How to get the most out of trade shows
You can also hear this article as a podcast
The important thing to remember when you are doing a show such as VegfestUK or the larger vegan consumer shows is that it’s not just about what you sell on the day. You shouldn’t be approaching a tradeshow like your local vegan fair.
Of course, if you can make your money back then great, but tradeshows are what we call ‘top-of-the-funnel activity’. It’s a place where you are going to meet those who are going to become your future customers, champions and maybe even people who might play a big part in the future of your business. And because of this, your show strategy needs to focus on how many new and valuable people you can get into the top of your marketing funnel so that you can continue that conversation and relationship with them after the event.
It’s about planning how you are going to get someone who is just passing your stall, and showing a quick interest in your company, onto your mailing list. Because you might find that when you look back at where a new customer came from that they were someone who met you at a tradeshow maybe 12 months earlier. But because you had a way to capture their details (perhaps you didn’t even have a conversation with them on the day) then you had been able to add them to your mailing list and connect with them on LinkedIn. This meant that over the last 12 months they had received your email marketing, they had seen what you shared on LinkedIn and eventually they had gotten to the point where they were ready to buy the services or product you are selling.
You’d been able to use that time to build up that familiarity and authority that you needed to get them to buy from you, even though they were not ready on the day of the event.
Scaling up your marketing
If you are serious about growing your business, then at some point you need to step up the marketing that you do. This doesn’t mean your company should abandon your local vegan fairs – we should all support them as much as we can – but it does mean stepping up to take on larger events like VegfestUK or the Plant-Based World Expo. If your local fair or market is where you will meet your end customers, trade shows like these are where you will meet people who might want to stock your product in their stores; it’s where you might meet a dream trade customer or business owner, or even an investor. If your local market is like Facebook, then the trade show is LinkedIn.
This step up in scale comes with a step up in budget. Not only will your stand cost you at least several hundred pounds to just book the space but you will need to get stand graphics or pull-up banners designed and printed so that you look like you’re serious. If you are selling stock from your stand, then you may need to arrange delivery to the venue ahead of the event. You will need to scale-up how many business cards, leaflets or brochures you have available to give away. You will need to get there the day before to make sure your stand is set up, which probably means paying for an extra night in a hotel. You can’t just turn up on the day with a box under your arm.
But the reason that everything is scaled up is because the number of people you will meet and interact with at the event will be far higher too. No matter what you sell, whether it is a service or a product, a different type of person is going to be attracted to these big shows and the potential to build your network is going to be much greater as a result.
Local vegan fairs are great proving grounds for vegan businesses, but companies will naturally graduate to trade shows and larger consumer shows once they reach a certain level of success. And those looking for businesses that have already proven themselves know this, which is why a trade buyer for Suma, Holland & Barrett or even the supermarkets will come to a show like Vegfest or Plant Powered World Expo, but are not spending time going around local fairs and markets looking for new companies to buy from.
Getting seen by the right people
For example, let’s take a look at Nākd Bars. You can now find these vegan fruit and nut snack bars in every supermarket and service station across the UK, but they didn’t get there by just calling up Tescos and asking them to stock their products. They worked the trade shows, they showed up every year with a bigger following than the last.
The first time Nākd did VegfestUK, brothers Jamie and Greg Combs had just three flavours of bar on sale on a very home-made looking stand. In 2020 they finally exited the business having sold it for more than sixty million. Those years of trade shows is where they made many of those connections; it’s where they built a following and got noticed.
But don’t think it’s necessarily going to happen on your first show. A buyer or dream client might walk past your stand and take notice, but may have to see you a few times at a few different shows before having a conversation. But even if that supermarket buyer just walks past without talking to you, you being at that show, putting yourself in the same space as them, gives you that chance to start making that buyer aware of your brand.
And this is how you will start to get the real benefits from doing larger trade and consumer shows. Think of having a stand at an event as a real-world lead magnet, just like the PDF download you might have on your website. If someone pauses and reads the information on your stand or picks up your product, then you want that person on your mailing list. At the very least you want them following you on social media! They might not be interested in buying today, but they might be interested in buying or having a conversation in the future. So you need to be collecting the email addresses of anyone who stops and pays attention – because just by stopping and reading, or by browsing through your products, that person is self-identifying themselves as a potential future customer or as someone who has a potential interest in your businesses or services
If someone pauses and reads the information on your stand or picks up your product, then you want that person on your mailing list. At the very least you want them following you on social media!
