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Trade show attendance is declining. It has been for years.
This is a common lament by those of us who cut our teeth working trade shows in the 1990s. Those were the days when trade shows were packed! The aisles were congested, presentations, music, videos and exciting giveaways could be found in most every booth, and spending hours on one’s feet felt worth it.
These days, the shows that are still around last fewer days, have fewer attendees and fewer exhibitors, and often feel, well, just quiet. There are fewer opportunities for good conversations, and hence, fewer opportunities to gain new leads.
Why this is happening seems pretty intuitive. Here are two solid reasons:
However, I contend that trade shows are not dead — no more so than print is dead, and no more so than email is dead (despite headlines to the contrary). Trade shows still have a vital role to play in your increasingly multi-channel marketing mix. Perhaps a revised role. But no less vital.
Here are the reasons why trade shows still very much matter.
Google can’t help you if you don’t know what you’re looking for.
Ever heard the expression, “You don’t know what you don’t know?” If you don’t know it exists, how can you do a Google search for it?
For this reason, trade shows remain an excellent discovery device. Walk the show floor, and you’ll doubtless pass a variety of booths with companies offering new and exciting services you hadn’t thought of before. You never would have thought to Google search for such services — you didn’t know they existed and you likely didn’t know you needed them either. Yet, there they are, right in the trade show aisle, and the only reason you know about them now is because you came to the trade show.
This is the reason for attendees to come to the show. But it works for exhibitors too. Where better to discover potential partners for product development and lead generation than a trade show full of vendors with services that complement your own?
It’s not quantity. It’s quality.
It’s a cliché if there ever was one. But clichés exist for a reason — they’re validated by repeated experiences. And in this case, it’s not how much traffic there is at the show, but the quality of the attendees. Arguably, those people who care enough about a trade show’s focus to incur the expense to come to the show are more committed to the solutions they might find at this show — making them better prospects for whatever you have to offer. There may be fewer people walking the show floor, but those people are more interested, and, with fewer people clogging the aisles, you’ll have more uninterrupted time with each one of them — versus dealing with a crowded aisle of questionable prospects, with barely enough time to say hello and scan their badges.
Face-to-face trumps phone, email and social media.
In this age of social media disconnectedness, rapid-fire emails and tiresome cold calls from sales reps, there is nothing so emotionally compelling and powerful as actually shaking the hand of a new acquaintance and making friends face to face — in a no-pressure environment that is custom-tailored for such interaction. As happens in many trade shows these days, you both — exhibitor and attendee — may have beers in your hands as you converse in the booth. You’ll form a genuine bond with genuine conversation — and your follow-up conversation after the show will be warmly received.
You can also think of a trade show as a way to make many face-to-face initial sales calls in one convenient location in a very short period of time. One place, many prospects. That’s economy of scale. Try doing that on the road, driving from company to company in hopes of gaining a receptive audience with the right person.
Legitimacy and credibility.
Exhibiting at a trade show sends a clear message to attendees: your company is an active participant in the industry, one that is willing to make this investment to meet potential clients and existing customers. Just like advertising, a trade show lends credibility to your brand as a leader and a viable partner.
ROI should be measured in years, not weeks or months.
Too often, we marketers are taken to task immediately when it comes to showing the ROI of a just-completed trade show. How many leads did we get? How many did we close in 90 days? 60 days? 30 days?
Yet, successful selling relationships, particularly in enterprise B2B, often take at least six-to-twelve months just to solidify. Similarly, the seeds that are planted from face-to-face conversations in a trade show may take a year or more to turn into a sale.
When the sale finally materializes, it may well be attributed to another marketing channel, because common practice is to attribute the close of a sales opportunity to the most recent source that motivated the prospect to action. That means that what started out as a trade show conversation may be attributed to advertising, a direct mail campaign or the web. We mustn’t forget to track the source of the lead to that very first interaction — at the trade show.
Like brand advertising, we need to look at trade shows as a longer-term investment in growing relationships — not a quick fix to meeting short-term quotas for closed deals. If we do end up closing deals in the short term, that is icing on the cake.
The future of trade shows.
Unless you’re Salesforce.com, which seems to have no problem filling up the halls of its annual Dreamforce conference with over a hundred thousand people, it’s hard to pack a show with attendees and exhibitors these days. Yet, for the reasons listed above, trade shows still matter.
Which means, we need trade show management companies to think out of the box when it comes to designing their future shows. Figure out how to reduce the expenses of participating in trade shows, for both exhibitors and attendees. Find new ways to deliver value with your trade show offerings. Help marketers better tie trade shows with their other marketing channels for increased synergy and ROI. Improve pre-event marketing to enhance the quality as well as the quantity of attendees. Provide relevant show content in the form of keynotes, seminars and networking opportunities. And more.
As often happens, industries given up for dead find new life when companies innovate them to meet the evolving needs of customers. As marketers, we still need trade shows. But now, we need them to coexist with the plethora of other channels at our disposal — and we need them to be demonstrably cost-effective. Shows like Dreamforce are showing that this can still be done.
Do this, and trade shows will remain a key tool in our marketing tool boxes for years to come.