17 Tips to Optimize B2B Industrial Trade Shows

Ed Marsh | Jun 8, 2016


It's trade show planning season

In much of the industrial B2B world it's trade show season - not the shows themselves which will roll around in the Autumn, but rather planning season.

As you allocate massive (or even minor) portions of your budget to shows, it's worth challenging some traditional assumptions. Don't worry, I'm not going to tell you not to exhibit because trade shows are dead - in fact they remain important to both manufacturers and buyers. After all, even the internet types who conduct business by email and text message, and who predict the demise of shows....still look forward to their pilgrimage to the Consumer Electronics Show.

Although shows aren't going away, buyer expectations are changing. Your expectations should as well - and your execution must.

One important note - this post is focused on shows which are structured around lead generation rather than writing orders on the floor.

It's not about leads!

If that's your focus, you'll fail. Crazy you think? Well, let's unpack it.

Who cares about leads? Only you and your team. Nobody comes to the show excited to become someone's lead. They come to discover; to learn; to foster relationships; and to compare you with your competitors.

Aren't you likely to be more successful helping them satisfy their priorities rather than imposing yours on them?

Now, rest easy. I get it. You can't leave the show empty handed. You're putting a bunch of money into it and you've got to justify the expense with more than just the opportunity to refresh old friendships and plant your flag.

Of course.

But you don't carry leads on your balance sheet - particularly leads which close at a very low rate. The yardstick for trade shows is revenue. So let's start from the beginning. How can you leverage new tools to simultaneously provide an experience that will be far more satisfying for prospects AND actually engage new and previous contacts in ways around the show which will move them further through their buying process.

There are three elements to this approach:

  1. Provide information in the context of their business (not your newest features)
  2. Make it easy for them to get the information they want, in the format they want
  3. Infer and ask what's important to them - set the cookie (note that international trade shows may require some data collection adaptations)

Expertise not badge swipers or "booth babes"

Remember back in the old days when a sales rep took handwritten notes on some sort of lead form? Collecting the lead's contact details required a discussion of sorts which offered the sales rep a chance to bond a bit and gather sales insights - all while collecting contact information.

Then badge scanners came along. So now your sales rep tries to have a bit of conversation while scanning / swiping the visitor's show badge. If your booth is busy, that's a perfunctory transaction. If it's not busy, likely the person having the conversation scribbles a couple poorly written cryptic notes - after all, it's probably in another rep's territory.

In neither case does the visitor receive any value - just the vague promise of follow up and the hope that they win who/when follow up lottery.

So why can't they scan themselves?

Oh, that's right, you need an expert to explain what you're showing in the booth. Except your expert may not be; and talking about your gadgets is almost certainly going to overlook what business value they would realized.

So let's take this from the top. Instead of selecting service packages from the show manual, let's look at effective approaches which lie at the intersection of technology and changing buyer behaviors. These will help you optimize your show results....to help prospects understand how you might make their business lives better, and coach them through their buying journey at a pace that is comfortable for them.

17 Key tips to drive better trade show results

1. Set a pre-show goals

It's not good enough to just "publicize" the show. You must set pre-show goals so that you can gauge your progress and set yourself up for show success. Examples of goals include:

  • have at least 2 scheduled meetings / rep / show day
  • create at least 3 pieces of content to speak to each business issue / persona / journey stage that you'll address in your booth
  • generate specific traffic and conversion targets for those pre-show website pages & offers
  • touch every lead from previous shows at least twice in promoting this show

2. Build your booth, communications & promotion around 3-5 key business issues for your persona

This isn't about your latest gadget - it's about improving your customers' business. That means that you need to clearly understand personas and buying journey, including priority initiatives, success factors and perceived barriers. These must be the issues they wrestle with - not the ones you prefer to talk about or assume are important to them!

Everything you show, distribute and discuss needs to focus on those points.

Each machine, demo, model, video, presentation and especially interactive material must be selected for its fit against a matrix of personas and journeys. These must be planned well in advance (note - this isn't what machine production tells you they think they can deliver for you between actual orders) because the content (articles, emails & press releases) that you'll start to 3-4 months in advance will be built upon the hardware in the booth. And that hardware should be focused on solving today's most pressing business issues.

Does that mean you don't mention your new touch screen HMI? Of course you can. Just like you can have a machine cycling to create the motion and intrigue that often attracts visitors to your booth. But don't make it about the servo for instance; instead make it about the increase in output through reduced changeover time

Start writing articles several months in advance, on key topics, and have CTAs for offers & sessions in conjunction with show.

