Featuring Ken Stout, CRO, True Influence
I have been in the B2B tech industry long enough to remember the days when you loaded your Sales and Marketing teams onto a plane and headed out to the next big-ticket, “must-attend” trade show, because that’s just what you did. And, while there, you’d probably get to see an Aerosmith concert or some other outlandish perk that had little to do with closing new business or growing revenue.
Those days are long gone. Trade shows can still be an important part of your B2B Sales and Marketing strategy, but in today’s competitive landscape, you have to map every dollar you spend to recognized revenue. That means going into trade shows with a clear strategy for demonstrating ROI on the substantial expense of attending a show.
Most of the advice you’ll find online about tradeshow tactics are focused on marketing, and that’s legitimate; tradeshow floors can be a great way to extend brand awareness. However, from a sales perspective, you want to push business down the funnel and, if all goes well, close new deals. You don’t send your sales team out into the field to hand out tchotchkes; there’s nothing to be gained by having them do little more than that at a trade show.
At True Influence, I measure the success of a tradeshow by the number of new accounts and business relationships we land. High-funnel marketing leads and exiting client contact are backfill on this investment.
To meet these goals, the sales team and your partners in marketing need to be highly selective about the shows you attend, and hit the floor running, with a message that cuts through the noise, and sets you apart from the competition.
Craft a Message that Cuts through the Noise
Just being heard is ultimately the greatest sales challenge at a trade show. Your competitors on the floor will have essentially the same description of their products or services you will. Count on it. They’ll promise the same customer service and benefits. So, how do you cut through the noise?
Research has demonstrated for a long time now that a key motivator for trade show attendees is the desire for new learning about their sales decision. They don’t want a primer on your sector or the basics on how your product works – they can (and do) get that information with simple internet searches. Your sales team needs to be armed with new information about your product and advanced decision-support materials, that purchasers demand as they prepare to pull trigger on a large B2B spend.
Your best prospects at a show are already in the narrow funnel. Your marketing team is there to engage new leads — sales is there to close, and it needs a clear message to make that happen.
Find a B2B Show with Actual B2B Prospects
Most trade shows are going to promote themselves as being packed with B2B spending decision-makers. In fact, some trade show promotional groups claim that more than 80 percent of attendees have purchase authority.
My experience has been different. At a recent show I attended, I’d estimate that the crowd was mostly B2C, with no more than 20 percent or so of attendees fitting the core B2B prospect profile of enterprises with extended purchasing cycles. The staff at the show supplied numbers that said differently, but I did not see evidence in the mix of folks we meet.
We’ve had the best success at trade shows sponsored by genuine thought leaders on our market. For us, as a Sales and Marketing intelligence provider, that means shows like the SiriusDecisions Summit, which are a bit more expensive to attend, but attract serious players who control enterprise budgets. In fact, the expense of attending these shows often weeds out the casual “tire-kickers” you’ll find at more B2C-centric events.
Even though I try to focus on breaking new business at trade shows, checking to see if your current best clients will be in attendance is an excellent litmus test, as to whether the audience mix at a specific show justifies the expense of attending.
Take an ABM Approach to Warming Up for the Show
Trade show organizers are beginning to get a little stingy with the names and contact information of attendees who have registered. Often, as an exhibitor, you’ll have access only to the names of the last show’s attendees, and the companies of the current show’s registrants.
This information is useful, but it does put you in an Account-based Marketing (ABM) posture, as you work to spread your message. In advance of hitting the trade show floor, it is important to identify key names at attendee companies and be sure to contact them about your key message points for the show. This is where a marketing intelligence tool, like True Influence’s InsightBase, can be indispensable. Our database of confirmed business contacts lets you target key decision-makers inside organizations, and our Intent Signal Monitoring data can help you identify companies that are most primed for high-touch sales-related efforts at the show. Your on-site sales staff may even want to build a short hot list for nametags to be on the watch for.
This post from Manzer Communications offers several more helpful tips about using social media and other channels to build momentum heading into a show. Of course, these are largely for your marketing team, but successful Sales efforts rely on a solid marketing plan. You don’t want your sales team spending all day on the show floor, making what amount to cold calls, any more than you want them handing out stress squeeze balls.
Prioritize, and Be Ready to Escalate
Your on-site team needs to be on the lookout for hot prospects, who are ready to be taken aside for a one-on-one conversation, or even invited to meet off the show floor, for a more traditional sales call. You can’t base this escalation path merely on company size.
At a recent show, I ran into some attendees from their company’s procurement team. Apparently, they are intimately involved in the RFP process, and so their company sent them to learn more about products.
That’s definitely not a sales-based sweet spot. So, I moved them over to our team’s Sales Engineer for a product demo, and continued to look out for key influencers who were ready to buy.
Division of Labor is Key
I just mentioned our trade show team’s Sales Engineer, who runs product demos and answers detailed questions from attendees. Having team members with very specific roles at a trade show is key to making the most of what is, in reality, a very expensive window of time. Someone from our marketing team handles schedules, giveaways, and tracking potential high-funnel leads for potential follow-through. (At a bare minimum, you want to get e-mail addresses, but in a high-touch channel like a trade show, you really should try to land a phone number.)
You’ll also want to have a Senior Sales Manager on hand and, depending on your evaluation of the show’s potential, a Sales Executive who’s ready to go one-on-one with your hottest prospects. I did that myself a couple of times at the last show we attended. This is a worthwhile investment when the attendee mix is right.
A trade show is no different than any other sales channel – you have to track the business you close, as well as the leads you generate directly to the channel, to justify the expense. I certainly will not plan to attend a show a second or third year if I can’t prove that we’ve won new business there before.
And just the soft “everybody’s going to be there” is not going to cut it. Measured, proven revenue, and provable ROI need to be the standard for all your spending decisions, and that includes trade shows.
Closed Business is the Bottom Line
There are numerous secondary benefits to attending a trade show. For example, we typically travel to shows in key hubs for our market – Boston, New York, the Bay Area – and so try to schedule face time with key clients in the neighborhood, even if they are not going to be at the show. Listening to attendees’ questions and seeing what your competition is up to can be great market research. By the way, Marketing is never going to turn down the opportunity to add new leads to the funnel.
But for me, the distinct sales benefit of attending trade shows is getting up close and personal with multiple prospects who are primed to become your customer. That goal needs to be your primary focus – other benefits will follow if you make closing new business your top priority.