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Marketers stage events for one overriding reason: to put sellers in direct contact with buyers. This practice has been around for hundreds – some experts claim thousands – of years. The direct ancestor of today’s trade show first emerged in medieval Europe, where produce and craft vendors visited towns to participate in trading fairs, where they would sell and showcase their products and services. In 1851, intent on expanding into new overseas markets to assure its status as a leading industrialized nation, Great Britain staged the first international trade fair at the massive Crystal Palace – 1,000,000 square feet of exhibit space covered by 293,655 panes of glass. Over six million people attended. Even today’s mega exhibitions pale in comparison.
Commercial exhibitions as we known today stemmed from the growth of trade groups in the 20th century. In the early 1900s there were about 100 trade associations in the United States. By 2004, there were over 80,000. Trade associations used trade shows, and their close cousin conventions, to grown their notoriety and expand their memberships. They thereby also created an opportunity for their members to market their products, and trade shows became important marketing events. Over 21 million people attended trade shows in 2004.
Today, conferences, conventions, exhibitions, and trade shows are ingrained in the marketing landscape. They are often the most expensive items in the marketing mix Thus, understanding how — and how often — to use the various event types is critical to marketing success. This chapter will cover the range of events available to marketers today, discuss strategies for selecting the type of event, cover some best practices for maximizing return on investment, and end with an amusing case study on creating buzz even when you are not invited to an event.
Types of Events
Understanding the landscape of events is the first step in leveraging events effectively. Marketers have a broad range of events to choose from, so they need to select a type that will attract their prospective customers. Traditionally, marketers held events in a large space where all interested parties would attend in person. In today’s digital age, however, marketers increasingly are conducting events online. Let’s take a closer look at both.
In-person events have the benefit of enabling sellers to interact face to face with customers, partners, and even competitors. There is no substitute for directly interacting in person with potential buyers, letting them see and touch products, and watching their body language. The most common types of in-person events are seminars; conferences and conventions; and trade shows and exhibitions.
A seminar is a lecture or presentation delivered to an audience on a particular topic, or set of topics, that is educational in nature. A pharmaceutical manufacturer, for example, might hold a seminar to educate physicians on medical developments and practices related to its drugs. A seminar is typically held at a hotel meeting space or within an office conference room. Seminars are typically paid for by the sponsoring company or organization and are therefore free for participants. Audience size ranges from 10 to 100. Seminars are an effective medium for educating prospective customers and converting “suspects” into qualified leads.
Conferences are usually organized around a topic or an area of interest, and put on by media or event companies. Conventions, while also organized this way, are sponsored by a specific trade association or industry group. Both formats are aimed at education and feature talks by topic experts, and may also include exhibitions, depending on the size of the event. Most conferences arrange talks by topic area called “tracks,” which run concurrently. Attendees pick the track that best suits their area of interest, e.g., a legal track versus a technical track at a conference on online privacy, or they can pick and choose talks from multiple tracks. In contrast to seminars, customers normally pay a fee to attend. Size can vary greatly, from 100 to 10,000 and up. Conferences and conventions are an effective strategy for interacting with likely customers, influencing their opinions, and have the added benefit of seeing what the competition is up to.
Technically speaking, trade shows and exhibitions are separate entities. Trade shows are held for people in the same industry or trade; for example, the Consumer Electronics Association’s Consumer Electronics Show is the largest in the United States. In contrast, exhibitions — for example, automobile shows — are aimed at the general public. In modern marketing, however, this distinction has been largely forgotten, and most people use the two terms interchangeably.
A trade show or an exhibition is designed specifically to showcase products. Trade shows and exhibitions sometimes feature keynote speeches and tracks with speakers on various topics, blurring the distinction with conferences and conventions. When a trade show or exhibition involves both talks and exhibits, quite often a smaller number of attendees pay to listen to the talks, while the exhibits, which are either free or accessible for a nominal charge, attract a larger audience. Although trade shows and exhibitions can vary in size, large exhibitions regularly attract hundreds of thousands of visitors. Trade shows and exhibitions enable marketers to expose their company and products to a large number of prospective buyers while also keeping an eye on their competition.
Advances in Internet connectivity and bandwidth have made online events increasingly popular alternatives to live events. They are less expensive, and they offer flexibility for all involved parties. The most widely used types of online events are webinars, virtual trade shows, and webcast and video channels.
