Next month, the American Coatings Show and the Adhesive and Sealant Council Spring Convention and Expo will draw thousands of key players in the global adhesives, sealants, and coatings industries to Atlanta and Orlando, respectively. Ideas will be exchanged, relationships will be forged, and new customers will be identified. Even in this digital age, you can’t beat face-to-face connections with potential customers. That’s why the value of trade shows and conferences can’t be overlooked. In fact, at the last American Coatings Show in 2012, 44% of visitors successfully negotiated at least one business deal.1

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Because of ongoing budget issues, many companies are cutting back on trade show attendance. But that doesn’t mean that marketing success needs to take a big hit; it simply means that marketers need to make the most of the shows they do attend.

This challenge is heightened by the fact that many tactics like giveaways and contests are overused and rarely provide true value to the attendees. What’s more, marketers must resist the tendency to take a “too casual” approach to show preparation. If you’re trying to make the most of every trade show dollar, you can’t believe that “all we need to do is attend.” The competition for attention is too fierce. To build interest in your company at today’s trade shows, you need to have something of real value to say—something that demonstrates your company can provide potent solutions for possible customers and leave them wanting to learn more.

The good news is that due to the growing use of social media in the business-to-business (B2B) world and with the current value of quality content, you have more opportunities than ever before to maximize your return on investment (ROI). Smart manufacturers know that successfully executing an event appearance involves consistent, dedicated marketing and public relations efforts before, during, and after the show. 

Before the Show

Your company’s success at a trade show depends on the goals you set and the plan you have in place to make it happen. The first step is to get together with your team and establish some reachable, measurable goals. Ask yourselves what you want to achieve and how you want your company to stand out. You will need time to get the word out about the show, so start this process at least four months prior to the event; six months is even better for the really big shows.

Your company’s success at a trade show depends on the goals you set and the plan you have in place to make it happen.

This discussion will help determine what offers your company is ready to make. To prove your company’s value to the audience, you will need to align your content offers with the industry trends and topics covered at the trade show. These can be handouts like brochures, a USB drive pre-loaded with a presentation, a poster, or a video playing at your booth. Get creative and really draw attention to your brand.

During this planning stage, look for event profiles on social media channels like Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. See if they are using an official hashtag; if so, include it in your promotional posts, along with your expo booth number so people will know where to find you. If a hashtag does not exist, you can mention the event’s Twitter handle or Facebook title. Some events, like the ChemShow, host live social media feeds on their websites. Depending on how often the feed is updated, your business could gain some valuable time right on the event’s home page.

Browsing the social channels and using Twitter search will also give you insight into who is attending the show and what they expect to get out of it. If your company can help educate them or offer a solution, then reach out directly and invite them to your booth for a talk during the show. If you can offer them free passes to the expo, do so, and maintain contact with these people in the weeks leading up to the event, reminding them that your booth is their number-one resource for their solutions.

An often-overlooked strategy is to network with event organizers by pitching ideas for co-marketing opportunities. You can offer to:

• Write a blog post promoting the event on your company’s site or suggest other guest blogging opportunities

• Blast an email promoting the event to your customer list

• Host a webinar with relevance to the event in which viewers can register to win free passes

• Host a Twitter chat during the event using the official hashtag

You can use these tactics to negotiate for additional exposure like inbound links (on the event site), mentions on the event’s social media pages, free expo passes for your customers and leads, or even a discount on your booth or event sponsorship.

Beyond networking, speaking engagements are the second biggest driver of trade show success, according to a 2013 report by Holger Schulze. Arrange for one of your company experts to give a presentation or take part in a seminar during the show. Remember to avoid selling your company too much while speaking. Instead, focus on educating the audience about how to best handle tough issues—the problems that are keeping them up at night. This will leave a better impression and will position your company as a thought leader more effectively than a speech heavy with self-praise.

To further increase the buzz around your company, try reaching out to an influential person in your industry and invite them to give an educational presentation on your behalf. This person could be an analyst, a leading manufacturer or innovator, or one of your own customers with an exciting success story. You’ll gain exposure through their presentation, and they will appreciate the opportunity to share their story with potential leads.


At the Show

One of the biggest mistakes a B2B company can make at a trade show is have its sales team lurking in front of the booth. This may seem like a friendly tactic for inviting people in, but we all know that it can easily become “pushy” and keep people out. Let show attendees discover your company through the solutions shown in your booth display and your prominent content offerings.

Once visitors step inside your booth, initiate a genuine conversation with them. Don’t just go right for their business cards. Ask them what problems they are currently trying to address and casually discuss how your company can help. Wrap up by asking for their contact info so you can follow up with more information addressing that same need.

During that conversation, have your salespeople ask the booth visitors if they have any social media profiles, which your company can then follow. This shows that you care about their business enough to connect with them online and establish an ongoing relationship. This can also work to generate new social media followers with an established interest in your company.

Since you will have booth visitors with varying levels of interest and needs, you should have different levels of content available to offer. Start with more general information (such as sell sheets) available on display for all visitors to take at their leisure. Also have more detailed, solution-specific collateral pieces like brochures ready “behind the counter” for more interested visitors. This literature can highlight your best products or services for their needs. Before they leave your booth, remind them that your company is active on social media, sharing helpful content on a daily basis.

As these visitors are engaging with your team, be sure to take lots of pictures and video of the action. You can use this footage to demonstrate how your booth is an important place to be at the show. Share the images on your social media accounts and include the event hashtag along with your booth number.


After the Show

Networking doesn’t have to end when the show is over. Focus on social media and email for post-show promotion and to thank those who stopped by your booth. Share pictures, tell stories about your experience, show contest winners and booth presenters, and highlight any positive or exciting activities that happened. At this stage, you have an opportunity to reach out to people who may have missed the show by using general industry hashtags relating to your company, products and services.

If one of your experts gave a presentation or presented a technical poster during the show, upload it to SlideShare and promote it through blogs, social media and email. Always include a direct link to the presentation and a short description so people know what they are clicking on. Be sure to share the presentation with people who attended the show as well as those who didn’t. Use the SlideShare PRO feature to help gather viewer information for leads.

Any significant buzz that you built around your company should be used as momentum to fuel your next event appearance and to promote relevant website content. Start informing people about your upcoming trade shows, and direct them to information on your site where they can learn more about the products or services showcased at the event.


Powerful Results

With a little creativity, a smart mix of tactics and a lot of persistent public relations and social media efforts before, during and after trade shows, you can make sure these events are one of the most valuable tools in your marketing kit. Even with potentially high initial investments, a well-thought-out and well-executed trade show plan can prove to be one of your company’s biggest ROI drivers.

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2. The B2B Social Media Book, Bodnar & Cohen, 2012, pp. 167-176.