That trade show? It’s not happening. Now what?

EAG, September 24, 2020

What once was a thriving trade show program in your marketing budget has been hit hard by COVID-19. While 2020 budgets may get a break by removing the high cost to attend and exhibit at shows, so too have the revenue lines those shows produce. Like many marketers, we long for precedented times. But that doesn’t mean companies can’t make a shift to the new normal, adapt, and overcome.

Before we get into the tactics, don’t panic. Take a breath and think about where we are and what assets we have to work with.

  • What is the status of my show? Organizations that host trade shows have had to scramble to adapt. Most have cancelled. Others switched quickly to virtual environments. Hybrid environments will arrive as we begin to feel comfortable meeting in person again. Returning to a pre-2020 normal isn’t just a matter of time – it may never happen. Marketers should expect to evolve with the times.In the meantime, knowing where your favorite trade show stands is key to determining your reaction and the tactics now available to you.
  • Who is my target audience? Specifically, what kind of reach do I have into this audience right now? Some companies rely heavily on a trade show to build awareness among a target audience, making this a serious obstacle to overcome. Other companies may have already built a sustainable level of awareness and just need to reach out to the contacts they’ve already made – for these organizations, a trade show might have only served the purpose to remind customers that they exist and to make personal contact with their VIP customers. Next, what is the mental state of your target audience? If your target audience is more conservative, they may not be worried about travel. If your target audience is in health care, they may not have the patience or attention span to hear from you at all. Give this careful consideration when building your plan.

We’re going to put these in order from least risky to most risky to provide some perspective. For your business, there may be factors that place one higher in priority despite the risk.

Virtual appearance? Build a landing page – you know, a booth. (No risk.)

The power dynamic has shifted in trade shows. To draw virtual attendees, registration prices have dropped significantly and, in many cases, have become free. Trade shows then shift to a model where vendors and sponsors are the main source of revenue for the show. Conferences make money by controlling access to the audience. As this power shift happens, vendors and sponsors should expect more flexibility and value in reaching their target audience of attendees.

The attendee side also transformed quickly. In the last weeks of March, the business community shifted from video conferencing technology as a novelty most people didn’t want to something necessary, and even comfortable – hello Zoom family reunion.

If your conference has gone virtual, weigh the costs of participation with likely attendance and interaction. Then, do everything you can to capture lead data from your interactions. This means building a virtual trade show booth that provides a personal, interactive experience and effectively communicates your value proposition or showcases your latest products. You know what that sounds like? It sounds like a campaign landing page – with a chat feature, an overview, and some simple calls to action.

If you can, build your virtual experience on your own website. Build it so you can remove dates later to serve as an ongoing campaign landing page. In addition to being able to control that personal-virtual experience, you’ll be able to retarget your visitors with advertising later.

Trade show companies like Skyline E3 have shifted to serve a virtual event market. While a heavy virtual approach isn’t feasible for all B2B companies, it’s good to know this kind of programming firepower is available.

No matter which way your virtual appearance goes, make sure it works. COVID reinforced the need to be digitally savvy with technology stacks that work. Consumers expect things to be easy online and have little patience for delays and technology hurdles.

Get tricky with the display and search (No risk.)

When attendees look forward to a conference, they sometimes just wait for that conference email to arrive. More often, they prepare for the next years’ budgeting by doing a search to find out what format the conference will take. When they perform that search, that’s where you can find them.

Display ads (not Pay-Per-Click text ads) can make sure your relevant information and offer catch their eyes when performing searches for conference names and sites. Add industry keywords, competitor URLs, etc. to get a well-rounded display campaign up and running.

Blog / Content / YouTube becomes your trade show pitch (No risk.)

Your website and video content may have been held back previously. You may have thought to yourself, “Let’s hold the best for the show. Give them a personal walk-through on site. That’s where we win over customers.” That thought was sooo 2019. It’s time to shift.

Convertible Solutions is a B2B paper converter selling unique paper substrates to print vendors. They relied heavily on trade shows to connect with their audience and demonstrate new papers and converted paper products. They made a pivot to presenting the same information via video on their website and invited their audience to watch.

Social conversations – in LinkedIn groups (No risk.)

Along with stories from the crazy conference weekend that will forever stay in Vegas, the thing people miss most is the networking and interaction they got from their conferences. LinkedIn picks up the slack and provides a place for industry groups to have these important conversations.

Posting within the LinkedIn group is a great way to introduce new technologies and discuss company news and customer pain points. There are rules against sales pitches in many LinkedIn groups, so pay attention to what is allowed and walk the tightrope to get your message across.

If your pitch needs to be more of a sales pitch than LinkedIn groups allow, advertising on LinkedIn is your next move.

Social conversations – in other channels (Slight risk.)

Marketers know they need to have conversations with customers in the channels where they already are. If you haven’t yet made the move into that particular communications channel (examples range from YouTube to TikTok) think carefully about the effort required to commit to entering that channel.

Lean hard on email (Not much risk.)

If you’ve been diligent about building your prospect and customer list, this is the time to lean on it and harvest the fruit of your labor. When employees are working from home, they’re eagerly responding to email.

If you have less confidence in your email list, there are two directions to go:

  1. Harvest a new list. It’s time to amp up your email collection. There are many ways to pull in qualified emails, from contests to white paper downloads. Find the one that works for you and build that list. Then email them and follow the rules to make sure your conversations are relevant.
  2. Buy a list. This one has some risk and some significant cost. Purchased lists can be a last resort to quickly find your target. Deliverability, reliability, and the appearance of your message as spam are just a few of the drawbacks to this method. But desperate times and what not.

Personal sales (Some risk / reward for your safety.)

Connecting with customers is difficult in these unprecedented times. While virtual visits are fine, there’s nothing that can replace the connection we make in person. Unfortunately, this can come at great risk to personal safety and potentially involve company liability (this may be a bit extreme, but remains to be seen). Still, if your customers are willing to meet with you in person – and you’re willing to travel – it will get the job done.

Host your own event (Significant risk / reward for your sanity.)

You could decide to go it alone. You could decide you don’t need any organization to put on a conference – you can do it yourself. In person or virtual, you could put on education with the best of them. If you have considered putting on your own event pre-COVID, that may be worth considering again.

But if you’re concerned that your business model is not online or in-person education, it’s best to let this one go. Event production is hard. Recruiting attendees is hard. It will become someone’s job, year-round.

The new normal reinforces best practices.

The moral of the story here is that integrated marketing communications, omni-channel marketing, wins out again. That’s the concept that all of your marketing works together to create a unified message and seamless, personalized experience across many different channels. The result is that all of your eggs don’t end up in a single tactical basket. Your company is then insulated a bit from a single event that reduces travel budgets or bans travel completely, protects you from an SEO algorithm update or new paid search competitor, and gives you a break the next time Facebook bans your particular style of content. By integrating your marketing strategy and taking a more omni-channel approach, you can adapt more easily in your other tactics, giving you time to respond to the most recent crisis of 2020 (and beyond).


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