The term webinar — short for “Web-based seminar” — refers to a presentation, lecture, workshop, or seminar that is transmitted over the Web. The term webcast, a similar portmanteau created by combining “Web” with “broadcast,” is sometimes used. Like a seminar, webinars are produced by the sponsoring organization and free to participants. Webinars gained popularity in the late 1990s when companies like WebEx began to offer easy-to-use and inexpensive webcasting software. A major advantage of webinars is that they are inexpensive for vendors and convenient for attendees. In addition, they are recorded, so interested parties can view them after the fact. Audiences range from tens to hundreds.
What a webinar is to a seminar, a virtual trade show is to a real-world trade show. Virtual trade shows utilize special software that enables prospective buyers to interact with virtual vendor “booths” over the Internet. Virtual trade shows are produced by event or media companies that charge vendors to participate. They are more expensive than webinars, but they still cost less than the fees and travel involved in hosting and attending live events. Virtual trade shows usually last for a limited time – typically a day — and audience sizes range from hundreds to thousands. They are still something of a novelty.
One of the newest forms of online events is the webcast and video channel. Similar to the idea of a television channel, these services allow you to collect the webcasts and videos you produce in one place. Webcast and video channels are owned by third parties that charge organizations to post their content. The advantage of these services is that they provide simple registration for users, promotion of webcast and video beyond your company’s house list of known contacts, and social media tie-ins to drive more people to your content. Some third party channel owners also stage “virtual seminars” where speakers from a number of companies speak on a topic during a full- or half-day event. Audience sizes are similar to webinars, though over time subscribers to the channel can grow into the hundreds or thousands.
Selecting the Right Events
The hardest thing about events, no matter the industry, is picking the right ones. Aggressive event salespeople will tell you all about how many of your competitors will be there. Your regional salespeople will tell you how great a show has been for them in the past. Partners and customers may expect your company to be at a particular trade show or conference. Usually, unless you have exhibited at a show before yourself, it is hard to know for sure if an event will be a good use of marketing money – and live events are always among the most expensive items in a marketing mix.
So, first, define your goals for events overall. This should be part of your annual marketing plan. Is your goal to gain awareness – part of your reputation program – or to get prospects for your sales team – part of your demand generation program. It is fine to answer “both,” but be sure to have a way to objectively measure both. For example, you might deem a conference a successful tactic in your reputation program if you meet a certain number of industry analysts and potential partners, even if you do not get many leads for your sales team.
If your goal is demand generation, then set a target number of leads and cost per acquisition (CPA) and view an event through that lens. Ask the show organizer for the estimated attendance and demographics, and then take a swag at how many prospects might stop by your booth or tabletop. Divide the total cost for the show by the estimated number of leads and you will have an estimated CPA. At this point you can decide if the show is a fit. If you choose not to attend, use the estimates to explain your decision to your salespeople.. You can also use these numbers with the event salespeople and see if you can negotiate a lower price that would reduce your CPA and might make the show a fit. You should do these same calculations if you are putting on your own seminar or online webinar.
In the case of live events, you should “scout” them if possible. Get a free pass, or ask the event organizer for one (tell them you are scouting their show for future consideration) and go see for yourself. Look at companies like yours and see how much foot traffic they are getting at their booth. Attend a few of the talks if you can to judge their quality and suitability for your prospective customer. Approach a handful of attendees, tell them why you are there, and ask them why they came to the show and what they think of it. This firsthand experience and information will be much more useful to you than the organizer’s event brochure.
Event Best Practices
Once you have determined an event is a fit, then you need to make sure you maximize your return on investment. Below are some best practices to help you get the most out of your investment, broken down by event type.
Speaking – The best formula for achieving publicity for your organization is to be a speaker at a conference. Conference organizers need good speakers with relevant experience or knowledge to share. If you are fortunate enough to have the industry or the world’s expert working at your company, or as a customer, then he or she should be the one speaking. Two effective strategies to secure a speaking invitation are to (1) encourage your PR team to submit an attractive proposal to the conference organizers and (2) purchase an event sponsorship package that includes a speaking “slot.”
Sales Meetings – If your customers or prospective customers will be attending a conference, then you should send salespeople and executives to meet privately with these individuals, preferably in a hotel suite or a meeting room. Make sure to reserve a room that is conveniently located and work directly with your sales team to schedule meetings.
