Do You Love to Hate Trade Shows? Here’s How to Find the ROI.

Boondoggle or Necessary Evil?

Most entrepreneurs I know have a love-hate relationship with trade shows. Event marketing feels like a necessary evil, and a costly one.

Execs complain that exhibiting at trade shows is expensive, consumes lots of staff resources (especially for small companies) and offers nebulous results. “They’re a boondoggle,” said one CEO I spoke with recently.

On the flip side, trade shows offer tremendous potential for break-out exposure. You’ll find lots of customers and prospects in one place, ready access to media and analysts, and exceptional opportunities to make or improve industry connections.

The problem with trade shows is two-fold: 1) tapping in to all these benefits takes hard work, and 2) measuring the results can be difficult.

Address both these issues, and your disdain for trade shows can quickly shift into fandom.

Where’s the ROI?

A few years ago I worked for a mid-market tech firm serving customers around the globe. Our trade show spend was over a million dollars a year, more than 20% of the entire marketing budget.

You don’t spend that kind of money without being able to quantify results, so one of my first steps when taking on the marketing leadership role was to establish ROI tracking.

The trick here is to take a holistic approach. Capture all your costs, including staff time on site, travel expenses, pre-show marketing and post-show follow-up. You may need to rent lists, secure sponsorships, print materials and handouts, hire entertainment talent, pay shipping and show services.

Include everything so you know the real cost of these events. (If you need a quick rule of thumb for budgeting, allocate 3-4 times the cost of booth space.)

On the top line, look not only at revenue booked during the show, but other measures of value. Sales closed on-site were probably in the works long before the event, so you need to decide whether to attribute them to the show or not. In addition to sales booked, consider:

  • What new relationships were forged?
  • What contacts moved forward in the pipeline?
  • How many new leads were captured?

It may take weeks or even months after the show to determine your conversion rates for new leads, but over time you’ll get better at forecasting close rates. Then you can accelerate your ROI calculation with accurate estimates until you get the final numbers.

Did you meet with industry analysts, secure media coverage or identify new partner opportunities? These things also have value that should be recorded as part of your post-show analysis. There’s an opportunity cost to missing these opportunities, and a much higher cost in pursuing these connections, one-by-one, outside of the trade show environment.

How Do You Capture Opportunity?

There’s a saying that just showing up is 90% of success, but trade shows are one case where you need to do a lot more. You can’t roll in the day before an event and expect to capture all the value potential that’s there.

[Tweet “There’s a saying that just showing up is 90% of #success, with a #tradeshow that’s simply not true. You have to plan.”]

A successful trade show requires pre-planning and follow-up that many companies don’t emphasize enough. Depending on the size and scale of the event, this many need to begin several months in advance, and certainly no less than 4-6 weeks out.

It starts when you first begin to explore which shows to attend. Regardless of what show organizers tell you (they’re selling space, after all) and where your competitors exhibit, you need to ensure each show is right for your business.

Are your customers and buyers there? Do you have the resources to create an effective presence? It’s better to skip a show than to waste the money on a mediocre effort. Fewer shows with stronger impact offer better ROI.

It Takes a Team

Get sales and marketing together and determine objectives for the event well in advance. What are your goals in terms of new leads, meetings, booth traffic, or related events like customer roundtables or receptions?

What products or services will you present? Do you need demos, marketing collateral, special equipment or displays? Create a plan and be sure everyone from your company understands what you’re trying to accomplish and how you will measure results.

An informed staff provides better service and increases your chances of connecting with valuable prospects. Ideally, meet with everyone right before the show, either on site or in the office. Include all your sales people and any executives in attendance.

Review goals, expectations, procedures and logistics so everyone is on the same page. Answer questions like how to capture leads, what time demos are scheduled, where the company party is and so on.

This is a good time to point out that “hidden leads” undermine your ROI. Hidden leads occur when a sales rep pockets a business card or forgets to note a meeting or key conversation. Stress the importance of capturing all data so executives have the information they need to decide if the show is worth a return visit next year.

After the Show

Regardless of how you capture leads, you’ll need a system in place to filter and qualify new contacts. A CRM system is ideal for assigning leads to sales reps. You may prefer to take the interim step of emailing or calling contacts, possibly using inside sales or an outsourced call team to qualify leads.

This is NOT something you can decide on after the show!

Speedy follow-up is essential, so include the process in your event plan from the start. Set benchmarks for how quickly you’ll work through leads, and create a method to report back on the results.

The lead conversion rate is a major component of the ROI calculation. Don’t drop the ball on tracking or you’ll risk under-reporting the impact of the show.

Data Matters

Strong data management and effective analysis offers tremendous insights into your event marketing program over time. Tracking touch points along the customer journey illustrates whether prospects are visiting with you multiple times before turning into customers:

  • Did you meet someone at a show last spring and finally close the deal at an event in the fall?
  • Did a recent lead have 6 calls and meetings with sales before closing?
  • Do prospects that see a demo at a show close faster than leads from other sources?

Data tracking can also help you understand how trade shows and events contribute to your relationships with industry analyst and media. It may take a while before they decide to cover you. They may need to see you repeatedly to understand that your company is a viable force in the business.

Finally, effective tracking of the results from individual shows helps you to distinguish between those that yield the best results and those that don’t bear fruit. If you attend 4-5 shows a year, for example, and discover that only two or three are driving high conversions or significant lead generation, it might make sense to drop the others.

I know this sounds like an off a lot of work, but if you want to get the best results from your investment and trade shows, everything I’ve described is important.

An exhibit company or trade shows firm can help with several aspects of event marketing. In addition to the traditional booth creation and graphic production, some offer advisory and consulting services to ensure you have a good plan and a strong presence.

If the firm you work with doesn’t provide these services and you don’t have in-house staff with the capabilities, consider engaging a marketing consultant to create your event marketing strategy and help you with trade show execution. The increase in trade show ROI will make the investment worthwhile.

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