Clowns, costumes, caricaturists: they're staples of nearly every trade show, attempting to bring an audience to an otherwise lackluster booth. And don't forget the beguiling ladies, handing out fliers with a side of flirtation. Does any of the showiness of the showroom floor actually work to draw in attendees that become reliable leads?

"Don't get me started on booth babes," said Susan Friedmann, an industry consultant who goes by "The Tradeshow Coach." "People really have had to get more serious about exhibiting. When you're investing often several hundred thousand dollars going to a trade show, you have to get a return on your investment."

Whether your desired outcome is to fill a spreadsheet with sales leads, generate buzz for a new product, or just increase brand awareness, relying on random booth traffic isn't usually the wisest strategy, experts tell Inc. Plan early for not just creating an inventive and effective booth, but also for getting the right people to seek you out.

"A lot of show marketers leave it to the show organizer to drive traffic on the show floor," said Ruth P. Stevens, a consultant on business-to-business marketing and president of eMarketing Strategy. "You cannot cede responsibility to the show organizer to get all the traffic you want to get – you need to take aggressive action."


Drawing Traffic to Your Trade Show Booth: Plan Ahead

Trade show consultants and experts cite a statistic illustrative of the risk of leaving convention or show traffic to chance: Roughly 70 percent of show attendees plan a list of whom they're going to visit before ever entering the convention center doors. They say that number makes plain the power – and necessity – of pre-show outreach.

Stevens advocates taking a two-pronged approach. The first would be to contact your in-house file – that's your regular customers, local contacts, and solid prospects. The other? Registered attendees of the show. "Most organizers, if you are buying a booth, will give you access to this list," Stevens says. "You should conduct some outreach to them - or a segment of attendees that might be interested in you - either through direct mail, e-mail, or even phone."

While e-mailing a contact list is by far the most cost-effective way to spread information about an upcoming trade show or conference appearance, David Brull, the vice president of marketing and membership for the Trade Show Exhibitors Association, says snail mail not only still works, but might be the best means of communicating an upcoming event. "A postcard is pretty much the most effective – and odd sized is even better so that it doesn't just blend in and end up in the trash. I know one person that shaped theirs like a fish once, and that really brought people in."

While you're at it, make a substantial effort to contact and make appointments with your local clients, suppliers, or anyone you do business with in the geographic area of your show. It's a simple way to get face-time with folks you might not otherwise be able to sit down with – and a way to make sure you or your employees aren't wasting time standing around in an empty booth.

Dig Deeper: How to Make the Most of Trade Shows


Drawing Traffic to Your Trade Show Booth: Offer an Incentive, But Be Selective

Getting a piece of mail into a potential client's hand isn't enough, though, Stevens says. They'll also need a solid reason to show up. If you have a new product launching – especially if there's at least an aspect of it that will be completely fresh to consumers – promote that.

"Or, if you don't have something new, you might want to make a special offer," Stevens says. "It might be a price promotion, or a show discount, or you might want to give them a special gift for coming by."

But, there's a big difference in having special gifts for the people you've contacted before the show and doing a random promotion to draw foot traffic into your booth, Friedmann says. "You have to give your target audience a reason to come and see you, based on your goals and objective," she says. "I'm not an advocate of just giving away an iPad or a camcorder, because you're not attracting someone in your target audience."

That's because the old put-your-business-card-in-a-fishbowl-and-win-a-prize ruse to generate leads has proven itself stale.

"Putting a bowl out and asking people to drop in a business card is a waste of energy," Stevens says. "The real way to generate good leads is to have a conversation and kick off a business relationship. You can rent cold names for 15 cents each, so why would you spend hundreds at a trade show to get cold names?"

And the value of pricey giveaways can be lost if your company doesn't get quality warm leads out of the very thing that's supposed to draw people to your booth.

"You have to know your attendees," Stevens says. "If there are going to be a lot of unqualified people, like students or spouses, know that. If it's going to be prowled by a lot of tchotchke grabbers, you might want to keep the gift under the table."

There are other ways to bond with your target audience at a trade show. Friedmann suggests hosting events away from the trade show floor, in more private conference rooms. Reserve space ahead of time, she suggests, and use it for special product demos that you might not want your competition to be privy to – but that you do want your best customers to see.

