Startups: 16 Super Practical Tips To Crack Tradeshows

[Article published under series called “Bring Your Own Insights”, where we bring selected guests to share their insights with audience on a regular basis. We have always believed that our readers are amazingly insightful, so why not enable a channel for them to share their insights/experience with the audience? These guests will be from different industries and will share their insights on a very frequent basis. Presenting an insightful article written by Sanket Nadhani, who heads Marketing & Sales at FusionCharts.]

16 Tips To Crack A Tradeshow

Jason Cohen says that Eric Sink says that tradeshows are like sex: When it’s good it’s really really good, but when it’s bad… it’s still pretty good. Having put together and gone to five tradeshows for ourselves, I would say I couldn’t agree more. They are my favorite marketing medium as we get to see people in flesh and blood, instead of words over email and voices over phone. Also the energy these places have is very exciting to see.

All that said and done, putting together tradeshows is probably the toughest thing I have done as a marketing and sales guy. What seems like a simple booth at a tradeshow takes way more effort and time than you imagine. Not to mention the costs.

While I will not go in details about how to put together a tradeshow completely since both Jason and Eric have done a wonderful job on their blogs, I will talk in details about a lot of other points that they haven’t talked about. Before the tradeshow, at the tradeshow and after the tradeshow. So if you are a startup and are looking to exhibit somewhere soon, especially outside India, or have shied away from going to one because of the sheer effort involved, this post is for you.

Before the tradeshow

#1: Pick the right tradeshow

You wouldn’t buy a banner on a website that isn’t very relevant to you. You wouldn’t buy a keyword on Adwords that doesn’t cater to your target market. Then why will you go to a trade show that isn’t an exact fit with your industry and target audience? Just going to a tradeshow does not ensure its success, going to the right one does.

The best way to know which tradeshows are best suited for you is to ask someone from your industry – if you have someone on your team who has been to a lot of them, he’s a godsend. If not, yous always have the web. Once you come across a list of tradeshows in your industry, figure out the ones that work for you and put them in chronological order in your list. The factors that you would like to consider are:

  • Is the tradeshow in a country where you are already selling or looking to enter? How well do they speak English there?
  • Is it a conference cum expo or just an expo? A conference cum expo draws in a better crowd who pay a hefty registration fee, so they are pre-qualified.
  • How many people do they say they draw in? This could be anything between a hundred people to hundreds of thousands (SXSW draws in almost 35K people and CeBIT 400K), so it really depends on how well it matches your target audience.
  • What are the speakers like? Are they names you have heard of in the industry or are they all new? Good speakers go to good events and draw a better audience there, so you know where to go.

Once you have your list of events that match your requirements, get on phone with their sales guys. Figure out the exhibitor prices – the introductory costs itself will vary from $1K to $10K, so a number of events would be out on costs itself. Ask them every single question you have on your mind to make sure that the event is a good fit for you.

If you are still not sure what event to go to, be conventional and pick the safest one in the industry. For example, if you cater to the web developer market, Web 2.0 Expo would be a good bet. Or better, go to a couple of them as an attendee and soak everything in before you decide to exhibit.

#2: Start planning 4-5 months ahead

Sounds crazy right? Entire products can be launched in much shorter periods of time, so why so long for a tradeshow?

Tradeshows are not something you can put together by working a couple of extra hours on the weekend in case you are behind schedule. If you have missed the shipping deadline, your literature won’t reach you on time. If you haven’t booked accommodation on time, you either stay very far away or pay super-steep prices. So you have to start planning four-five months ahead and kick into action at least two months before the tradeshow. You have to plan your objectives, figure out your travel dates, book your tickets, get accommodation and decide on your messaging. Oh and you have to market the event, set up meetings, print your flyers, create the graphics, get material shipped and do thirty-seven other things…

The best way to start is to figure out your objectives from the event. Are you going to get sales leads, make partners, get product feedback or get press? Everything else depends on this. You can have one or more objectives from a tradeshow. To get a better idea of the event and to verify the numbers, get in touch with people who have exhibited there before. Look at vendors who offer similar products like yours (not exactly similar, but somewhat similar…you get the drift) and talk to them. Catch hold on people on Twitter, on LinkedIn groups and blog posts or articles written on the event. Once this is done, put together a monster todo list for everything that is to be done. Break down all the tasks, put in their deadlines, write who it is assigned to and keep updating their status. And make sure that you have read the organizer’s guidelines and deadlines before you put dates in here – you can get early-bird discounts and avoid last-minute hassles by getting things done in a timely manner. Here’s the todo list we had when we were preparing to exhibit at Web 2.0 Expo SF this March.

#3: Get a speaking opportunity

As I said earlier, it is always better to go to a conference cum expo than just an expo. If you are doing something ground-breaking technically or have a great new business model, try get a speaking slot at these conferenes. They give you this sort of upper hand at the expo. You just have to make sure that you have content to speak on. People hate talks where the speaker is just trying to plug in his products without actually adding any value to the audience.

