Last week, I attended an industry tradeshow as an exhibitor in a partner booth. It's been a while since I was at a tradeshow so this gave me a chance to take a step back and see what had changed in the last few years. Basically, I wanted to see if all the efforts and money put into tradeshows are worth it for a start-up.
As you may remember, tradeshows were all the rage a number of years ago and most companies, including many start-ups, felt they needed to exhibit at them if they were going to be considered a serious player in their particular market. This line of thinking never made a lot of sense to me, especially for a start-up, since the costs are high not to mention the fact a lot has changed in the last few years and there are many new ways to reach your audience.
To really decide if a tradeshow is worth it, you need to figure out what your objective is for attending that show and then measure it carefully. For example, are you looking to launch a new product and get some exposure, are you looking to generate some leads, are you looking to meet with some partners and establish a stronger relationship, are you looking to meet with some key editors or analysts and tell your story, and the list goes on.
I believe the majority of start-ups still do tradeshows to launch a new product and/or generate leads. My experience at this show was that I could wander the floor and not have my badge scanned even once. I don't even remember being approached by any booth staff. The booths that seemed to be busy usually had some show, such as a magician, or were giving away something free, in some cases beer and food which was a hit. While these booths had some good traffic, you have to wonder how many of these people were actually prospects for the company or people looking for free stuff.
This confirms, what I had already thought, in that the majority of companies may spend a lot of money on these shows but then they do not have a plan to reach the right prospect that will ultimately turn into a sales lead. In the end, they are going after a large number of leads regardless of quality but after the show do they capitalize on them? In these cases, the money and effort spent on tradeshows is definitely wasted.
To do a tradeshow in this fashion and make it worth the money invested, I strongly believe it needs to be part of an integrated program so that you are also hitting the prospects before and after the tradeshow using other media and tactics. You also need to clearly identify the top leads from that show and pass those immediately to sales so they can follow-up quickly while the others need to be nurtured until they are sales ready. In the end, I am left with further proof that tradeshows aren't worth it from a lead generation perspective as there are far cheaper and more effective ways to get better leads.
The one advantage that a tradeshow does hold is the ability to meet prospects, partners, or media and analysts face-to-face. This aspect of a tradeshow is extremely hard, if not impossible, to replicate with other marketing tactics and can go a long way in building your credibility with that audience. Building relationships that are started using other tactics can make a tradeshow worthwhile if you can find a way to do it cost-effectively, which as you know is extremely important for a start-up.
For example, setting up a number of meetings with prospects and showing them a demo at the tradeshow can be effective and cost less money than visiting them on a number of different trips. You can also capitalize on the fact that media and analysts attend these industry shows, willing to meet with companies, so you can have several meetings in just a couple of days compared to setting up media tours in several different cities. These are just a couple of ways to do tradeshows cost-effectively. The tradeshow will still cost a lot of money but you are comparing that to not having to make several trips which would also be expensive.
Maybe the best way to do a tradeshow cost-effectively is to try and leverage the presence of one of your partners, like I did at this one, and see if they have a partner pavillion or extra demo station in their booth. Many larger companies have this type of setup and if you can get in their booth, you not only save money (even if they charge you it will be less than having your own booth) but you also get to associate yourself with a trusted and more recognizable brand which is a key step in making your marketing more credible. This approach makes a lot of sense to me for a start-up.
As with other marketing strategies though, it's imporant to know your objective, set some goals and then measure the effectiveness of the tradeshow in reaching these goals. Only then can you decide if the tradeshow is worth it. I encourage others to share their thoughts on tradeshows and any tips to make an existing tradeshow program more effective.