From The Editor | July 27, 2021

Marketing Do's & Don'ts When B2B Trade Shows Return

Abby Sorensen July 2017 Headshot

By Abby Sorensen, Editor



B2B marketers have been on a collective diet for most of the past 18 months. This diet started suddenly, shocking our lead-generating systems. There was no time to meal prep or to secure a gym membership. When a global pandemic brought in-person events to a screeching halt, marketers were forced to find more balanced ways to feed their funnels.

Some marketing teams embraced this new, healthy marketing lifestyle. They pivoted to content creation and promotion, hosted webinars, and enabled their sales team to leverage Zoom calls to connect with buyers. They had more energy to analyze data and define ideal buyer personas now that they weren't spending so many nights in hotel rooms. Some marketers saw the light, realizing they had been spending way too much money on those junk food events.

Most marketing teams, however, have been starving this entire time. Trade shows were their primary source of leads, and without content to feed a digital strategy, they had a mostly empty plate during the COVID-19 lockdown. These marketers – ever attentive to their sales team's grumbling stomachs – can't wait to get back to the exhibit floor. Crisp lanyards and free tchotchke are their favorite appetizers leading to the main course of badge scans with a side of business cards in fishbowls.

This picture unfairly paints marketers one of only two ways: The ultramarathon runners who subsist purely on salads, protein shakes, and grilled chicken or the sluggish couch potatoes whose primary form of exercise is walking to the panty for another bag of Doritos. In reality, most marketers fall somewhere in between. Ideally, B2B marketers would have a balanced diet reaching prospects through various digital channels with the occasional, guilt-free indulgence of in-person events for dessert.

So when you're about to go shopping for your next in-person trade show booth, here are six key things to help your marketing diet stay within moderation.

#1 – DON'T: Overspend on "brand activation" at in-person events.

Here's something event organizers don't want exhibitors to think about: Their margins on most "sponsorships" are astronomical, bordering on insulting. A lanyard can be customized for a few cents, yet exhibitors will pay thousands – even tens of thousands – of dollars to get their logo on them. Why? And that sticker on the side of the escalator? Yes, it looks nice, but it isn't going to fill your pipeline with good opportunities. On-site "branding" relies on a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses-like fear among exhibitors. So don't give in to the temptation to "make a big splash" by overpaying to plaster your logo everywhere because that very rarely moves the needle on a buyer's journey. Just get a simple booth, save your budget, and thank us later.

#2 – DO: Chat up attendees at educational sessions.

Yes, the sessions. Get out of your booth and attend the sessions! Hear us out: Attendees are often willing to strike up a conversation while waiting for the next breakout session to start. That's when you can learn why they are there, what challenges they hope to solve, who they traveled with from their decision-making team, and so much more. This crucial "research" can't be done at the booth. Most attendees are eager to get back to in-person events to network with their peers. While your sales team is looking forward to conversations at the booth, those people they want to talk to are lingering in hallways, talking shop in the lunch line, and soaking up industry expertise from their peers who are presenting. That education is what you should be focusing your sales conversations on anyway. This is Selling 101, but we often forget to talk about the problem-solving benefits because we're too focused on selling the features. So please don't wait for attendees to come to your booth. Go find them throughout the venue and hear what their challenges are.

#3 – DON'T: Rush back to every single event previously on your schedule.

This is a surefire way to waste your marketing budget. Old habits die hard, and it won't be easy to say ”no” to an event that was always on your calendar. But you need to take a "wait and see" approach because many buyers won't be as excited to return to events as exhibitors are. That's not just conjecture. In fact, Industry Standard Research (ISR) recently polled decision makers from biopharma companies about their business travel plans for 2021 and early 2022. Nearly nine out of 10 respondents expected business travel to be restricted in some way for the remainder of 2021 (more on that here, on the Life Science Connect blog). So wait to see what the early attendance numbers look like for the first few in-person events. Then consider if the investment is worth it in 2022.

#4 – DO: Leverage digital content to maximize buyer engagement before, during, and after the event.

You don't need a 40x40 island booth teeming with bored sales reps. But prebooking meetings and driving foot traffic to your booth is easier said than done (especially if your brand name isn't one of the select few that carry industry-leading recognition). Helpful, educational, thought-provoking content proves to event attendees that it's worth their time to stop by your booth. Before the event, use your content to power a lead nurture campaign that includes a call to action (CTA) that you'll be on-site at the event. During the event, make sure your sales team is armed with talking points related to that content. And finally, make sure that content is central to your post-event messages. No attendee wants to return to an inbox full of generic messages saying, "Thanks for stopping by our booth at XYZ Expo ..." Stand out from the other exhibitors by centering your event around your thought leadership content (not the other way around).

#5 – DON'T: Overspend on events to the point that you can't afford the "always on" marketing channels.

We're not talking about a "virtual booth" that lives on an event’s website year-round; that doesn't count as digital marketing. It's extremely rare for event attendees to stay engaged with an event after leaving the conference center. Many trade shows have massive databases and "marketing lists," but that doesn't mean event attendees are likely to stay engaged with the event year-round. Typically, the opposite is true: Buyers leave an event, follow up with a small handful of exhibitors, and then go back to their day jobs that involve entirely different – and mostly anonymous – research on suppliers. Find out where that research takes place (LinkedIn, industry websites, peer recommendations, etc.) and make sure your brand is on those channels year-round. Buyer's journeys don't wait for an event to roll around, so you need to be ready whenever your prospects start looking for solutions.

#6 – DO: Ask the hard questions of the event organizers.

Chances are you're going to pay the same (or maybe more) and see fewer attendees, at least at first. Ask the event organizers what they are planning to do differently to encourage the lighter turnout to interact with exhibitors. Ask what they are doing to bring additional value to exhibitors. And no, that "virtual booth" does not count as value (rewind a few sentences to recall why). Ask for data on their marketing efforts. It doesn't matter how big of a list they are marketing the event to. What matters is how often they update and clean that list, and what kind of interaction they get from the people on the list that you care about. Drill down to find out how registration is trending compared to the same point in time leading up to a prepandemic year. Ask what percent of past attendees (and current registrants) consist of exhibitor staff versus the people you want to sell to. If you aren't getting clear-cut answers, chances are the event won't have the ROI you expect.

Remember, a core principle of the Follow Your Buyer methodology is to engage your buyer by distributing your content in the places your buyers are most likely to be. Some buyers will be at in-person events in late 2021 and early 2022. But not all buyers, and not right away, and not in the same volumes they used to. Your event budget should be adjusted accordingly.

For more Follow Your Buyer content about B2B events, check out these articles: