There was a time when nearly all our business transactions were conducted face-to-face. Gas to groceries, if you were going to buy something — or sell something — eyes were going to meet and direct conversation would ensue. Depending on the type of transaction, a lot of those encounters would end in a handshake.
The digital age has changed that. Now people can and do buy everything they need with the click of a mouse, and it’s not uncommon to have business relationships between people who have never met and may be several time zones apart.
If you believe — and you should — that the best business relationships are personal, you should see the value in maximizing the amount of time you and your sales force are engaged in direct, face-to-face conversation with prospects. Further, when you understand that the average B2B customer moves nearly 60 percent of the way through the buying decision-making process before engaging a sales representative, you can see it makes sense to get face-to-face with prospects sooner rather than later.
However, arranging personal sales calls is challenging, and the amount of effort required per minute of face time is steep.
For many B2B companies, attendance at trade shows and conferences represents a unique opportunity to relay your story face-to-face in an age where technology can both connect and isolate organizations from current and potential customers. But trade show marketing can be pricey, and if you’re going to the trouble and expense of attending a trade show or conference, it makes sense to take steps to maximize the return on your investment.
Meet the Right People
Start with planning. In some industries, companies must choose between dozens of shows that at least nominally address their audience. The only way to find out which ones are worth attending is to do your research. Find out who the attendees and exhibitors are, along with demographic characteristics such as job titles and industries, to see where you best align.
Once you have decided where best to exhibit, pre-show promotion can make a significant impact on the number and quality of visitors who come to your booth. When you’ve agreed to be an exhibitor, most show organizers will share a list of attendees to whom you can send direct mail or email, but this is also the perfect time to use your own client list to invite key prospects to visit your booth. Having an incentive — perhaps a giveaway — will help maximize the effectiveness of this kind of promotion.
Pre-show is also the time to turn up the heat on your public relations activities. Send out a press release in advance to publicize your speaking events or to announce that you will be unveiling a new product or service at the show. Because the editors of any trade publication worth its salt will be on site at major shows, this is also a great time to set up one-on-one interviews with your top executives.
Lastly, don’t forget the social media. If you’ve spent some time building your social network, LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter can be highly effective tools to motivate prospects to make a personal connection with you at an industry event.
Get Good, Qualified Traffic
Even if you’re at the right show and have done thorough pre-promotion, remember that you’re in a massive competition for attention with all the other exhibitors, and enticing visitors to actually engage with your company and message can be a challenge.
One place to start is with the physical location of your booth on the trade show floor. When you’re arranging to buy your exhibit space, identify desirable locations near a high traffic location, such as an entrance or dining area, and secure them if they’re available.
Booth design is another aspect of exhibiting that can have an impact on how much traffic you have through your booth and what kind of impression you make. Advances in building materials, lighting and graphics mean that the only limits to designing and building a trade show exhibit today are your imagination and your pocketbook. Booth design is a specialty unto itself, but there are a few basic guidelines to keep in mind.
Make sure your booth is consistent with the rest of your corporate identity by using the same messages, designs, colors and graphics you use in your current marketing. To maximize visibility, get as much height as you can, which is best achieved with an island booth. Even if the upper reaches of your booth aren’t structural, lightweight frames, trusses and innovative lighting can create show-stopping effects, and air space, unlike floor space, is free; go as high as exhibit organizers will allow. This is no time to be timid; trade shows are show business!
Create a Compelling Environment
Think of your exhibit as a theater where you stage the presentation of your story. Make sure your booth looks inviting and encourages traffic flow. If maximizing face time between your prospects and your sales staff is one of your objectives, take the time to make sure they’re trained and up to the task.
Choose booth personnel based on their ability to be effective in a chaotic, highly social situation. Spend time beforehand rehearsing the presentation of the sales message and practicing responses to the kinds of questions they may be asked. Discuss your expectations about their demeanor in the booth and formally schedule the times they’re expected to be on the floor and when they can take breaks. Identifying your booth personnel with distinctive shirts, blazers or branded nametags/lanyards will help ensure that no customer has to search to find a member of your team.
Some companies seeking to increase booth traffic may center attention on their entertainment — a magician, robot or scantily clad model — to the detriment of their overall sales presentation. If you do use a booth draw, use it to point attention to your products or services and help qualify your leads to separate the hot prospects from the literature collectors.
One excellent way to qualify prospects — and start a conversation — is to develop a short survey for each show that can help your booth personnel capture lead information, determine the products or services a prospect may be interested in and his or her readiness to buy. There are very effective survey tools available that add the qualifying element to a conventional scanner, or you can use the old-fashioned pen-and-paper method to generate a healthy discussion with potential customers.
A common method of maximizing visitors to maximize leads is to offer a booth prize. If you do this, make sure the prize you offer is worth having and make an effort to tie it as directly to your product and marketing as possible. Don’t forget, however, that the people attending a show or convention generally aren’t there to collect prizes or giveaways; they’re there to do business. A giveaway or a cogent product demonstration can all have an impact on booth attendance, but the best and most effective draw to any booth will always be honest-to-goodness breakthrough innovation.
Take Advantage of Speaking Opportunities
Professional conferences and trade shows offer another opportunity to build relationships face-to-face through speaking opportunities. At many shows, these are often offered — and filled — well in advance of the show itself, so consider speaking opportunities as an aspect of the earliest stages of pre-planning.
Presenting yourself and members of your leadership team as subject experts for presentations, panels, roundtables and other public speaking opportunities makes a generally positive impression and gives the potential clients in attendance an opportunity to connect a real human with the corporate persona.
The Case for Face-to-Face
The fact is that travel budgets are down, electronic technology is on the rise and businesses have fewer opportunities to meet prospects face-to-face. This is in spite of the fact that a majority of executives in a Forbes poll believe face-to-face meetings are crucial for building stronger, more meaningful and profitable business relationships.
These days, in most industries, there are essentially only two ways to further a business relationship in person. One is to visit prospects one at a time at their place of business — the sales call. Although you have the prospect to yourself with no distractions, these kinds of meetings are challenging to arrange, expensive and time-consuming, and thus not very efficient.
The other way is a form of inbound marketing in which you encourage prospects to come to you to further the relationship. Exhibiting at trade shows and conferences provides an opportunity to meet with a relatively large pool of prospects in one place in a relatively short period of time.
Building business relationships based on trust requires that at some point you look prospects in the eye, engage them in direct dialogue and shake their hand at the end. The more often you can do that, the more likely you are to make the sale and perhaps gain a long-term client. Replacing the traditional in-person sales call with a telephone call or email isn’t enough. Well-planned participation in trade shows and professional conferences creates an opportunity to make personal connections that, although fleeting, are vital to building relationships.
Success lies in a detailed approach to research and planning; a design in full alignment with your marketing; targeted pre-show promotion; trained, energetic booth personnel; and an effective mechanism to bring visitors to your booth.