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Let’s talk trade shows! Who needs what!

The Organizer needs everyone to come, learn, enjoy and commit to returning next year
The Attendee needs the time, approval, budget and the justification or expectation that they can see something that they cannot see on the web, virtual reality, video or animation
The Exhibitor needs a sale, a client to be there along with possible new clients AND the cost of participation has to be less than net revenue realized from the exhibitors’ participation.

These needs go well beyond brand building, entertainment, networking, edutainment –
– they speak direct to the business need of ROI, solutions, both personal, corporate and industry wide.

This engagement is more complex, nuanced and in depth than anything previously envisioned or labeled as a tradeshow, if you will, all the binary or “easy stuff” has been digitized and taken online.
Leaving us with a crisis or “dangerous opportunity” which I would suggest is how do we approach the difficult work of human engagement, where the strongest tools are listening – asking questions – and working collaboratively to solve a problem profitably.

To all of our organizer friends – If this is the case, do miles of aisles still make sense, as a means of engagement?
Is the mindset that we put people in the aisle and it is up to the exhibitor to make a profit still relevant?
Is the learning still designed to be ONLY in the sessions and break outs or do we need to enable event wide learning and engagement?

Could it be that the time has come to revisit the very reason for having the event and show, reevaluate and redesign from the ground up everything from the p/l on up?

Trade show marketing, a sneak peak

SO long as exhibitors need sales, attendees need solutions and organizers want to bridge these needs, trade shows are likely to remain viable, BUT …

I wonder if you have noticed your world changing. The old way of doing things does not quite seem to work and what to do next is not exactly clear.

However, one thing that is more clear than ever is that our needs have not changed and fulfilling them in increasingly challenging, for all three stakeholders; exhibitor, organizer and attendee.

You might be thinking either; I wish this was easier or that I knew how to make it easier. While we are as unsure as anyone, based on our exhibitor, organizer and attendee interviews, our working hypothesis could be contained in a single word- engagement.

A very interesting word, so much so that I would encourage you to take a minute look to up the word engage on your smart phone; it has over 10 meanings. A few of the meanings apropos to our discussion are:

To promise

To interlock with or cause to come into frictional driving contact

To be a part of it

If we were to construct a sentence with these concepts it might be …

Trade shows are a promise that drives solutions by bringing everyone, buyers, sellers ad speakers into contact with each other.

If we were to recast our participation strategy in this framework … what might we do differently …

The Power of Audience

There is an unseen power that connects all businesses and customers: audience. Mastering the platforms appropriate to your audience is simple, empowering, and essential to your success.

We may have a tendency to think of social media as a plaything of the generation who grew up with the Internet, used for gossiping and showing off. This could not be farther from the truth. The 2008 presidentia campaign, which saw the first black president elected to office in American history, was also the first campaign in the post-Twitter age. Obama’s campaign successfully integrated Twitter, garnering millions of followers whose enthusiasm helped him get elected into office. During the 2011 revolt in Egypt, cell phone service was disbanded, and people relied on social media for up to the minute information on what was happening. The Fukushima nuclear disaster also destroyed all cell phone service, and Line App, a text message application that uses Wi-Fi was created, helping families to find one another and stay together, people to find food and shelter, and loved ones from other prefectures to reach those affected by disaster.

Suffice to say, world events have taken on a new tenor since social media. We are all affected by this new immediacy of information. Because of this, our appetite for information is greater than ever—and luckily, it is rather easy to satisfy. This impatient appetite for information is the reason why simply showing up to a Trade Show will no longer be enough to grow your business. While the trade show brings your audience to you, it does nothing to express your unique brand to customers. You need the present day tools of communication—Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, Instagram, and Snapchat (just to name a few) to simultaneously express your brand and connect and respond to your audience in real time. Digital marketing is no longer the same: rather than exist on its own, digital marketing must mine these fields free information in order to work. The thoughts of users can be accessed by anyone, and express the desires and ambitions of your costumer base. Such information is worth more to a business than the marketing polls and email campaigns of yesterday.

Economists have already remarked that we are embarking on a post-capitalist age. In other words, commerce is individualized and diffused across time and space into a so-called “sharing economy.” People rent others apartments rather than stay in a hotel (Air Bnb). They buy rides form individual drivers rather than taxi cabs (Uber.) How do these miniature “businesses” make money? By connecting to customers through social media. You can empower yourself by manipulating these tools to communicate business to an unlimited audience. While such technology can reach a very wide audience, it also has the potential for extreme precision—the precision of a marketing campaign as focused as that of Kroger, for example. You can target specific demographics with different platforms. While Linkedin is ideal for long form thinking, Twitter can get a new idea out to millions in just a few seconds.

