and fell a few giants in the process.