Getting potential customers and contact into your 'funnel'
So you need to have a mechanism to get that person into your funnel, not just let them walk away. If you have a business-to-business service then that’s probably going to be quite easy to do. After you’ve had a quick conversation with someone you can just ask them if they have a business card so that you can send them some more information, and then you can add them to your mailing list to nurture that future sale. If you’re selling a product to consumers however then people won’t be carrying business cards and we have to be a bit more careful about respecting their data – so you will need another mechanism to get their details and permission to market to them.
And this is where you can get really creative. At a show earlier in the year a company were giving away free sample packs of vegan croissants, but to get a pack you had to unlock your phone, open Instagram or Facebook, and then give your phone to one of the people on the stand so that they could follow their company page from your account. There was a moment where you could see people hesitating before handing their phones over, but the staff were doing it in such a friendly and entertaining way, pretending to run off with people’s phones, and it was a really big pack of croissants that you got in return! So most people were joining in and letting the staff on the stand use their accounts to follow the company’s page.
When we had a stall for our marketing agency at a trade show, we booked a magician for the day. He was great, running around asking people if they wanted to see a magic trick, asking them for a business card and then making that card disappear in different theatrical ways. Some cards seemed to burst into flames, some turned into a small bunch of flowers, and each card he palmed he gave back to us and we put that person onto our follow-up list from the day. We got hundreds more contacts out of that show than just the people who we got to speak to.
So get creative. What’s going to get someone to stop at your stand, and then what’s going to get that person to give you their contact details so that you can get them into the top of your marketing funnel? What exchange can you make? Can you give someone a free gift in return for their email address or a social media follow? Can you run a prize draw or competition for the latest game console in return for someone’s details? Instead of giving out a physical brochure, can you get people to enter their email address into an iPad so that you can email them a digital version instead, and at the same time subscribe them to your mailing list?
Because that person will likely see hundreds of businesses at the show, they might have twenty different conversations on the day, and as soon as they leave the building they will not remember the vast majority of them. So it’s down to you to continue that conversation after the event. And in order to do that you need to get that person into your funnel – you need to have got anyone who showed interest on the day onto your mailing list or following you on social. You need to follow-up personally with anyone you had a conversation with, not hope they remember to contact you. And to do that you need to have got their details. So at the very least, make sure you’ve got a notebook and pen to write down an email address or phone number of anyone you get into a conversation with, and make sure you write down a few lines of what conversation you had and why you need to follow-up, because trust me – you will have forgotten yourself by the time the event is over!
Many shows also offer some in-person networking opportunities, such as break-out spaces where people can network or end-of-day drink receptions for the exhibitors. Throw yourself into these opportunities, grab a drink, spot a group of people and go over and introduce yourself. Remember that most of the people here won’t know anyone either and are there to do business, so will be happy to start up a conversation. Because you never know who you will meet.
Leveraging your digital strategy
Although doing trade shows and these bigger events will get your company exposure on the day, you can increase this exposure further by also turning the event into content for your online channels. You might engage with a couple of hundred of people at an event, but if you leverage the right digital strategy hand-in-hand with the event, then thousands of people might see your message on the back of the show.
So think about doing social media ‘lives’ from your stand to talk about what you are exhibiting at the event. Take selfies with the people who stop at your stand, post them on your social media and get people to tag themselves in. If you meet someone who is well-known in your industry, take a photo of them stood by your stand and post the photo on LinkedIn. Tag them into the photo so that all of their followers and connections get to see your brand too.
Record interviews with your staff on your stall to share after the event. Get your product designer to talk about how they evolved the product. Record a live product demonstration. All of these strategies will help you get seen by thousands (maybe even tens of thousands) more people than actually came past your stand on the day.
And it’s no longer enough to just tell your contacts that you are going to be at an exhibition; if they aren’t attending the event, then you need to bring the event to them! If you are going to go to the expense of doing a major show then you need to get as much out of it as you can. Make sure that you have help on your stand so that you can be free to connect with what’s going on around you and record some content, take photos, get into conversations and increase your company’s visibility.