Mastering your social media image also allows for a transparent and honest business practice, on both a personal and public scale. The more often your business appears in the correct avenues (free advertising!) the easier it is for customers in all corners of the world to find exactly what they are looking for. On a personal level, it allows you to keep up with quickly changing audience perspectives and needs in different sectors of your business. Power is distributed more evenly and fairly between consumer and business than ever before.

Rethinking the Trade Show

Participating in a trade show is a difficult balance. While you must plan the trip carefully, double-check your presentation material, and structure every passing moment for optimal efficiency, you also have to be able to improvise and connect spontaneously with others. Without requisite planning, you risk loosing money and wasting time. However—too much focus on the planning leads to expectations about the outcome, which prevents you from making unexpected, invaluable discoveries and connections in the moment. This is the inherent beauty of the trade show: as complex, people-based organism, it is dynamic and constantly evolving.

This contrast between structure and spontaneity in trade show planning is not necessarily opposed. If you view the show as a diagnostic tool for your business, you can get the best of both mindsets.

In this case, a diagnostic tool refers to any experience that tells you about the state of your business, whether it be the key strengths and weaknesses of your employees, the core values of your audience, or whether or not your mission is easily understood by potential clients. These forms of essential knowledge are usually hard won through trial and error, but absolutely necessary to stabilize and grow your business.

Turning the trade show into a diagnostic tool is not a call to action, but rather a subtle (and highly effective) change in perspective. Instead of changing how you participate, you simply enhance it: By observing audience responses, new trends in your field, the communicability of your brand and mission statement, the visual effectiveness of your booth—and perhaps most importantly, how your team is working together. All of these elements can all be assessed in a matter of days at a trade show. As a small to medium business owner, you could send one extra employee to each trade show, designated simply to observe, record, and assess. The applied value of their data would be comparable to that of a professional hired to watch your business over several months—but at a fraction of the cost.

A diagnostic tool empowers your business by equipping you with the insight to create change. But it’s not just a one time application—every single trade show is a new opportunity to find causal relationships, which deepen your understanding of your product, your brand, and your audience, in turn increasing the profitability and long term growth of your business.

What Can Kroger Teach Us About Long Term Growth?

If you live anywhere inland from the two coasts, chances are that you buy your groceries at Kroger, America’s second largest retailer—which is catching up quickly to the number one retailer, Wal-Mart. The company has experienced a century of consistent and rapid growth due to one integral tactic: Kroger is a master at using data to drive sales.

In the 1930s they were the first grocery chain to test foods on customers and closely monitor quality. In the 1970s they became the first grocery chain to formally deploy consumer research. Kroger subsequently acquired dozens upon dozens of smaller retailers, now making them the fifth largest retailer in the world.

Rather than relying on demographics, which assumes data based on the combination of other data—for example, that all families with 2 children under the age of 10 in a certain neighborhood will purchase individually boxed cereals—Kroger sticks to the data itself. This is because the exact buying trends of individual customers cannot be inferred, but only observed. Perhaps one of those families in the same demographic prefers to eat healthy, opting away from sugary cereals, while another is more price-sensitive and only buys in bulk. There is no guarantee that buyers will respond to the products we assume they will purchase. Thus, there is a higher chance that the resources poured into research, coupons, and email-marketing campaigns will have been wasted. The only guarantee is that customers will continue to buy the specific products that you consistently provide at the same quality level and frequency.

Instead of using demographics, Kroger contracts a customer data specialist to create a unique profile for every customer’s shopping preferences: Do they shop organic or inorganic? Are their choices made for the sake of health or convenience? Do they buy generic or name brand products? No two are alike—and no one is tracked for just a couple of purchases. They are tracked for years.

This type of data helps ensure that costumers will consistently return to Kroger by enabling email-marketing campaigns and tailored coupon packages.

The trade show version of this practice of tracking would be Market View, which enables businesses to closely track their costs and audience responses over time, building unique, comprehensive bodies of knowledge, like consumer preferences and frequency of purchases. Such knowledge, when carefully observed and integrated with other factors can be highly effective in predicting future tradeshow performance.

The lesson we can take from Kroger and apply to trade shows is thus that learning the past is essential to business growth. Using the correct tools, such as we should be tracking past performances and then using that information to focus the future. Of course the real story is not about the technology itself, but the way we use it to achieve a level of transparency and understanding.