Hold your fire—trade shows still matter!

April 9th, 2008 Posted by Events 8 thoughts

Lately it seems like everyone is piling on trade shows. You’ve heard all the complaints: they’re too expensive, they take away valuable work time, they interrupt regular business, they’re exhausting, they don’t generate real leads, and so on. It’s become fashionable to jump on the bandwagon, claiming trade shows have outlived their usefulness, in light of today’s more sophisticated communications and information resources, including the Internet.

These contemporary “experts” certainly have plenty of ammunition; trade shows are expensive, and do have annoying negatives attached. But amidst the wailing about poor ROI and questionable results, one big benefit of trade shows stands as strongly as it ever has. It’s just too subtle and intangible for many blog-sperts to understand.

A B2B environment is a different kind of place. And quite frankly, not in the same way that Tahiti is a different kind of place. On some level, most professionals who work in the manufacturing or trade channels of a business-to-business sector would admit, deep down, that they know what I’m talking about.

You can feel it a bit when it’s career night at the junior high, and you have to follow the fireman, the airline pilot, and the TV anchorwoman. “Hi, I’m Pete’s dad, and I sell heavy extrusion equipment to the aluminum industry.”

It happens at the cocktail party when the follow-up question after “what do you do?” is often “Nice weather, huh?”

We’re very proud of our businesses, our companies, and the work we do. But people on the street just don’t understand. Know where they do understand? Trade shows.

For all their faults, trade shows provide the reinforcement of fellow professionals whose lives revolve around the same things yours does. They’ve probably heard of your company and products. And they probably don’t even mind hearing a little more!

I could easily defend the business benefits of trade shows; industry news, staying in touch with prospects, keeping an eye on the competition, and yes, some leads-especially if you put a little creativity into your efforts. (Without that, all your marketing stinks-not just trade shows.) But here I’m suggesting a more subtle, personal kind of ROI.

A trade show may conjure up images of shiny-suited, skinny-tied lifers with elevator speeches on their lips. But the reality is far different. You are suddenly surrounded with people who are smart, interesting, attractive…even fun to meet or to renew acquaintances with! And you don’t have to explain to them why what you do is important. They know.

Inside their walls, companies can get pretty insular and bottom-line focused, especially in a tight market. At trade shows, you can reconnect with the profession, the industry and its people.

Of course, we’re all in it to sell more. But don’t underestimate the value of pride and attitude on the part of you and your people in making that happen. Big picture, those long hours on your feet at a trade show can actually put a spring in your step.

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8 thoughts on “Hold your fire—trade shows still matter!”

  1. John Stewart says:

    In my view the trade shows have moved to the Internet:
    1) Availability:
    A trade show is only once a year, whereas the Internet is available 24 x 7.

    2) Complete:
    Every B2B company has a website.
    All data can be found by using a search engine.

    3) Convenience:
    No travel, no costs
    On your desk, at home
    All year through

    It is not so much the company websites, but the search engines who have turned the Internet into this world wide 24 x 7 trade show.

    This causes a new problem:
    How to get leads, as people come and go on your company website.
    You need to identify the visitor as much as possible.

  2. Mike Marn says:

    No one would dispute the value of the Internet. But none of your staccato bullet points address the theme of the post. Trade shows offer an element of professional pride, perspective, and relationship building that the Internet does not, any more than a pile of brochures would. While the value of those things can be debated, their existence cannot.

    I can understand why a vendor of Internet lead-management services would be quick to bury the traditional trade show. But claiming its demise is short-sighted and premature.

    A fine restaurant meal is more costly and more hassle than ordering out, too. But strangely enough, people still do it. I guess that “experience” thing still makes a difference, huh?

  3. John Stewart says:

    You are quite right: the Internet doesn’t bring professional pride, perspective and relationship building.

    However a trade show is costly:
    A company with brandname, spending $100,000 for generating 120 leads over 3 days on an industry specific trade show with several people.
    Or +$800 / lead. And these leads still needs to be followed-up, qualified, nurtured, …

  4. hi Mike, I saw your comment over at the Lonely Marketer and followed it over to this post. I like your writing style, and agree entirely (I’m bias – my job depends on trade shows!). The internet offers some nice alternatives (and competition) but I don’t think it will ever replace trade shows. Yes, trade shows are hard work, and they can be expensive, but if you do them right, they pay off (and you don’t have to spend a fortune on your trade show display – check out our website). There are also the intangibles that you point out, but I think it’s important that the real numbers add up too.
    By the way, I love the reference to being at your kid’s school career day presentation and following the “cool job” parents. Hey, be proud of what you do, whatever it is – as long as it puts the food on the table!

  5. Nice post. Im not sold on soft benefits, per se, but I agree that they are in there somewhere. My costs as an enterprise ISV typically are higher than most (due to the need for product demos), so my justifications typically are economic-based. And if anyone ever comes up with a real, effective show-in-a-box concept, look me up 🙂

    More of my opinion on trade shows here:
    http://davidcastroflorida.blogspot.com/2008/05/trade-shows-can-work.html

  6. Bob Sullebarger says:

    The problem with trade shows is that the Marketing Dept pays for them, and executive management judges them based on the number of leads they produce and whether or not those leads drive new business.

    After many years, I’ve come to a view that trade shows serve 4 purposes:
    (1) Brand Building / Awareness
    (2) Customer & Prospect Entertainment
    (3) Analyst Relations
    (4) Lead Generation

    Trade Shows would be a lot less controversial if the cost was allocated out to the functional depts that are most appropriate.

    (1), (3) and (4) are clearly marketing activities and should be paid out of the marketing budget. (The Marketing VP should be budgeting funds to achieve each of those objectives.)
    (2) Discussions with (a) customers we already have, or (b) prospects we are already engaged with, is a sales expense, not a marketing expense. It is no different that taking a prospect out to dinner. Meetings with current customers can just as easily be done at a hotel suite located close to the convention center. It is easier to have a quality conversation that way. Any conversation you have a show floor is hampered by noise, end up being more superficial, and almost always ends with “let’s get together soon”. If sales is unwilling to fund their portion of the event, or cannot produce a calendar of meetings, then the presence at the event should be scaled back.

    A good Marketing VP sets the expectations of his management team appropriately. “Guys, I am allocating 50% of this expense to brand awareness, 25% to press/analyst relations, and 25% to lead generation.” That sets the table and levels the table for an honest assessment of lead gen ROI when the event is over and done with.

    1. Hi, Bob.

      Thanks for the insightful comments. I think all too often companies go into trade shows with multiple rationales (e.g., brand awareness, lead gen, press/analyst relations, etc.), but on the back end, things only get evaluated in terms of the number of leads and the cost per lead. That can lead to poor decisions. I especially liked your last comment about how a good marketing VP needs to set expectation of his management team appropriately for honest assessments after. Spot on.

  7. The Internet has definitely become a must-have in the business world. However, I think there will always be a need for trade shows because more relationships can be built in a traditional trade show setting, whereas it is very difficult to build those relationships on a computer screen. Face-to-face contact is much more reassuring to potential buyers instead of talking over the Internet.

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