I’ve always hated tradeshows. They are incredibly resource-intensive as a percentage of the total marketing budget and, for me, consistently the worst performer in terms of actual lead conversion.

Tradeshows are much more expensive for companies than simply the hard dollar costs of travel, booth logistics and event registration. Particularly in a complex B2B selling environment, tradeshows force the most senior team members out of production for three or more days at a time. At my last firm, focused on engineering engagements in the tens of millions of dollars, our sales team was a small group at the Director and above level. Adding the soft dollar costs of having this team out of commission for a week, the price per actual lead skyrocketed.

Yet, year after year, sales teams trudge to these events, armed with collateral and knowledge of the companies’ latest and greatest accomplishments, hoping the tradeshows will deliver a host of lucrative new contacts. And year after year fewer actual opportunities and new contacts are gained through these events.


Why do we put ourselves through these rituals?

1. The educational component: I was a walking attendee at Dreamforce last year and left genuinely inspired, to the point of completely rewriting my 2014 objectives. From this perspective, the event was completely worthwhile, but then again, I wasn’t there to actually sell anything.

2. Part of the community: Perhaps most importantly, tradeshows provide some feeling of unity in the industry. We see partners and current and former customers.  We are introduced to potential suppliers, and we eye our competition. Being together, breathing the same recycled air, makes us feel a part of something. For a brief moment we are a community.

 3. The herd mentality: It’s hard to be bold enough NOT to show up when we know everyone else in our space will. If we skipped a tradeshow would people doubt our success and financials? As a result, we don our new logo wear, make the investment, and do our best to strike fear in the hearts of our competition.


5 ways to make the best of a bad situation

1. Be a speaker: It’s a well-known best practice that in a technical B2B company the best thing you can do for your brand is to be a thought-leader. This means developing technologies and processes, and publishing this content. Once you’ve developed the content, a tradeshow speaking engagement is a great way to promote this work. It also increases the odds of getting an actual lead from these events. After all, conference attendees self-select to attend your talk, based on their desire to learn more about the topic you are covering.

It’s also a great way to validate if the content is relevant and helpful to the industry at large. The questions at the end of the presentation are an immediate and free focus group on the interest level in and clarity of your presentation.

2. Schedule meetings at the show: For most this is a no-brainer. Don’t plan on booth traffic. Make sure you schedule meetings up front and keep yourself busy. Even meetings with existing clients can unearth new opportunities or lead to networking opportunities. Showing up to a show without a plan is the best way to ensure a loss on the event.

3. Don’t lose momentum: In the past I’ve had booth duty and business cards with garbled notes on the back were stuck in my pockets, conference swag bag and briefcase. I’d get back to the office with a stack of 50 cards and no memory of how I got most of them. I’d then do the obligatory follow-up emails and calls and have 10% returned, mostly from potential partners, not customers.

The lesson here is to use your devices on the spot to engage real time. A business card scanner and a smartphone with email and a calendar go a long way. For any interesting conversation, book a post-show meeting or call on the spot. People are much less inclined to cancel something once it has actually been scheduled.

4. Establish relevancy on the spot: Show me. Potential customers never say exactly this, but it really does help connect the dots and is why case studies are such a vital part of any selling process. Be ready for this ask and prove the relevancy of your solution immediately.

For us that meant first creating a grid with our case studies. We looked at the typical requests new contacts made in terms of several factors. We then sorted our projects in buckets that answered those questions; locations, outputs, fuel sources, etc.  Next, we made them all available in electronic formats. From here, we built a mobile app, which was able to sort and access these documents. Finally, we linked it to our CRM system, which could both distribute and track details on the content for follow-up.

5. Get creative: Tradeshows are most likely going to be an expensive and mandatory part of B2B marketing for some time in the future. Continue to brainstorm with your team to develop new means to improve the investment.