And don't stop there. For $100 you can buy a number of issue related URLs (e.g. TopicShowYear.com) and forward each to the relevant page on your site. You're going to use these in your booth in #3 & #11 below.

You'll also need to develop training for your reps who may be unfamiliar (unfortunately but realistically) with these critical buying process building blocks.

3. Build a show microsite

This needs to be really optimized for mobile (how many trade show visitors carry desktops down the aisle with them?) But it also needs to deliver a great desktop experience before, during and after the event, and be effectively optimized for SEO. Here are some tips:

  • this doesn't have to be a separate site - even 10 pages on your primary site with a distinct design and special "show" navigation could work well
  • more than mobile responsive, this must be mobile optimized (you should be able to show different forms, on the same page, depending on what type of device the visitor is using)
  • buy a domain (e.g. www.CompanyShowYear.com) and forward it to the "home page" of your microsite. Use that URL in all show collateral and promotion
  • point all online directory listings to the actual URL of the "home page" of your microsite
  • optimize all pages for SEO around the event, product category and major buyer issues
  • structure the microsite navigation to reflect buyer objectives - NOT the gadgets you're showing
  • include a page with an interactive "map of your booth" 
  • create a virtual show for those who can't attend
  • have slightly different content on each page before, during and after the event
  • create a page for each "display", theme & presentation you'll have at the show

4. Create a great show "offer"

This isn't an iPad! It's an opportunity for them to tap into your expertise. For equipment and automation manufacturers, for instance, that could be a data audit or design review. Typically this will be something that is a step in your sales process which helps to understand and optimize their operation based on the experience you've got from a large number of applications. It should require some "homework" from them and be appropriately economical and scalable for your team.

For instance, in the case of a data audit, you can provide them data requirements (even forms for data collection and online space for storage.) You could create some appropriate "boiler plate" report with a couple sections to be customized in each case, and base your observations on their submitted data instead of a site visit.

There are several keys to keep in mind. First, this can't be about selling. This has to be about helping them. It's free consulting - and that's OK. Second, if you're providing real value and not trying to sell directly you'll have an easier time collecting the required info from them - critical data which later will allow you to segment and nurture them. Third, use it as a hook. This could be what they receive if they pre-register with you, if they keep a scheduled show appointment, or if they bring several members of the buying team to your booth.

5. Effectively segment your pre-show emails

NEVER send a "Please visit us in Booth # 1234 where we'll be pleased to exhibit our latest A17x.1 gadget innovation" email. The only people who might respond are those who would probably visit you anyway - and aren't at the show to solve business problems for which they don't have enough time. Plus, it makes you sound like every other company. I'm guessing that's not the way you think of yourself, so why masquerade as such??!!

Instead, your mails should speak to personas, industries, stages in the buying journey and key business issues. You should have this data from leads you've collected in the past and follow up sales conversations. (If you didn't collect it, you'll understand below when we suggest you do so going forward. And if you don't have a CRM integrated with marketing automation to interpret prospect behavior and gather insights through rep interactions...well that's another subject.)

Subject lines & content must speak to them directly - not "Visit us at XYZ Show" - and each mail must be designed to engage and convert them on your show microsite. You want to build an understanding of what's specifically important to them and where they may be in their buying journey. They won't tell you, but that's OK. You're going to learn it anyway....if you do this correctly.

6. Connect with those who "map your booth"

What awesome info! Someone decides in advance that they want to make sure to visit your booth....and you're going to wait and hope they actually wander in? NO! You've got to be in touch with these people in advance.

Don't be creepy about it, and understand depending on the "map the show" functionality this will take some work on your part. But do it.

As long as all communication is genuinely around helping them maximize the show, getting them the information they need and pointing them to helpful resources, they'll be fine.

BUT - remember these folks haven't necessarily opted in. So you can reach out 1:1, but can't just add them to your "list"...yet. Once they convert, though, then their status changes depending on your site privacy and data use policies.

7. Schedule some events around industry topics

These needn't be grandiose - they could be simple 5-10 minute presentations. Done right though, they'll be the basis for some really powerful content.

Topics should all align around the key business issues. It's going to be really easy to just talk about you and your solution. Don't do it! However, that doesn't mean you can't work your solutions into the discussion.

Here's a quick example. Let's say that one of the priority initiatives you know drives buyers is increasing OEE, and further, that a huge piece of that is reducing changeover times to accommodate shorter runs. You could offer a demo "Machine XYZ230 Quick Changeover Features" which will only appeal to a very small potential segment of attendees. Or you could offer something like "Reduced costs & increased output - Trends in quick changeover & short run solutions to improve OEE with (name your solution category here)"

See the difference? One has much broader appeal. But it doesn't stop there.