You might engage with a couple of hundred of people at an event, but if you leverage the right digital strategy hand-in-hand with the event, then thousands of people might see your message on the back of the show.
Creating your show strategy
OK, so let’s take everything we’ve just learned and pull that into a trade show strategy. We’re going to break down your event planning into three phases: before, during and after the event.
01: What you need to be doing in the run-up to the event
First, you need to shout about the fact that you are going to be at the show through your social media and mailing list. Photos work better than just text, and video works better than just photos. So record a short video inviting people to come and visit you at the show and tell them what they can expect to see from your company at the event. If you have a new product or service, let people know they can find out more about it or try it out on your stand.
Next, get your customers and followers involved in your preparation for the event. If you are getting leaflets printed then do a social post showing when you get them back from the printers. If you are having to make products for the day, show you and your team slaving away to get them all ready. Bring your contacts on this journey with you, get them as excited as you are about the event and give them FOMO (fear of missing out) if they don’t attend.
Then you need to start thinking about what can you do to get people to come to your stall on the day. Can you offer a free gift to the first ten people who come to your stall and give you the magic password?! Or can you do a special discount that’s only going to be available on the day or offer a special limited edition of your product? And if you are going to do something special then how can you use that activity to get people to follow you on social or give you their email address in return? Are you going to run a competition, are you going to have a magician making people’s business cards disappear, or are you going to have something really exciting and visual on your stand that people are going to want to have their photograph taken next to?
A big inflatable or someone dressed up as your company mascot? Maybe just dress up as a bee or an avocado yourself for the event! I’ve even seen people have bathtubs filled with their products for people to climb into and be photographed. Get creative and do something to get people to stop and take notice.
And then as the final bit of your preparation, you need to prepare what you are going to send out after the event. And this might be something you think you can leave to later, but you want your follow-up emails and messages to go out to the people who visited your stand the day after the event, or at least the next business day if you are a B2B company. If you don’t prepare those emails before the event, then by the time you get around to inputting all the email addresses and building your email in MailChimp, it will be a week later and you will have lost all the momentum from the event. So work out what you are going to send as a follow-up while you have time to plan it. Is it going to be a special offer, is it going to be an invite to book a meeting with you or is it just going to be a general reach out asking them if they have any questions? Get as much of your follow-up ready as you can before the day – trust me, you’ll thank me later!
So making sure you’ve done all that, along with making sure you’ve obviously ordered all your print and business cards well in advance, that will make sure you’ve got as much visibility out of the run-up to the event as possible.
02: What you need to do on the day
Usually, you will be asked to set your stand up the day before the event, but still get there as early as you can to check everything is still in place and maybe take some Blu Tack and tape with you just in case! But your focus on the day needs to be about being seen by as many people as possible and then capturing the details of those who show an interest in what you do. You might have 50 conversations on your stand on the day, but if you can leverage your presence on social media, you might be seen by thousands of people.
First, find out if the event has a social media hashtag they are promoting throughout the event. This is a tag that other people who are at the event might be putting into their posts, and if you use the same hashtag on the day then everyone else who is there is more likely to see your posts too. Next, find out the official event social media accounts – or the account of the event organisers – and make sure you tag them in every post you make at the event too. If they have a team looking after their account on the day, then they will be looking through social media for people posting about the event so that they can re-share those posts. Once, we were managing the social media for a company at a tradeshow who had less than one hundred followers on Twitter and we got one of their posts seen by ten thousand people, just by posting a really good photo and tagging-in the event organisers who re-shared the post to their own audience.
Keep an eye out for who else at the event is really active on social, especially if they have a lot of followers, and go find them! If someone is posting loads of really good content from the show that’s getting a lot of interaction, then go find their stall and do a shared post together. Tell them you’re another exhibitor at the event and take your photo taken with them so they share that. Invite them over to your stand to do the same.
If you can, try and ‘go live’ or record some live content on the day. Get someone to interview you, or record some videos with people who come to your stall that you can edit and put out later. Remember that trade shows are very noisy places, so get a microphone that you can hold close to the person speaking and have a few test runs to get familiar with using it. Even just recording a video a tour of your stand and what products you are offering will give you some great content.
