The Press, December 2004

Tradeshows are often seen as one of the key weapons in a technology company's promotional armoury. So why do they often feel like a single's night: sort of exciting but you don't really know who you are going to meet and how successful it will be. Asking yourself a few key marketing questions can help your company avoid doing something it will later regret.

"...stale air and fluorescent glare, ghastly food, the long lines you must wait in to be served, throbbing feet from walking the show floor, exhausting marathons of schmoozing and wheeling-and-dealing, the tedium of listening to long-winded lectures in windowless rooms that are either too warm or too cold and bathrooms that always seem to be a long walk away," the New York Times' description of tradeshow hell would make anyone think twice about it.

They are also very expensive for companies, small or large. Pre-conference promotion, travel, accommodation, exhibitor fees, stand expenses, customer entertainment and follow up can add up to a considerable bill.

For many New Zealand firms attending a tradeshow is still the way we typically start our offshore market activity. Sometimes it is designed as a learning experience, but for many it is a leap of faith - the blind hope that someone within the thousands milling around the exhibitors hall might be interested in your product, or even buy it.

The opportunities to show off your wares are virtually limitless, with every conceivable industry sector having a plethora of conferences. More than 11,000 exhibitions take place in the United States alone each year. If you had been in Blenheim, New Zealand in early November, you could have attended the first International Screwcap Symposium. Or in the middle of November you could visited the World Toilet Conference, a three-day international summit in Beijing, China.

Faith in the power of the tradeshow traditionally helped some grow to enormous proportions. The mother of all technology trade shows, Las Vegas-based Comdex, had 200,000 exhibitors in 2003. But things are changing. On the back of a drop to 40,000 exhibitors in 2004, including the absence of some key technology giants, Comdex has been cancelled for 2005 and is being reviewed. Infoworld.com said many exhibitors felt Comdex "had grown too big and unfocused".

So how can you judge the effectiveness of a tradeshow?

What is crucial to remember is that tradeshows are, like advertising or direct mail or the web or a brochure, just another marketing communications tool. Unless you understand what your marketing communication 'problem' is, it is difficult to judge whether a tradeshow is an effective choice or not.

Tradeshows can be an effective tactic when used for the right purpose. They often take place in strategic locations at the centre of your target market; bring large numbers of your potential customers together; provide a unique opportunity for direct, active engagement with customers; and provide an opportunity to observe your main competitors at close quarters.

A couple of questions can help you establish whether a tradeshow is for you.

The first question to consider is your target market. Who are they, where are there, what kind of companies are they? Armed with this information you can review tradeshow attendance lists to see what proportion of those who typically visit belong to your primary target market(s). And of these, what proportion of the attendees belong to your main audiences i.e. if they come from your target market, are they typically the right kind of people from those companies.

Next is understanding what drives your communications strategy, and if a tradeshow fits with that. Are you focussed primarily on building awareness, deepening relationships, or converting interested prospects to customers? Do you want to reach a wide range of people, or is your target audience tightly defined? You need to then compare the cost-effectiveness (e.g. cost per qualified prospect ratio) of using a tradeshow to meet your communication needs against other communications tactics such as advertising, direct mail or the web.

So you've made the decision to descend into tradeshow hell. To make the most of the opportunity the exhibition shouldn't be considered a one-off effort, but connected to all of your other promotional tactics. You should use those other tactics to ensure a good proportion of your target market is aware you are attending and have a good incentive to visit your stand or listen to your presentation.

There are many techniques that can be used to maximise the impact of your stand and get people to stop and look. The internet is a great source for smart ideas. Creativity is the key, but it's also important that anything you do is consistent with the message you are trying to send.

The bottom line with tradeshows, like singles' nights, is that attendance doesn't guarantee success. Because tradeshows are just a communications solution you need to work hard at defining the problem - what market, what strategy, what story are your trying to tell. Doing this thinking at the start will help make tradeshows a fulfilling experience.

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