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The ROI from exhibiting or sponsoring a tradeshow is increasingly being questioned by marketing and business executives.  And for good reason – Compare the number of leads generated from a $50,000 tradeshow stand versus a similar investment in web-based marketing alternatives (e.g. Google Pay-Per-Click).  Justifying an exhibit or sponsorship has grown even more challenging in the wake of the macro-economic recession that plagued the world throughout 2008-2009.  From my perspective, the benefit of exhibiting at tradeshows has always been less about generating leads and more about building brand awareness, solidifying customer relationships and accelerating deal cycles.

The real benefit of an exhibit is to build awareness.  You may or may not generate a large volume of well-qualified new leads from a tradeshow, but your customers and prospects will notice if you are there.  More importantly, they will also notice if you are not there, which is the risk that marketing executives face with pulling out.

But is there a way to gain value from a tradeshow without investing tens of thousands of dollars to sponsor?  I would enthusiastically say “Yes, there are a few techniques that can be used.”  First, even if you plan not to exhibit, I always encourage sales representatives to attend for networking purposes.  Tradeshows provide a very cost-effective venue for a concentrated series of meetings with customers and prospects.  For prospects in a deal cycle, a face-to-face meeting outside of their offices can often help to reinforce confidence, identify issues and accelerate decision making.

Consumer Electronics Show – One of the Few “Must Exhibit” Events

The benefits of building relationships and moving deal cycles can often be  gained simply by attending rather than sponsoring.  But what about building brand awareness?  Are there options outside of exhibits?  Well,  first you can submit a proposal for a speaking engagement.  But in my experience unless you have a very high profile customer case study to present, you are likely to be turned down without a sponsorship.  Another approach is to rent a mobile billboard on a truck, which can circle the convention center promoting your message.  A colleague of mine recently witnessed a SAP competitor using this approach to promote their MDM offering at the Sapphire show in Orlando.  A third approach, which is simpler and cheaper is to ask a question during one of the conference presentation sessions.

With the goal of generating highly interactive sessions, the organizers of tradeshows are offering more and more opportunities for audience members to ask questions of panelists and presenters.  End-users from industry will typically utilize this opportunity to get clarification on topics important to their company.  However, vendors can use such an opportunity to build brand awareness and generate discussion about their ideas.  Asking a question in a well-attended session is essentially free publicity.  And this publicity is gained without the usual “cost of entry” required to getting visibility at such an event.  The “mic-babe” walking through the crowd is usually thrilled to see any audience participation and therefore rarely discriminates as to who can ask questions.

While such an approach can be very effective, it can also backfire if the question or lead-in is inappropriately worded.  Many vendors spend too long introducing their company or ask ill-informed questions.  I was at a conference earlier today in which a vendor asked why there wasn’t more focus on security at the event.  He was surprised to learn that the next session in the same room focused on security, a fact that was well documented in the conference program.

I would recommend starting with a brief 15-second introduction which includes your name, company and description of your role in the industry.  Then ask a thought-provoking or somewhat controversial question to the speakers or panelists.  The idea is to challenge the conventional wisdom about an established business model or technology paradigm.  Ideally, the panelists will debate and comment leading to follow-up questions from the audience.  Such an approach will generate hallway chatter which invariably includes your company’s brand name.

Steve Keifer

Steve Keifer has led marketing and product management teams at seven different SaaS and cloud providers ranging from venture-backed, early-stage startups to multi-billion, publicly traded companies - including several that experienced hypergrowth, filed IPOs, and reached unicorn status. In Bantrr, Steve shares many of the best practices and lessons learned from building and scaling marketing organizations. Topics include new category creation, brand development, and demand generation.

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