And then remember the most important thing. Make sure you keep collecting those email addresses and getting those social media follows. The sales you do on the day might pale against the sales you’ll be able to do in the future if you fill up your mailing list from the event. Even if someone buys a product from you, still get their email address. Don’t just let them be a one-off customer. And don’t think they will remember you, because as soon as they walk away from the stand they will see the next amazing thing they want to look at and forget you.
03: What you need to do to follow-up
After a long day – or even after a long few days if you go to a multi-day show – you might be wanting to crack open the tea bags and flop into bed for a week. But don’t congratulate yourself so quickly, because you’ve only done half the job! You only have a really short window in which any follow-ups you send out will be effective. Your follow-up emails or offers to the people who came by your stand need to go out the day after the event or as soon as physically possible. Wait until a week after you met them and that’s too late, so treat the follow-up as part of the event itself. That’s why you need to have all this set up and ready to go before the event so that you can just drop in a few photos from the day and then hit send.
For those people who you really connected with on the day, send them an additional personal message – again, as soon as you can after the event. Don’t leave it for a week. Suggest times for a follow-up chat or send them a link to set up a Zoom meeting. Find them on LinkedIn and make sure you connect so that you can keep the conversation going soon after the event. Two weeks later and they won’t be able to remember who you are.
And then finally, appreciate that many of the people you meet on the day won’t be ready to buy from you yet. Even if they loved your product or service, few people go from first meeting someone to buying from them in one step, unless you have an extremely impulse-buy type of product. If you sell a service especially, meeting someone at a trade show is no more than an introduction. Make sure you add those people to your mailing list so that they start to receive regular content from you. Find them on LinkedIn so that they can keep seeing your updates, and invite them to follow your social media so that they keep hearing from you.
It might take six months from when they first met you at the show for that person to become a customer, but they will never become a customer if in that time they never hear from you again.
Make the most of the opportunity
With a bit of planning and a bit of strategy on the day, trade and consumer shows – no matter what industry you are in – are brilliant for getting you visibility.
But you get out of them what you put in. Consider doing away with desks and chairs on your stand because you want to be on your feet ready to engage people passing by, not sat down behind a table playing on your phone waiting for people to talk to you. You want to be constantly making eye contact and smiling and getting those who slow down into a conversation. And if your stand is dead for a period, then use that time to take some photos, do some selfies with the other stall holders or record your thoughts on the event and post it on your social.
A bullet point recap of what we’ve just covered in this article:
- You shouldn’t be approaching a tradeshow or larger consumer show like Vegfest like you do your local vegan fair. This is about being seen, creating visibility and getting people into the top of your funnel. If you make sales on the day then great, but it shouldn’t be the main metric.
- If your local market is like Facebook, then the trade show is LinkedIn. Look out for opportunities to talk to trade buyers, known people in your industry, and potentially even investors and dream clients too.
- Think of your stand as a real-world lead magnet. You need to collect the email addresses of as many people who stop by your stand as possible. Or at the very least get them to follow you on social. So work out how you are going to do that. What mechanism are you going to have in place to get their details?
- Leverage what you get out of the event by being really active on social. Go live from your stand, take selfies with the other stall holders or anyone who’s really well known in your industry. Make sure you use the event hashtag if there is one and tag in the event organisers so they can share your posts.
- You should have a three part-strategy for the event: what you are going to do before, during and after.Before: shout about the event and get your audience involved in your preparation. Also, get your follow-up email or any offer landing pages built and ready to go so you can send it straight away after the event finishes.During the event: focus on getting those email addresses and creating visibility on social media. If you are going to be selling product on the day, then try and take a second pair of hands with you to free you up to talk to people and get involved with the event.After the event finishes: you have a really short window to follow-up with those people who stopped by your stand. People are not going to remember you in a week’s time so get your emails and follow-ups out the very next day.
- Understand that this is going to just be the start of the conversation with many of the people you met on the day. So add them to your mailing list, connect with them on LinkedIn and make sure that they keep seeing information from you. It might take six months of building up familiarity with someone before they become a customer.
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