Another option is to speak on a panel. Talk early on with the conference or trade show's organizers about possible topics that you and your company are experts in – or even a niche of a current industry trend. Being in the middle of the debate or on the edge of innovation, explaining it as you go, is a great place to be. The bonus: You'll be sure to attract those most interested in your work. Offer them additional conversation, a free book, or something else useful, if they'll stop by your booth later.

Be sure to let your clients – and future customers – know where you are speaking and what special events your company is participating in over social media. Increasingly, conferences create their own Twitter hash-tag, so participants can communicate with one another from the showroom floor.

"Individual show exhibitors are using twitter too – saying, hey, I just sold my first widget, or I just attended a great talk," Stephens says. "A lot of them are gaining more attention for their booth by just tweeting around."

Dig Deeper: Tips for Trade Shows


D
rawing Traffic to Your Trade Show Booth: Be Aggressive, Not Abrasive

If you're debuting a product, and actually want a lot of general buzz and interest in your product and brand, the golden rule is: "If you have a product people can play with, make sure you can bring it," Brull says. "The whole point of face-to-face marketing is so people can touch and feel things."

For small companies with small booths, just remember that for every 10' by 10' booth you have, you have approximately four seconds to engage someone that's walking by. And distractions are aplenty: "The trade show environment is easy to get overwhelmed, it's easy to go into this zombified state and it's so easy to not be able to take anything in," Friedmann says.

Brull suggests to draw in people, create a clean, warm environment they can step into. "In some way, it's your retail store. You need to think of it as your home for a few days, and inviting people into your space should be pleasant," he says.

Having the right people in your booth can also make or break the quick impression your company makes on passers by. For the weekend, remember, the employees in your booth are your ambassadors. While Friedmann says they should never hawk to people from the aisles, they shouldn't be hidden behind a table. They should ask engaging questions off the bat to find out in a non-intrusive way whether the person stopping by is a potential customer or business partner – or just might be curious about your brand.

David Maskin makes a living drawing people into trade show booths. He creates personalized nameplates by bending aluminum wire as giveaways from the company who takes him on to sit in their booth. While Maskin – who goes by "The WireMan" – markets himself as a traffic magnet, he tries to go beyond collecting business cards and creating cold leads.

"The way I like to do things is to go beyond just drawing people into a booth. The big word free is one way to get people to come in. Others will come in just to see what I'm doing," Maskin says. "And when one person comes in, their colleagues come and stand around, which gives the booth staff time to come and mingle with the crowd."

Stevens says: "To me the most important thing to keep in mind is quality. It's really easy to waste a lot of money on a show – it's an expensive environment on a cost-per-contact basis. You want to make sure you're attracting and talking to people who are really likely to be buyers or influencers in your world."

Dig Deeper: Smart Questions for Your Trade Show Organizer


Drawing Traffic to Your Trade Show Booth: Look Sharp

It's not just the shiny things inside your booth that can be a draw for attendees. The booth itself can attract visitors.

Aside from the open, warm, retail-style aesthetic Brull suggests, you'll want to make sure you don't box in too much of your space with tables or displays. "You don't want to block your door with a table," he says.

This year's Exhibitor magazine exhibit design awards hailed mostly booths that created a calm sanctuary in an otherwise chaotic exhibit atmosphere. And doing something that stands out doesn't have to be expensive. Autodesk Inc. won an exhibitor award for creating an 18-foot-high double archway or cardboard tubing that soared above its and custom-made walls and desks. The cost? Thirteen dollars per square foot.

"One of the most effective booths I've ever seen was a 10' by 20' booth with a back wall of boxes or all colors and shapes," Brull says. It was for a box-shipping company. "It was neat, and eye-catching, but it wasn't expensive."

That said, design options can be pretty restricted when you only have a 10' by 10' or 15' booth.

"The most important thing in booth design in a small booth – or any booth really – is the signage," Stevens says. "Assuming you've done your work in pre-show promotions, you want to attract the people who know you."

The way to attract them, Stevens says, is with a "benefit-oriented" sign. It should:

-       Be visible and legible from down an aisle on the showroom floor
-       Have words that give a potential client a good reason to stop.
-       Answer the question for a client: What's in it specifically for me?
-       Not use a lot of jargon, such as "exceptional interface."
-       Include a solution to a business problem.

Don't be afraid to be specific – turning off a segment of the trade show audience who isn't your target is just fine.

"If you're offering specific software for accountants, say so," Stevens says. "You do in fact want to repel unqualified prospects. The real value of show exhibiting is to develop valuable contacts with people you might do business with, and you only have x number of hours to do that."

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