Never underestimate the power of consumer culture when planning your business-to-business trade show experience. Your business-to-business trade show attendees are not from another planet. They are consumers—we all are. And the most significant trend in consumer marketing, what we have all come to expect, is a memorable experience.
There was a time when consumer marketing and business-to-business marketing were relegated to separate discussions. That time has passed. Of course, the sales process is different; most b-to-b sales don’t happen on impulse. There are corporate protocols followed in the corporate world that aren’t even a blip on the consumer sale radar. And yet, what consumer marketers have turned into a mandate for all of us is the focus on the experience.
Nowhere in the b-to-b world is the experience more critical than at trade shows. The attendee experience at trade shows is very much like retail shopping. Attendees want to feel something, not merely to see something—and indeed not to be told something. They want to know that the product or service promoted at the trade show will make their lives easier and their businesses more successful and profitable. At the same time, they want the quality of experience that they have come to expect when they go to their favorite restaurant, to the Nike store, to a museum with their kids. Or consider the popularity of the Instagram-able pop-up stores. The goal of retail brands is to establish long term emotional connections with their customers–exactly what exhibitors seek to do in a compressed space
Creating an Experience is No Longer Optional
For years, face-to-face marketing strategists advised their clients to appeal to the senses. That was—and still is—great advice. But the dynamism of that appeal has changed. Again, thanks to the influence of consumer culture, the options for sensory appeal have multiplied. Part of that can be ascribed to technology, but there are analog features that contribute equally to providing the optimal attendee experience.
An analog example? Staff behavior. When the people staffing the exhibit are trained to be part of the overall experience as opposed to standing behind a counter or, horror of horrors, lounging in the exhibit furniture, the power of human interaction cannot be replaced by bells and whistles, no matter how compelling.
Another example? Selective catering. Choosing menu items that tie into the brand story makes sense. Training the staff to use catering as a means of interaction, whether talking to attendees while they wait in line for a cannoli or sitting down to initiate a discussion of the technology in the exhibit are two examples.
One more overlooked analog experience that has worked for decades: the theater presentation. Too often, a product manager stands before an audience and talks at them. Theater, in this case, is a misnomer. Theater should be engaging and should result in an interest in taking the conversation beyond the presentation.
And of course, many technology applications are available to trade show marketers—from old school touchscreens and video to artificial intelligence (AI). What is important to remember is that technology for its own sake doesn’t equate to an experience. The sad fact is that many exhibitors fall in love with technology, and the exhibit experience becomes something like an arcade.
What ties this all together? Your brand. The promise, the story, the message. Engagement can’t be haphazard; it has to come from a source. And the source is your brand story. The narrative you create will make you stand out from everyone else on the trade show floor. What differentiates you from your competitors? How will attendees experience that difference? How can the experience move them to buy or prescribe your product or service? What do you offer that is unique—more than any other company on the show floor?
How Do You Pull It All Together?
Let’s face facts: you want to get the most from your event investment, and the most crucial element in that ROI is attracting the right people to your exhibit. Is it art? Or is it science? Or something else? One industry thought leader calls it “the Law of Creative Attraction.” Maybe it’s not really a law, but it certainly is a process. Here are the elements.
Collaborate with your colleagues in sales and marketing to identify the audience you want to engage. If you review the show audit, you will learn who has attended the show in the past, and with that information, you can safely assume the audience for the current show will be similar.
Craft a story that will resonate with your target market. What are their interests, their challenges? What will make their lives easier and, frankly, help them to be more successful in their careers? Yes, they want their companies to be profitable, but remember, in the face-to-face environment, you are talking to people. Trade shows are about the only marketing initiative that provides this personal encounter. Make the most of it.
Identify the type of environment that will work for telling your story. What tactics will be the most effective? Is this an audience that is impressed with high tech displays, or do they appreciate something low key? At the risk of stereotyping, do you have a Nordstrom’s shopper or someone who prefers a hot designer’s pop-up store? Personalize your thought process when you think about the environment.
Introduce the story and the elements you will use to tell it before the attendees ever reach the show site. You can do email marketing, but you can also create significant buzz on social media or by connecting with influencers in your field. And if you are using email to reach out to the registered attendees, use a call-to-action. Don’t just say, ‘stop by our exhibit.’ Give them a reason to do that, one that strikes an emotional note.
Define the specific engagement tactics you will use in the exhibit environment. What exactly will the customer journey entail once the attendee steps over the carpet line? What will it include? What do you want to happen?
Before the show, plan how you will extend the experience to cover the post-show period. We mentioned museums earlier. The trend in museums today is to extend the experience of the visit—with QR codes, with RFID, with any number of follow up initiatives. Once again, talk to sales. Get buy-in. What is the message sales should deliver? How do you want salespeople to receive leads? Will you be appending the data collected at the show to the CRM? You might find it makes sense to talk to IT as well as sales.
Finally, work with your partner exhibit agency to implement this plan. Yes, they know how to design the environment you want, but more than that: they know how to create, to choose materials, to present you with tactics that have worked with companies like yours—and how to do it within budget. Listen to them. Sure, you can question–or even argue–but with a trusted partner (and that’s a given), you have to believe they know what they’re talking about.
At trade shows, you are competing with other exhibitors, your competitors, for the attention of your target audience. A memorable experience that engages that audience will provide a touch-point for brand loyalty.