The speaking slots typically close 4-6 months before the conference, so make sure you apply for it in time. This is where the events calendar comes in handy – you can add another column in there mentioning the last date for submitting speakers proposals. Spend some time thinking what you would like to speak on and then sum it up well for the proposal.

With a speaking opportunity, you are a face that people from your talk recognize when they hit the expo hall. There are others that will want to network with you right after the talk itself. You have your logo and name in the footer or the last slide of your PPT as well. And of course, you are seen as this sort of thought leader, so people have to come check you out.

#4: Pick the team

For a regular 10ftx10ft booth and around, you will need 3-4 people. It is always better to have an extra person than being one person short at the booth. The extra person can always go around the conference and network with other people while the others are at the booth. Or enter the data from your leads collected in the night while you get your much-deserved sleep 🙂

If you have started off recently as a company, then the team is an automatic selection. But if you have more than 20 people, you will need to spend some time deciding who goes. It is best to have a mixture of technical and sales people (call them business people if you so want to) – the technical people are needed for the in-depth technical discussions that the other tech visitors or existing customers have (when you say come meet the team behind our product, people come to meet the tech folks not sales), and the sales people can understand the requirements of the visitor so much better and whether they have the budget & authority to make purchases at all.

After the team is chosen, have an orientation session. Everyone in the team should know the following in complete details:

  • What is the event about? Where is it, when are you leaving and how many days will you be there?
  • What to expect at the event? What kind of people come in there?
  • What are the company’s objectives? What metrics will you use to determine if the tradeshow was successful for you?
  • What do you expect from the team? It is good to make it clear upfront that tradeshows are a lot of hard work, up to 16 hours usually, and you have to have a smiling energetic face even at the end of it.
  • What data to collect for prospects? How to classify a serious prospect from someone there for academic interest? If you have a feedback form, walk through it in details.
  • What product feedback to collect? How to note it down? If you think you can remember it from the tradeshow, forget it. Given the speed at which things happen at a trade show, they are usually a blur later on.
  • What is your pitch for the product? Who are your most important customers? And if you don’t have customers right now, which prospects are you in talks in?
  • What is your pitch for the press? Yes, be ready for this as well.
  • What is your product roadmap?
  • What is your company roadmap? How are you looking to expand? Are you looking for investors?
  • What can you NOT say publicly? Every company has some of these.
  • General tips and tricks – manners and etiquette particular to the country you are traveling to, dress code that you have decided etc.

I make it a point to put all of these in a PPT, have a detailed orientation session, answer any questions that the team has and then mail the PPT to everyone so they can refer to it later.

#5: Get invited to parties and networking events

If you thought inviting yourself to parties was something you last did in college, it is time to go back to it again. Every tradeshow will have at least a couple of parties and networking events during the tradeshow. Some of them will be by vendors to promote their products and some by larger companies just for branding purposes. In either case, if you can register yourself for it on the web, go ahead and invite yourself.

I do not just see these parties as a way to push my business cards into someone’s hand. I prefer talking to a few people but having a more in-depth discussion with them. This gives me great insights into their culture, their working style, which events do they go to, what places they hang out at etc. So the next time I am exchanging emails or talking on the phone with someone from the same region, I not only have great conversation starters but also I have a very good mental picture of them which helps form a stronger connect with them. I also like to figure out everything that went into putting together the party, estimate the costs, see if the party has a sizable RoI and whether we should do one ourselves next year. And of course, if someone is interested in our products or has used something similar in the past, I jut grab hold of him and convince him that we are the best thing since sliced bread 🙂

#6: Market the event

You are spending a lot of cost and effort exhibiting at the tradeshow. Not to mention the time you spend there and while traveling. So make sure that every person dead or alive knows that you are exhibiting. Put it out on your company’s Twitter, your company’s Facebook, your Twitter, your Facebook, in everyone’s email signature and a kiosk on the homepage.

Do an extensive blog post telling your readers what they can expect from you there. Make the post interesting to catch attention – make an infographic on the history of the event (search for SXSW infographic to know what I am talking about), put together pics of funny tshirts from the previous events, talk about your tshirts or just talk about your preparation itself. If there is an attendee directory, make full use of it – contact everyone to let them know who you are and what value can you add to them. Put a press release together with a good story and send it to the press list for the conference that you have access to as an exhibitor. Get on the LinkedIn group of the event and participate in the discussions there. Email your customers in and around the area to let them know you are coming. Call the important ones and invite them. On the whole, do whatever it takes to generate enough buzz even before you set a foot at the conference.

At the tradeshow

#7: Look good and different

If you think just sticking a couple of your banners with cellotape on the back of the booth will drive hordes of people to your booth, welcome to the real world. It is kind of hot here and…you get the point.

