Trade Show ROI? 4 Ways to Get More of Everything You Want

The first trade show of the year opened with a quiet thud. CES’s 3,200 exhibitors may have gotten what they paid for, but unfortunately, almost none got heaping piles of awe-inspired praise (unless, perhaps, you were making a self-driving car.)

Wal-Mart, on the other hand, rocked the house at NRF. How? It announced it would hire Vets and buy (more) American products. The magic number: $50 billion. (Cynics, please sit down: Yes, WalMart is almost singlehandedly discredited with the shrinkage of American manufacturing. And yes, this increase – spread over 10 years – represents just a 1.5 percent increase over what it currently sources in the U.S.)

So how do you rock the house?

1. Go early. While shows remain a tempting launch pad, the premise of waiting for everyone to be in the same place to make your news is often flawed. It’s generally much more effective to launch a month – or even two months – before a show, so the sales team, customers and prospects have plenty of time to digest the information, and then come by for a deeper dive. And newcomers have plenty of time to learn about it, and come by for more. Coverage, or even buzz, is rarely the better goal. An early launch – on your own terms – is much better for closing deals, and getting new leads into the pipeline. Perhaps that’s why Apple, Google and Microsoft didn’t attend, and Apple no longer announces at CES, or any other major trade show other than its own.

2. Go for the jugular. Talk dollars and cents. In my experience, 9.5 out of 10 companies love their new features too much. Customers, on the other hand, love their own lives. That’s a pretty powerful draw. Tap it by connecting your offering with the heartbeats that really matter to all of us; money, time, and truly new ways of doing things better.

Depending on your product, the most visceral, tangible benefits of solving new problems are just a short hop from the big social issues we really care about, like our jobs, security, happiness and collective futures. Making a connection isn’t necessarily easy, and when it’s contrived, it’s terrible. But it can also be incredibly powerful. (See Walmart, and returning jobs to the U.S.)

3. Forget about the media. Not really. But reporters and analysts don’t really like trade show appointments, and if they’re running late, or lost, they may skip yours entirely. Getting press in the trade show ‘dailies’ is fine, but it won’t create a groundswell. Instead – and here’s where the basics of ‘classic’ PR still hold true – know your most important influencers, talk with them often (regardless of whether they have a print-property behind them), and make meaningful time to brief them, deeply, when it will be best for them. This may well be 3 weeks before the show. When you do, they’ll stop by your booth, too. And that’s the kind of relationship you really want.

4. Switch your PR laser. Go direct to your customers and prospects. Give them information they can’t afford to resist. Start it two months before the show, with a campaign that blends the big three:

  • Fresh product, with a vision that speaks to where their jobs, and pressures, are headed.
  • Snappy and credible market data that teaches them something new, typically about their industry, because it breaks through the clutter and gives them something smart to share, with which they can also make their (and your) business case.
  • And benchmarking, to help them get better.  Everyone likes to compare themselves. The best people want to see how others are doing things better. You can – and should – be an agent of that. Besides, the people you want to reach will consistently register for information they value – and once you teach them, you’ve reached them.

Most B2B companies can’t afford to singlehandedly move markets. Yet when you’re spending $50,000 – or a lot more – on a single event, you need to move the needle. So why not make up your own rules?