Trade Shows, Exhibitions and Conferences with Exhibits
Demand Generation – decide before you show up if you are looking for a name, an inquiry or an MQL. Knowing this will help you in your CPA calculation and how your staff behaves at the event. There are two, seemingly opposite approaches when it comes to demand generation at live events. Some organizations are quite pushy, their staff standing in the aisles looking to buttonhole every passerby. Organizations that behave this way are looking for names and inquiries to add to their marketing database. The other approach is to have your staff standing patiently in the booth, answering attendee questions when asked, and only scanning their badge or taking a card when an attendee asks for more information or a meeting. Organizations that behave this way are looking for MQLs. Make sure your staff is clear on the type of lead you are looking for.
Exhibits – pick a size of booth you can afford and try to get a position on the show floor where there will be enough foot traffic to achieve your demand generation target. Sometimes rows in the back or on the edges of an exhibit floor can be “slow.” Make sure it’s clear from your booth signage what you are selling; filling your signage with jargon will confuse people. Build in a presentation area and hold live presentations or demos every hour to stop passersby and draw them in. Be careful with giveaways, aka tsotchke or swag. Attendees are often only interested in what you are giving away and not your company or product. So unless you are looking to collect names or trying to generate buzz in support of your reputation program, don’t invest in giveaways. If you want to draw people in to start conversations, a bowl of candy is cheap and will do the trick.
News – Reporters usually attend major shows and cover news at them, so timing news around an event is often an effective way to attract press attention and to create buzz about your organization on the show floor. Issuing a press release at major industry conferences is often expected, though some companies choose not to announce if they feel there will be too much competition for news coverage among all the vendors fighting for media attention.
Sales Meetings – Because your prospective buyers attend trade shows and exhibitions, you should proactively be planning to meet them. Use the same approach as mentioned above for conferences. Since some trade shows and exhibitions are so large (the Consumer Electronics Show takes up over 1.4 million square feet) you may want to design a meeting room into your booth so you can meet customers as they come by, or set up a breakfast for a group of your customers so you catch them before they hit the expo floor.
Analyst Meetings – If the analysts who cover your industry or market are at an event, your PR or analyst relations (AR) team should schedule a meeting with them, especially if you have news. Even a quick update meeting or a drink in the hotel bar can help your cause.
News from the Show – Not all of your customers will be in attendance at any given event, but they are probably interested in what’s happening. Therefore, why not summarize the news and report it to them yourself? This is also a great opportunity to use social media tools like Twitter.
Parties – Many companies throw parties in the evenings during conferences and trade shows. These events provide an opportunity to wine-and-dine existing and prospective customers. They also offer a chance for executive interaction while creating a little bit of buzz on the show floor. In fact, there can be something of an unofficial competition regarding which company throws the best party.
Sponsorship – Conferences, trade shows, and exhibitions usually solicit additional funds from companies to become sponsors. Sometimes these offers are a part of a package that might also include a prime booth position and a speaking slot. Premium sponsorships often include keynote speech slots. The actual benefits of sponsorship are hard to quantify. Large companies are often sponsors because they have the money and it helps reassert their industry standing at the event annually. For smaller companies, sponsorships can represent a valuable opportunity to attract notice and appear larger. Sponsor logos are usually highlighted on the floor banners and the show’s website, as well as in the show guide.
Invitations – Email invitations are the norm. Always use direct marketing best practices: compelling content, an offer, a clear call to action, and A/B testing.
Registration – Use best practices for Web landing pages and registration forms to boost registration. Do not include sales qualifying questions, because they will make the recipients feel more like sales targets than participants. To increase the targets’ commitment, you should allow them to submit questions or topics in advance when they register. Anticipate that roughly 50% of registrants will not attend, but be happy they registered. Filling out the registration form was an inquiry, and the registrants are a step closer to becoming a marketing qualified lead.
Reminders – You should always send a confirmation email to the registrants after they sign up, preferably in the form of an invite they can import directly into their online calendar. Send these reminders twice: once on the day before the webcast, and then again a few hours before the event.
Length – With few exceptions, webinars should not last longer than one hour. Increasingly, with people feeling overscheduled, shorter 30-minute and even 15-minute webcasts are becoming popular. People may be more willing to give you 15 minutes of their time, thereby increasing your total leads captured.
Logistics – Anticipate that something to go wrong during a webcast, whether your computer, your phone, the webcasting service, or your participants’ connections. Have someone other than the presenter standing by to help with these issues while the presenter carries on. Make certain you have a backup computer, a phone or headset, and even the ability to email the presentation to the participants if all else fails.
Interaction – Insert a survey or poll question into the webinar to encourage participation. You can also publicize the results via social media if the they are interesting.