You have to look professional. You have to spend some money on getting it right. Since our selling point is stunning charts, we make sure our booth reflects that too. It is one of the most colorful and vibrant booths you can see at a tradehow. Also, instead of the regular table and chairs, we use narrow pedestals in different colors that resemble our column chart. Makes us look very different and also helps us distribute the crowd better.

While there is no end to the amount of money you can spend on your booth, you do not have to be the most expensive booth to look professional. Get started early on your booth, think about the layout and what will make your different, get quotes from different vendors, negotiate heavily AND shamelessly, and then go for the most cost-effective option.

#8: Arrive a day early

Anything can go wrong at a tradeshow. The back wall might be missing, the furniture lesser than you ordered, the shipments might be delayed…anything can go wrong. I mean it. Okay, the back wall missing is an exaggeration. So get to the expo hall with at least 4-5 working hours in hand and head straight to the booth. Make sure you are carrying a copy of all your contracts with you. If anything is amiss, call up your vendors, tell them what’s wrong, demand them to come to the site and get everything sorted. You don’t want to be doing this once the tradeshow has started and people are coming into your booth.

Delayed shipping is a problem I have faced personally. So I now make it a point to carry a pack of visiting cards and some flyers along with my luggage itself. That takes care of the firs 3-4 hours of the expo in case the shipping has gone horribly wrong.

Typically most exhibitors come to the booth the day before the tradeshow, so it is a good time to make friends with them (everyone gets super busy during the tradeshow) and understand what they do. If anyone is interested in your products, pull out your Macbook and do a demo right there.

#9: Don’t trust the conference wifi

Conference wifi is sucky. Do not rely on it for your demos or showing how other customers are using yor products. Always have your own Internet connection that you can rely on. Buying a dedicated connection from the organizers usually costs an arm and a leg, so avoid that.

The best thing to do is buy Internet sticks from whichever country you are traveling to and use them. And if you want to be extra safe, you can buy one from India itself before leaving – I have used Matrix which is strictly okay and Clay Telecom is the other one I have heard of but never used.

#10: Go around the show and meet people

While the purpose of having a booth is to get people to come to you, don’t restrict your interaction to just that. Go around the expo floor. Look at the other booths and take pictures of the good-looking ones. Meet the other exhibitors, learn how they are pitching their products. Stand back and hear how the visitors are reacting to these pitches, what kind of questions are they raising. There are tons you can learn from other people, so make sure you soak in everything you can.


#11: Have name badges

Yes, you belong to a company and your company t-shirt says so. But people like talking to people, not companies. Have your name put clearly on a badge. Visitors see it and address you directly by name without the need for introductions. Saves time too. And who knows, someone might be following you on Twitter and will recognize you from there.

#12: Take pictures

Yes it is obvious but in the heat of a trade show, chances that your camera will just be idling at the back of the booth are very high. After you are done with your demo and your visitors seem happy, ask them if they mind a photograph. With smiles and all. Nobody minds but being polite here is good. And then after you come back, show the smiles and the happy visitors to the world. That says so much more than words.

After the tradeshow

#13: Party hard

When it’s all over, party hard. It takes a lot of effort to showcase yourself at a trade show. You deserve some serious fun after that.

Shake hands with everyone in the team, thank them for their hard work, mail some photos and a quick summary of the tradeshow back to the guys in the office and pat yourself on the back for putting together the trade show. Then go hit that awesome club everyone told you to go to.

#14: Follow up

Nobody is going to remember you in spite of the oh-so-awesome-flyer and the giveaways you had. So make sure to follow up with the people who came to your booth. Use LinkedIn to connect with the people on the very same day. And as soon as you get back to office, send a mail. For us, the first mailer is usually sent out by the team member who met the prospect at the tradeshow because he can use his notes on the card or the feedback form to remember exactly what they talked about. Once that is done, we hand it over to the sales team for scheduling demos and further follow-ups.

#15: Do a thorough analysis of the show

It’s not over once the show is over. Do a through analysis of the show – what went right, what went wrong, what did you learn from it and what can you improve next time. Get the opinion of everybody in the team. What was the audience like, what do your metrics look like, what drew the crowd to the booth, was it the video screen, what were you lacking at the booth, what pitch worked best, what demo worked best, what logistical issues you faced etc. These pointers are what will help you prepare better for the next tradeshow. And update that cost sheet so that once your sales guys are done with their follow-ups, you can find out what the RoI of the tradeshow was.

#16: Put out the pics for the world to see

After you come back from the show, do a post-event blog post to show your pics to the world, tell them how you liked the show, what you learnt about the industry and how much fun you had. Treat this very similarly to how you love showing pics to your family and friends right after you come back from a vacation – it is good to recollect the memories, share the fun things that happended and you have something to show for your efforts.

Which of these tips do you find the most helpful? What else has worked for you at tradeshows? Do you disagree with anything? Let us know in the comments.

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