Astonishingly, in little more than a decade, it's become the exception rather than the norm for entrepreneurs to actually shake hands with their customers.
Marketers now e-mail and (less often) telephone. Text-messaging and wirelessly accessing is routine. We upload so clients can download and we push-pull via GPS and LBS. Messaging flashes on screens in elevators, on mobiles, at supermarkets. And if you wait a nanosecond, no doubt there'll be a new biz-buzz way to ping your customers.
But in a world where high tech communications increasingly deluge consumers, high touch contact now stands out.
With so much technology driving customer interactions, face-to-face exchanges take on both higher expectations and greater significance. These days, talking to a customer can make for memorable moments.
That's why, besides other marketing channels, you ought to consider attending or exhibiting at trade shows and industry conferences.
What Trade Shows Offer
Often underutilized, trade shows remain terrific venues to fortify customer relationships, get to know industry movers and shakers, and develop cost-effective sales leads.
A June 2006 survey of nearly 600 managers at companies with $5 million or more in annual sales found that "trade shows, with their hands-on advantage, are great places to make a sale with seven in ten executives purchasing or recommending the purchase of a product or service directly as a result of advertising/promoting at a trade show."
What's more, the survey sponsored by American Business Media, an association of business information providers, concluded that trade shows "drive executives to seek additional information either on the Web (77 percent), by talking to a sales person (73 percent) or calling a 1-800 number (40 percent)."
Shows are also useful to unveil your new product or service, discover what your competitors are doing, and learn about technologies or products that will influence the future.
Developing a Roadmap for a Successful Show
Still, shows can be tricky to navigate and expensive to attend. It's hard to identify prime customers by wandering the exhibition floor or signing up for workshops.
To make a trade show pay off, you need to plan in advance. You also need to dovetail those plans with year-round marketing efforts, so everything's in sync.
Check out this nine-step plan for getting the most out of your trade-show dollar.
Craft an overall strategy. Small companies often prepare for shows only days beforehand when they ship exhibition materials and make travel arrangements. That leaves way too much to chance.
Instead, evaluate which shows over the year are worth your while. You want audiences ripe for your marketing and products. Set specific goals with quantifiable objectives for each show, building in profit-and-loss criteria for participating, and then measuring performance against that. You might, for instance, set a goal of meeting three new customers on each show day in order to generate a specified volume of post-show sales.
Also, look into opportunities to become a speaker or a panelist, which gains you recognition and credibility. Most shows begin the process of recruiting speakers about a year before the event.
Then check ways to cut costs. If you plan a significant amount of travel or plan on bringing team members, you might get a preferred-vendor status rate at a hotel chain. Many industry associations offer discounts for their members as well. And most conferences promote early-bird registration specials.
Research targets. Exhibition handbooks and staffers are a rich and often overlooked resource. Before a show, identify delegates you want to meet and events or evening activities that will be profitable for you to attend. Then pre-select your get-togethers and target specific prospects or customers for each show day.
In addition, put in a call to the show PR staff about a week before opening day. Ask about high-profile speakers or product debuts-and consider how to mesh your marketing with the show promotions. For example, if the show's PR staff is pitching a story idea to the media that fits with your product, ask if they can include your company as an example in their pitch.
Send advance introductions. Don't wait until the show to contact your targets. Develop show mailers (not your usual marketing brochure) that include a teaser or an offer to attract traffic to your booth, or that makes your product distinctive. Such messages are easily distributed via e-newsletters or direct mail postcards.
Have a Plan B. Shipments are often lost and travel arrangements go awry. Do not assume the box of booth materials you ship will arrive on time and intact. Make sure there's a backup plan for staff, marketing, and anything else you'll need.
Court industry media. Shows are an excellent opportunity to meet face-to-face with editors and reporters to present story ideas, introduce your team or spokespeople, and establish relationships. When done right, that connection continues after the show is over. Most shows also publish daily news bulletins, both print and online, that you can leverage for recognition.
You might hire a PR firm to manage your trade show appearances, beginning some months ahead and kicking in during shows. For a set fee, perhaps $5,000 or so, you can outsource the messaging, materials and mailers plus gain access to industry editorial contacts for interviews and stories. You're then free to concentrate on business and still benefit from a successful show.
Get noticed. Don't assume attendees will find you. You must devise a way to stand out, though opinions vary about how best to do that. Some experts recommend loud, bold displays that no one will miss from across the hall.
Others suggest just the opposite, especially for hands-on entrepreneurs. A presentation that enhances one-to-one interactions and the personal touch can make your exhibit stand out. Offer fresh cups of coffee to reel in weary prospects, for example. Just make sure to include your Web address and phone number on the giveaway mugs.
Consider offering services that let attendees interact with your product or offerings, such as an online demo.
One simple draw is to hold a lottery with an attractive prize. Collect business cards during the show and then draw one on the last day for the winner. More creative giveaways target the specific traffic you want by appealing to a special skill or taste. One company that sells computer servers developed an online puzzle that attendees could complete only after they returned home. That led target customers to register on the company Web site after the show was over.
Develop a script. Write down a show pitch and then practice it with everyone who will staff the booth, walk the floor, or attend seminars. Do not wing it. You want every employee to become an articulate company ambassador and you particularly want all the messaging to be consistent. Test its effectiveness by tallying the sales leads you get at a show. Then refine the script accordingly.
Build relationships with attendees. Be sure to listen and ask questions when interacting with customers. This will more likely lead to a relationship afterward.
Follow up promptly. Studies show most trade show leads are never re-contacted or activated, which wastes the time and money you invest. Publicists recommend follow-up within five days after the show, not several weeks later when the contact has gone cold.
A good return on your trade show investment means you need to plan, prepare and then follow up.
© 2007 Joanna L. Krotz. All Rights Reserved. Adapted from work for the Microsoft Small Business Center.
Joanna L. Krotz President and Editorial Director Muse2Muse Productions