Have different speaker profiles - not just sales & marketing. Engineers & technicians speak with much more authority to their counterparts. Let your CFO speak on finance related issues and someone from HR on other topics. Have related industry partners (e.g. complimentary suppliers) speak as well.

And then here's where the magic happens - convert these into powerful marketing assets:

  • Press release (optimized for the persona & stage in journey) these in advance
  • Have a schedule on your show microsite (even offer people an opportunity to have an email or text message reminder of an event 30 minutes before)
  • Create two versions of any slide decks - one image heavy for the presentation at the trade show. The other a bit more text heavy for upload (again optimized) to SlideShare
  • Live feed video of the presentations through Periscope and record the sessions (use a decent lavaliere mic to capture decent audio) for other purposes
  • Live microblog the event (tweet, instagram)
  • As you have a daily recap blog from the show (you're planning on that, right?) incorporate the topics, embed videos, link to slideshares (all in well optimized blog post)
  • Capture questions that are asked at the conclusion of presentations and build future blog posts around that

Remember that the audience in front of your booth is only a small portion of that which you want to reach. Others at the show with interests that don't realize you can help, and the huge number of potential buyers globally that aren't within the typical 250 mile radius of show attendance, could all benefit as well. You're putting the work into the show - make sure that what you do is effective AND multipurposed.

8. Lean your lead management process

I bet I know your lead management process. Export leads from the lead capture solution; upload to CRM; assign to regional sales managers; they decide how to follow up and whether/which sales channel partner to push it to.

Then gradually over the next 2, 4 & 12 weeks you send reminders and grow frustrated that you don't get any solid feedback on what's happening. In the end there's little control over conversions and almost no way to measure the ROI of show participation.

Who says all leads belong with field sales, much less sales channel??!! This is where an inside sales function can really excel. (Important note though - this can't be the intern or fresh hire. Inside sales isn't a stepping stone, it's a critical function. In fact, consider taking some of your hot shots that are tired of traveling and put them in inside sales.)

Your inside sales team should be able to quickly satisfy informational needs and route follow up according to buyer wishes, your sales resources, priority of buyer/project types and other factors. The sales process should be well underway when field sales receives the lead - and if it's a long-term nurturing (future prospect play) then keep it with inside sales. 

(Want more on the growing role of inside sales in general for B2B industrial sales? Check out this 10 minute narrated & illustrated guide to the evolution.)

9. Convert the shadow leads

Have you ever tracked traffic in your booth vs. leads? Didn't know you could? More on the technology later in this piece. In the meantime, let's agree that great potential leads stop at your booth but are never captured. It could be because they prefer to remain anonymous; your booth was too busy and they wouldn't wait; your sales rep botched the discussion; or any of a number of other reasons. But we know it happens.

Here's the other thing we know about every one of those people - they're carrying smart phones (especially the rising generations of buyers.) And even some of those who talk to your sales rep might prefer to self-serve a bit more. So let's make it easy for them - but fair warning. This is going to require a steep learning curve for some of you tech dinosaurs (or reliance on some expertise.)

The tools that you need here include:

  • mobile optimized microsite
  • marketing automation
  • QR codes
  • beacons

Your goal is simple - set a cookie on their mobile device and hopefully associate an email. That requires a form "conversion." But nobody's going to do this for you as a favor. You've got to make it seamless and interesting - in other words offer loads of mobile optimized (getting that message yet?) content that they can easily access - that ties directly to the business issues and items on display in your booth.

For instance, if you have a display of the main business issues, have a QR code for each that they can scan which takes them directly to a mobile page that lays out the challenge and the range of solutions you offer to help them overcome it. Consider versions targeting each persona as well.

Simple (short!) mobile optimized forms on those pages can be used to offer them an email follow up with more detail on what they're seeing. You could even let them select what day they'd like it (e.g. after they're back in the office and caught up for a couple days.)

And imagine the data you'll collect - ever wonder which issues are really resonating for people? Here's your answer. You'll have great insights into what is generating interest - rather than your sales team's favorite topics!

10. Improve your lead capture

Still use the same antiquated show system? Probably either because you really enjoy standing in line to turn it in at the end of the show, or maybe you love wasting time manipulating data for the extra step of importing leads into your CRM or lead management system. What? You'd rather not deal with that? I understand. So let's make it more efficient, capture richer information, and enter leads directly in your CRM - all in one step.

There are lots of options to do this, and the right one will depend on the type of badges to scan, how much variable information or application detail you need to capture / lead, how many booth personnel you'll have, what marketing automation & CRM you use and how facile your IT people are with API integrations.

