WordStream, a software-as-a-service search engine marketing platform founded in 2007, has matured on many fronts.

But for all of its measureable success, the one thing WordStream hadn't figured out at the start of 2014 was how to get results at trade shows. In fact, the Boston-based company hired marketing specialist Kate Gwozdz for the express purpose of gaining more qualified sales leads and boosting brand exposure at key industry events. 

Earlier this year, WordStream surpassed 100 full-time employees and $10 million in annual revenues. It has raised $28 million in venture capital. And owing to its rapid growth, it has twice appeared on the Inc 500 list. Founder Larry Kim (who, in the interest of full disclosure, is an Inc columnist) can even share a lesson or four about overcoming investor rejections. 

Prior to Gwozdz's arrival, the company had never tried to establish a booth presence at trade shows. I met Gwozdz and other members of the WordStream team at HubSpot's INBOUND conference in Boston a few weeks ago. It was their third event of the year. As it turned out, it was easily their most fruitful one, generating 60 qualified sales leads. At the previous two events, the team had only come away with a combined 17 qualifed sales leads. I followed up with Gwozdz in the hope she'd share lessons the team had learned along the way. Here are seven of them: 

1. Prepare for unreliable internet connections. If your trade show goals depend on attendees using online registrations or demos, you should revamp your appoach--or get ready to take manual actions if the connectivity falters. WordStream learned this the hard way at the first conference it attended in 2014, which was in April, at Hanapin Marketing's Hero Conf in Austin, Texas.

For WordStream, a key first step in qualifying sales leads is walking prospects through a free online tool. In any given month, between 60-70 percent of the company's qualified leads came from the free tool, which is called the AdWords Performance Grader.

"For the most part we couldn't even get the bandwidth to make it run," Gwozdz recalls. 

The result was a mix of bad news and good news. The bad news was that only 29 attendees completed the free tool at the two-day event which, all told, yielded seven qualified sales leads. That's better than nothing, but less than ideal given the company's overall spend on the event (including travel and accommodations) was $18,000. 

The good news was that WordStream got smarter about how to quickly qualify sales leads when the tool was unavailable. The major lesson was this:

2. Staff events with multiple sales reps. In other words, do not only rely on the events marketing team or sales execs. You might think this lesson is obvious. But you'd be ignoring the fiscal and logistical realities of trade show preparation.

The truth is, you have to be judicious about which employees you send. Every team member adds the cost of plane tickets and hotels, to say nothing of time away from regular office tasks. Moreover, setting up trade show booths is a valuable skill and job credential, in and of itself; at many companies, there are only one or two employees who can truly handle the task. Which means that you have to be selective about which team members you send, in addition to the requisite event staffers.  

For WordStream, it was a team of four who made the trip to Austin in April: Gwozdz and three others. But none of them was a sales rep. So when the free tool was unavailable, suddenly there was no one in the booth who--by simply asking a few questions--could quickly determine whether someone was a qualified lead. "We didn't even think to just ask in conversation," says Gwozdz. "We just assumed we'd run them through the free tool."

At the next event in August, which was ClickZ Live in San Francisco, WordStream made sure that one of its four attendees was a sales rep. In September, at the INBOUND conference in Boston, where neither travel expenses nor hotel costs were a factor, WordStream made sure multiple sales reps were on hand. Which meant that whenever the internet was unreliable--which it was--and the sales tool was unusable, there were WordStream employees on hand who could verbally qualify potential leads. 

3. Make sure your product is a fit for the event attendees. This, too, probably seems obvious. But sometimes it's hard to assess the fit until you actually talk to potential customers

For WordStream, ClickZ Live seemed like it would be an ideal place to land customers. The conference is dedicated to professionals who work actively in paid search advertising. But as it turned out, the attendees--sophisticated, paid-search professionals--were a bit too advanced for WordStream's solution.

Indeed, the whole point of WordStream's software is to make the process of AdWords analysis easy for non-experts.

"These were power users," Gwozdz said. "These were people that want to get very granular, and be involved in all of the details and have a lot of control. And so we realized, even though it sounded like this was our audience, it wasn't."

The end result, for WordStream, was that only 12 attendees completed the free tool in two days. However, the company still came away from the event with 10 qualified sales leads. Again, it was better than nothing, but not the ideal ROI for an overall cost (including travel and lodgings) of $25,000. 

The silver lining to that expenditure was that the WordStream team was learning. Another lesson was:

4. Ask little, if anything, of attendees. To run WordStream's free tool, it's necessary to know the login info for your AdWords account. It's one thing to have that info in an office drawer. As WordStream found out, it's quite another to expect trade show attendees to have it memorized or handy. Both in Austin and San Francisco, they came upon attendees who wanted to try the tool but simply didn't recall their login info.

5. Capture and digitize attendee information and follow up quickly. In both Austin and San Francisco, the WordStream team found itself manually writing down customer information, in cases where (for one reason or another) the sales prospect could not start or complete the free tool.

That was better than not capturing the information at all. But it still created the sorts of delays that are a drag on the sales process. For one thing, the WordStream team had to wait until returning to Boston to fully enter the information into the company's sales systems. In addition, this delay meant that WordStream's sales team wouldn't be able to follow up until the attendees too, were back in their own offices. By which time, notes Gwozdz, "there are 10 other vendors trying to schedule with them, and we're just part of the noise." 

The solution? For INBOUND, WordStream created several simple forms that attendees could fill out in little time. One was a basic request for a product demo. Another allowed attendees to email a link to the free tool to the right colleague. Then there was a signup for the WordStream newsletter. 

None of this was reinventing the wheel. But for WordStream, it was a useful illustration of how bare-bones solutions can be best, when all you really need in a trade show situation is an efficient capture of contact information. 

6. Collect business cards. When it comes to the low-maintenance capture of attendee information, old-school methods are effective. At INBOUND, the WordStream team set up a fish bowl to collect attendee business cards. After the four-day conference, the team had collected 160 cards. 

Moreover, with multiple sales reps on hand, there were plenty of useful conversations between the WordStream team and the folks putting cards in the bowl. In fact, the sales reps took notes on the back of the cards. They wrote down their own name and the potential customer's biggest pain point. That way, the business card--in addition to providing basic contact info--also contained knowledge that would help the sales team pursue the lead in earnest. 

7. Keep it local. WordStream's total spend on INBOUND was $16,000, none of which was for travel or hotels, given that the conference was practically down the street from WordStream headquarters. By staying local, the team not only saved money, it was able to staff the conference with multiple sales reps, facilitating lead qualifications and information captures. 

In addition to the 160 business cards WordStream captured in the fish bowl, it generated 60 qualified leads at INBOUND--a sixfold increase from the previous event. The third time really was the charm. 

Of course, qualified sales leads are not the only way to measure success at trade shows and events. Networking matters too. On that front, WordStream scored wins at all three of the events. At Hero Conf in April the team met marketers from a company with a similar target audience. Together, they scheduled and co-promoted a webinar which took place in September. The result? More than 1,000 sales leads, which the companies shared. 

Likewise, At ClickZ Live in August, the WordStream team met staffers at three other digital marketing software-as-a-service companies. Again, they collaborated on a webinar, this time produing more than 2,500 leads. The same thing, Gwozdz believes, is going to happen from connections the WordStream team made at INBOUND. 

In other words, trade shows and events aren't just for courting customers. They're for courting partnerships. "I've spent months trying to build the same relationships over email and the phone," Gwozdz said. "But there is nothing like meeting someone in person and getting something on the calendar right there."

Published on: Oct 2, 2014