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The Sales Funnel Approach to Managing Tradeshows and Delivering ROI


The fall tradeshow season is upon us! But before you start packing up that booth and that suitcase, let’s talk about some tradeshow sales strategies that are going to make your time and investment pay off.

Although tradeshows present a great opportunity to generate leads, many sales teams are focused on the event itself, and fail to pay enough attention on preparing for the show and following up afterwards. Your strategy for delivering a successful show, generating leads and delivering a solid return for your company’s investment should not be focused on the tradeshow itself, but the activities you do around the show to make sure the dollars your company invests pay out and you continue to receive your bonus.

And how do you know if a trade show is worth the time and cost investment? Here’s a tip: Top sales influencer Colleen Francis recommends attending a tradeshow only if you can make 10x the revenue within 6 months of the show vs. what it costs you to be there.

Trade shows are targeted
Trade shows, if selected properly (per the advice above) and if managed as you would your sales funnel, can be rich in new leads because:

  1. Attendees are looking for new solutions. According to Exhibit Surveys, Inc.,67% of all attendees represent a new prospect and potential customer for exhibiting companies.
  2. Attendees have the authority to make purchase decisions. According to CEIR, 81% of tradeshow attendees have buying authority, which means more than 4 out of 5 people walking the aisles are potential customers for exhibitors.
  3. Attendees are in a position to influence future purchases. From the same CEIR report, 46% of tradeshow attendees are in executive or upper management.

Knowing these highly qualified prospects will be attending a tradeshow does not guarantee you a strong ROI, however, should you decide to participate. You still have to manage your presence and participation in order to maximize the return on your investment. It’s like any other aspect of your sales process: You must know your goals and you must manage it like you do your sales funnel.

One: Know your goals—and how you’ll pursue them
If you can’t measure it, how do you know if you succeeded or not? You measure many factors as part of your sales process, and you work towards predefined goals. Attending a tradeshow requires that same approach. So first define your goal(s).

Typically, the top three goals for exhibitors at tradeshows are 1) brand awareness, 2) lead generation, and 3) relationship building, according to Skyline Exhibits market research.

How do you measure the ROI of brand awareness and relationship building? It’s tough to do; you’ll need some sophisticated attribution modeling. Be sure to do some homework around that well in advance. (And don’t use “brand awareness” as the cop out when the show doesn’t generate the volume of leads expected, or you’ll quickly find your budget for attending tradeshows greatly diminished.)

Of course a recognized and respected brand accelerates inbound leads, but you need to make a conscientious effort to generate those leads, whether you have a big brand or not. Tradeshows cannot be a “build it and they will come” initiative.

Two: Manage the show like your sales funnel
Your sales effort does not start the day the trade show opens, any more than your sales start the day your reps pick up the phone. As with any sales activity, there is prep work to be done. That’s why we recommend managing a tradeshow like you do your sales funnel, with a plan for the beginning, the middle and the end.

Before the tradeshow
Before the tradeshow, you are priming the pump. Think of this as top of the funnel activity. One of your goals is to create awareness among new prospects, so make sure your prospects know you will be there. Generate a list of targeted companies and people that are likely to attend the event. (If you are a sponsor of the event, get the list from the tradeshow organizers. That should be one of your sponsor perks.)

Then create some content that’s related to the theme or industry of the event you’re attending. This content can be published as blog posts, e-books, infographics or a survey report—or a mix of any of these. Make sure the prospects on your list are made aware of this content well in advance of the show.

Next, figure out how to meet with these prospects at the show. You could unveil a new product, give them a private demo, or offer a beta of an upcoming enhancement. You could also invite an industry influencer for a private, invite-only happy hour or social. For the highest-value prospects, offer them a gift such as an iPad that they will get for attending this social event or a meeting with you.   

During the tradeshow
During the show, you should be engaging with prospects—asking questions, getting to know them and their biggest headaches/pain points. Think of this as your mid-funnel activity. Your goal here is education, engagement and lead capture. You are building trust and furthering relationships.

Think about what will attract people to your booth and then make them trust you. Content plays a huge role here, but so does creativity. Some possibilities include:

  • Offer free assessments.
  • Host an industry expert and have them offer free consultations at your booth.
  • Ask people to register to receive the survey report.
  • Offer autograph signings by a famous person, spokesperson or well-known influencer.
  • Offer of a service for free at the trade show.
  • Offer a comfy place for people to mix and mingle off the tradeshow floor.
  • Give people free food via a food truck or other mobile means.
  • Throw a co-sponsored party away from yet near the conference; this could be a launch party or a theme party.
  • Throw a charity event, tournament or exclusive party with a famous person or top influencer as the guest of honor.
  • Host an offsite sporting event.
  • Give away an amazing goodie bag of great items.
  • Invite your prospects to a complementary event held after the tradeshow.

After the tradeshow
The time after the event is all about follow-through and conversion by leveraging the relationship between the prospect and the sales rep that was developed at the show.

You’ll be exhausted after being “on” for days. Prep yourself and your team to hit the ground running when you get back to the office, with some solid tradeshow follow-up. Sales reps and even managers should block off entire week after show for follow-up calls, emails, meetings, etc.

This is not only smart planning.  Being well-prepared with a post-show follow-up strategy will give you a competitive advantage. Fewer than 70% of exhibitors have a formalized plan or process in place for how leads are followed up after the show.

Develop a specific communication sequence and follow it.  Prioritize the leads.  Determine who needs nurturing and who is more likely to buy now. For those leads who need additional time to mature, follow them on the appropriate social channels and connect with them via LinkedIn. When you reach out to them, personalize your message to demonstrate that you were really listening at the tradeshow.  

Create a specific call to action that reinforces the show offer or discount. You could even create a show follow-up packet that includes recent industry research and candid pictures from the show, perhaps photos you snapped while they were at your booth.  

Depending on the length of your sales cycle, the ROI of a tradeshow can be difficult to measure accurately. It’s relatively easy to add up the costs of an event: the fees, travel expenses, materials, giveaways and your reps’ time, for example. It is much more difficult to track the return or revenue that’s generated.  By choosing the right shows to attend and taking a disciplined approach to marketing before, during and after the event, you can prove to your management that each show you attend is a good investment. 

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