The simplest solution is to have prospects enter themselves! If you have a great show offer or good interactive information with deeper dives available for follow up, they may well be willing to do so - either through their smart phone or even on a tablet or two which you set up with a form submission process in the booth. (Remember to turn cookies off on any device which you're using for visitor or staff form submission!)

You can also use forms (CRM, marketing automation or even "surveys") for your staff to enter leads directly. You may be able to incorporate scanning for some field population.

Your CRM / marketing automation probably has a "new contact" functionality which you could use real time with the contact if it's really easy, or have someone in the back of the booth immediately processing business cards manually entering data.

You can also use apps on company iPads or your staffs' BYOD (bring your own device) equipment, and surveys can be used for rapid data collection. For instance, why not use bar code scanning apps to populate forms so the rep (or even prospect) adds a couple relevant fields such as industry and application description.

Any extra step transferring or entering data is superfluous, introduces opportunity for errors and delays running marketing automation workflows outlined below.

11. Make your booth interactive

Your buyers are carrying smart phones, and more and more of your prospects are from generations that interact with friends and vendors through mobile device driven interaction. You've got the opportunity to not only make the booth comfortable for them BUT ALSO to immediately identify your business as one that "gets it."

The mobile optimized microsite you created will now be the engine behind this interactive element.

You can & should engage in two ways. Beacons (more here) can offer standalone functionality or be integrated with apps. In the most simple execution beacons in your booth can direct people to a URL - ideally something like the booth directory mobile optimized page you created from which they can navigate further.

You should also have QR codes at each machine and display to link people to the relevant optimized page for what they're seeing (not just home page!) Each page should have easy forms to request info, request a sales rep, request a quote and/or subscribe to blog. Also consider "smart content" to display industry / role / journey specific info once they've converted and you know a bit more about their interests.

Remember those issue specific forwarded URLs, post those at each exhibit as well for folks that don't want to use QR codes.

Here's the key - you'll make it far more engaging and comfortable for many visitors AND you'll set a cookie, get an email address and begin to learn who they are and what's of interest. Worried that some of your visitors won't want to interact that way? No problem. You'll have traditional staff there too for the traditional lead capture process.

12. Make it newsworthy

Big hint here. Nobody except your VPs of Sales and Marketing care how many leads you got. Your CEO? Just the revenue. Your prospects and the public? Not at all! And nobody except your team cares that you rolled out your XYZ19P today either (although the big business problem that it solves is probably one that more folks would love to fix.)

However, you're collecting all kinds of great information each day at the show. You're learning what's important to customers by industry and region. That's information others would love to have whether they're walking the show or couldn't attend. 

That needs to be the focus of your social, live blogging and daily recap from the show. What interesting application questions did you receive? What trends did you begin to detect?  

13. Make it social

This means a conversation - not just blasting out pictures of your staff and booth. You should have lists set up to monitor certain topics, hashtags, keywords, industry influencers, journalists and sales channel partners. Dust those lists off and actually watch them. Respond and engage in discussions around substantive business topics during these several intense days of industry focus.

Later, consider storifying the show to capture notable / interesting social activity into a digest for future reference or consumption by folks who couldn't attend.

14. Collect data to understand how your booth worked

You should know how many people were looking at each of your exhibits for how long. Wouldn't you love a heat map of physical activity in the booth? How about metrics on which topics were most impactful?

Many of the same tools that Alibaba uses to understand buying habits can be deployed in your booth.

Beacon technology is evolving quickly. It's often used in conjunction with an app (more appropriate for the show organizer than your booth) but new protocols allow you to push URLs out to nearby mobile devices. You can also track locations and durations of nearby devices.

So what if you pushed the URL for your optimized booth map & exhibit overview, and the collected data on where booth visitors went and for how long? That data, in conjunction with visit journey tracking of mobile users to your microsite, and contact conversions, would provide an incredibly useful picture of how visitors interacted with your booth. Imagine how your planning for next year's show might benefit! (And how you enhance the visitor experience with proactive provision of helpful information.)

15. Improve & enhance follow up activities

This is really 10 topics or more - but consolidated here to make it manageable for this introductory article.

Good marketing automation should provide an incredible array of options for lead management. It should:

  • substantially improve the prospect satisfaction with quality and timeliness
  • reduce the non value add administrative steps you probably have

You've seen the trashcans overflowing with expensive printed collateral at shows. Nobody wants to carry it, and much of it isn't ever reviewed. Further, time out of the office often results in piles of emails and days of catch-up time on return. Shows are as hard for attendees as they are for exhibitors.

