One of the questions I hear often from clients is whether it makes sense to attend a particular trade show or conference. They tell me they don’t get as many leads as they used to, and they’re wondering if it is worth the expense.
I tell them that they need to think about trade shows a little differently from the way they used to.
The main reason to attend a trade show is that you have the most influential people in the industry gathered together in the same place at the same time. You can meet a lot of people and gather a huge amount of information in just a couple days.
And no matter how useful the Internet is, you build a better relationship when you meet people face-to-face.
Here’s the system I use for getting the maximum value out of any trade show or conference…
Sit down with your team about a month before the trade show and talk through what you want to accomplish:
- Who do you want to meet?
- What do you want to learn?
- What do you want to test?
Let’s talk about each of those areas in a little more detail…
Who to meet… Prospects, customers and business partners, of course. But who else? Do a little brainstorming to come up with a list. Who would make a big difference to your business?
- Editors, bloggers, and industry analysts.
- Consultants and other influencers.
- Prospective employees.
- New business partners, for technology, distribution and outsourcing.
You can see who will be speaking at the event by looking at the sessions. You should also look over the list of exhibitors. Some shows provide lists of attendees too.
What to learn… I like to pay attention to the issues people are talking about at the conference – what are the hot problems people are trying to solve? If everyone is talking about a topic and you can frame your product as a way to address it, you can get more doors to open for you.
I also like to check out competitors – see what they are talking about, who is visiting their booth, what they are promoting, how they are selling. You might be able to get some hints about the future direction of their products.
This is a good opportunity to see what booths are attracting the most traffic – what are they doing that’s working so well? Do they have a fun giveaway? Have they launched a new product? What’s on their booth signs? Are they doing something in the booth to draw people in? You can get wonderful ideas from seeing what works for other companies.
Do you have technical issues or situations with clients? You might be able to pick up solutions for those.
What to test… At a show you have the opportunity to talk to a lot of people within a short period of time. This is a great place to see how people respond to a new marketing message or test different ways to describe a new feature.
Think about decisions you have been debating internally for some time. Here’s your chance to get feedback from real people so you can finally settle the issue.
If you want to do usability testing, a conference can be a great venue. You can do this informally, even in a hallway between sessions.
Design a plan
Once you know what you want to accomplish, look at the opportunities that you will have at the conference. Where can you encounter the people you want to meet, find the info, run your tests?
- Educational sessions (think in terms of both attendees and speakers)
- Vendor events, hospitality suites (think about hosts and attendees)
- Birds of a feather and other networking events
If you have more than one person attending, decide who will do what. You’ll get much better results if you split up – even if you attend one or two of the same sessions, sit on opposite sides of the room so you can meet more people.
Plan to get together once a day so you can report back on what you found. This makes each person accountable – and it gives you a way to share your triumphs.
Do your research
Take the list of people you want to meet, and do a little research ahead of time. Glance at their website, subscribe to (or at least scan) their blog, follow them on Twitter and check out their tweets, maybe like their Facebook page.
This takes a little effort, but you will find out what they are currently interested in and it will be much easier to open a conversation.
If you’re on Twitter, find out the conference hash tag and make a few tweets before the conference.
If you don’t already have a Bump app, this might be the time to download one for your phone.
At the show
Work your plan but stay flexible. If an opportunity arises, take advantage of it.
At every session… Introduce yourself to 4-6 people. I usually meet the people on either side of me, in front of me and behind me. Even if you are naturally an introvert, remind yourself of the type of people you want to meet and make the effort to reach out. You will be amazed at the interesting people you will find. If you’re not sure what to say, ask them what they hope to get out of this session or why they are at the conference.
At the end of the session, make a point of going up and introducing yourself to at least one of the speakers. If you’re not sure what to say, just tell them you enjoyed the session. It’s even better if you can mention something specific they talked about that you agreed with or found useful.
Every time you are in line… At lunch, at a coffee break, at the Starbucks – introduce yourself to the person in front of you and the one behind you. Again, you will be surprised at the great people who are there.
Remember that conferences are one of the very best places to meet senior management. They are more open to being approached there than anywhere else. In fact, often one of their goals is to hear what regular people think. So take advantage of that!
Working a trade show like this takes a lot of energy, so make sure you take care of yourself. Eat right and try to get enough sleep so you can keep up your energy level.
Before you leave… Have a chat with the conference organizers. Tell them what you liked about the conference, and if you have ideas for making it better next year, share them. Remember that the organizers probably know every company that attended, and have the potential to connect you with most of the influential people who were there. It’s well worth getting to know them.
After the conference
Within a week after you get home, go through your stack of business cards and send connection requests on LinkedIn. Follow people on Twitter, consider friending them on Facebook or other platforms.
Subscribe to their newsletter or blog, and ask if it’s OK to subscribe them to yours.
Do whatever other follow-up actions items you promised to do.
When you attend a trade show using this strategy, I guarantee you will get 10x more out of it than if you just attend the sessions and work your booth. I’ve been doing it this way for years, and I always come back with great leads and amazing connections.
If you have tips for getting the most out of a show that you’d like to add to this list, post them in the comments.