Questions – Allow participants to submit questions either during registration, via text or chat functions, or live at the end of the webinar. The person responsible for logistics should prioritize questions and manage those that deal with logistical issues, like problems with the webcasting tool or getting copies of the presentation. Prepare a few canned questions in the event the audience doesn’t ask any.
Recording – Always record the webcast, and make it available to interested parties who missed the live version. Remarket the recording, and use it to capture additional leads.
Driving Attendance at Live Events
Driving attendance to your booth or your speaking sessions at a conference, trade show, or exhibition is important. There is nothing more demoralizing than standing at a booth where no one bothers to stop by.
Promoting your participation in an event is not that different from other marketing your company performs. Here are a few suggestions:
Invitations – Invite customers and prospects who might be interested. Inviting contacts from your house list is easy to do. Invitations should be regional, unless there is an important industry show that will interest all of your contacts and prospects.
Free Passes – Many conferences offer a certain number of complimentary passes to each participating vendor. These passes are valuable — they usually have a face value of $20-100 —so you should market them to hot prospects. Alternatively, your sales team can hand them out to their most promising prospects.
Contests – Simple contests for small prizes will attract a lot of attention and traffic. Of course, participants whose only motivation is to win your prize might not be a well qualified lead. Even in these cases, however, using a contest to add names to your database may be a good economic decision.
Talent – You can hire models, actors and performers to work in your booth. How effective they will be depends on the show and industry. Models, sometimes called “booth babes,” are common at auto shows and any show that is male dominated (Female attendees may be turned off, however.). You can hire performers – magicians, mentalists, even sumo wrestlers – to create a bit of a spectacle, if you think that will draw people in. If no one in your company is a good presenter, you can hire a professional actor to do it for you. You should take into account your demand generation target and CPA when deciding what, if any, talent to hire.
Publicity Stunts – Doing something zany or interesting can get you noticed at a show. People will talk about it and stop by your booth to meet the people responsible. Make certain, however, to run it by show organizers so you don’t tick them off. Some companies have been known to get kicked out of shows for going too far.
Mark Benioff, founder and CEO of Salesforce.com, did something unconventional at a trade show to gain attention for his then-fledgling company. In his book Behind the Cloud, he describes the stunt he used to kick off his now-famous “No Software” campaign. As part of a planned attack on the Goliath in the customer relationship management (CRM) market, Siebel Systems, Benioff decided to carry out his plan at the 2000 Siebel User Group conference at Moscone Center in San Francisco. Well, not exactly at the event, but rather outside it.
Salesforce.com had staked out a unique position in the CRM market. Its application was delivered over the Internet. In contrast, Siebel sold software to run on a customer’s computer servers, in the customer’s data center. The “No Software” campaign was designed to drive home that distinction. Though we take it for granted today, running CRM over the Internet was still in its infancy in 2000.
Benioff decided to stage a fake protest outside the convention center, during the Siebel event. On the morning of February 22, 2000, he sent a bunch of paid actors down to Moscone. They waved “No Software” protest signs and chanted “The Internet is really neat…software is obsolete.” Benioff also hired actors to pose as a news crew from KNMS – a bogus local TV station whose call letters stood for no more software. The reporters “covering” the story asked passersby their opinions concerning the Internet and the protesters’ position.
Siebel executives were not pleased. According to Benioff, they came pouring out of Moscone. Enraged, they called the police. However, the actor-protesters were there legally. So, what did the police do? They protected the protesters! The police action drew even more attention to the protest – exactly what Benioff and his marketing team wanted.
In addition to attracting attention, Benioff’s marketing team took the opportunity to invite passersby to their Salesforce.com launch party that evening. Many of them actually showed up. In the end, the mock protest, though controversial, kicked off the campaign that would garner PR Week’s High-Tech Campaign of the Year award.
Staging a mock protest may or may not work for your company. It certainly fit with Benioff’s bombastic style, and it set the revolutionary tone for the company and its employees. Since 2000, Salesforce has expanded into a multi-billion dollar juggernaut. Meanwhile, Siebel has become a shadow of its former self, and it was acquired by Oracle in 2006.
 “The History of Trade Shows,” SoYouWanna blog, Alex Cosper http://www.soyouwanna.com/history-trade-shows-1432.html
 From the Yiddish word for toy or trinket, and commonly pronounced “chach-ka,” no one in marketing is ever sure how to say this word. Or spell it. Here are just some of the accepted spellings: tshotshke, tshatshke, tchachke, tchotchka, tchatchka, chachke, tsotchke, chotski, and chochke.