Your prospects need access to the subjects that were of interest to them, when they need it. None of the follow up should be according to your priorities (or your distributors'.) Here are some examples of how the right tools, properly employed, can help.

  • provide a consolidated info request form with check boxes for each of business issues/exhibits your address in your booth. Respond with a "smart content" email (you might even let them select a day to deliver it when they expect to be caught up) which includes appropriately tailored high level info with links to recap of the display and specific related deep dive resources.
  • if you determine the business role of your prospect, then through your persona and buying journey research you should be able to extrapolate what other team members will participate in a decision (and what priorities/concerns they will have.) Offer those insights and tailored resources automatically, or based on your prospect's further research, to support their internal sales efforts
  • if your product service involves a complex sale or long buying cycle, then build appropriate timing into your follow up. Offer contact details and high level summary immediately, but use time based workflows to follow up appropriately based on buying horizons (include this question on your forms) of 6 months or more
  • marketing automation workflows aren't only to simplify the provision of follow up information to prospects - they can also be used for internal coaching, reminders and admin. For instance, automatically assign leads to sales reps by national account, state or other criteria. Automatically generate a mail to the prospect, from the rep, confirming the requested follow up details. Create tasks for reps to call high priority leads, and remind them several days later if there's been no activity in the contact record. Provide simple rep triggered workflows with email templates which incorporate informative materials (e.g. case studies) based on lead context. Even send the rep some call prep insights based on the prospect's activity on your site before, during and after the show. 

Intelligent marketing automation should enhance your follow up - not simply automate it. 

Don't forget that just like the in booth resources will require training for your reps, these follow up procedures will also - and they'll create some angst and consternation. That doesn't mean they're wrong - simply different than the past. Will your reps conjure up scenarios which you've failed to consider? Sure they will. Remember, though, that your lead contact and conversion rate from previous shows has been disappointing. Your goal is to improve it. That's what this will do - with incredibly nuanced contextual customization for nearly every lead.

Marketing automation should provide a range of options limited only by the creativity and buying process insight of your sales team.

16. Junk lead alchemy

There's another enormous opportunity with marketing automation - the ability to follow up with, and nurture, a huge number of unqualified leads at no incremental additional cost.

You need your reps working directly with the priority leads - whether they're identified by current projects, strategic accounts or other factors. If they're going to maximize their effectiveness there, they can't be distracted with leads that aren't priority. But to simply ignore those who aren't is to squander some potentially large portion of the long-term value of your show participation.

So automate it! Add them to an appropriate marketing list to share periodic information which will likely be valuable to them (e.g. by industry and/or job title.) Then set up lead-scoring. When something engages them (more page visits, specific information downloads, etc.) alert your rep to be in touch.

17. Use data to plan the next show

The byproduct of this work will be an incredibly valuable body of data driven insight which you can extract. Examples that might be of interest include:

  • difference in engagement during & post show between those did/didn't interact with you before the show
  • what topics really drove show conversations
  • which reps effectively use the follow up tools
  • how their engagement and sales conversion rates compared to other reps
  • which reps' show leads were most likely to engage / close after the show
  • what follow up workflows had the highest / lowest success rate
  • what approaches resulted in the most related post show conversions (in other words prompted visitors to share your insights with colleagues who later became leads)
  • whether visitors who converted on mobile forms while in your booth were more likely to engage / close later
  • whether open & read rates were higher for leads who selected future dates for follow up
  • how many new projects you create 6 months later from show leads (relying on automation to nurture leads that might have been ignored)

Like marketing automation itself, there's almost a limitless range of options here. The point is that you rely on data in your finance and operations - it's time to leverage it in your business development, marketing and sales investment planning as well!

Symptom of a larger issue?

As we finish, let's talk about the higher level takeaway here. If at any of these points you thought to yourself "That would be great, but" then you've got some other challenges to address. Maybe IT controls your contact database or website. Maybe your site isn't mobile responsive, much less capable of optimization. Perhaps you don't use a CRM and haven't implemented marketing automation. Maybe your sales & marketing teams can't agree on shifting to a buyer perspective instead of just pitching gadgets.

You've got a choice. You can continue to invest in the show and manage it the way you always have. You'll comfort yourself with the fact that it's important to show the flag anyway. Or, you can acknowledge that if you've got gaps around trade show execution that inhibit performance, then certainly the broader sales & marketing effort is also compromised. And you can commit to fix it.

Would you tell a customer that this year you'll fix a small quality problem in their equipment but the others will have to wait until next year? I hope note. So why take that approach in your interaction with them simply because of internal conflicts, silos and inertia?

Think maybe it's time to take a different approach to your industrial trade shows? Let's schedule a 20 minute call to discuss your goals.