Conferences and Trade Show Marketing

Posted: January 27, 2013 by Bill Cunningham in Marketing, Social Media, Startup

CarolynPioneMicheliBill Cunningham BioConferences and trade shows bring thousands of like-minded people together and make it easy for companies to build awareness, acquire new leads and sell products. Right?

Not so much anymore. Conferences and trade shows have become less attractive because the decision makers may not attend, the cost of travel, booths and admission fees steadily increase, while budgets are decreasing disproportionately.

When you gotta go, then you gotta go. Here’s some thoughts to take with you.

Go Big or Go Rogue

If you can’t afford a prime spot, and a killer booth, think of other ways to attract customers. In one of my startups, we couldn’t get into a conference, so we rented a restaurant down the street, hired limos, and gave out free backstage passes to participants at the show (we had a mole deliver them inside the conference.) We were able to attract 60 of the 300 attendees to the conference and have them all to ourselves. The total cost was much less than having a booth and standing around for 2 days hoping someone will talk to you.

Do Your Homework

Set up appointments before you go. Set expectations with potential attendees before the event. Give them a reason to find you at the show. Think of it as live inbound marketing: What is your call to action, what do you want your customers to do after you connect?

One of the conferences that gets the most buzz in the startup world is South by Southwest Interactive. Sure it’s always fun to visit Austin, Texas. But with 25,000 attendees just to the Interactive sessions, plus thousands of hangers-on, is it worth spending $900 on registration, another $1,000 plus on hotels, plus flights, food, and materials and take a stab at standing out?

Here’s great advice from CincyTech’s Carolyn Pione Micheli who participated in last year’s conference working with many Cincinnati startup folks.

SxSW is not for every startup. You should ask yourself these questions to decide whether it’s worth your time and money:

  • Are you a consumer-facing technology startup? SxSW is at its core a marketing conference, so wonky enterprise software firms do not generally fit with this hip crowd.
  • Unless: Are you a B2B software focused on the marketing industry? Analytics and other tools for marketers are relevant here.
  • If you are in the right space, are you in the marketplace yet? If potential customers can’t sign up and try it, traction will be difficult to ramp up.
  • Do you have a budget to help you get visible? Big brands spend tens and hundreds of thousands on splashy parties with celebs. What can you do to stand out? Handing out flyers on street corners is not likely to bring any return on your investment.
  • Can you connect with the right people before you go? Given the throngs of people crammed into four+ convention locations, setting up meetings with targets ahead of time is crucial to success.
  • Finally, can you clearly articulate what you want to get out of it? Personal professional development in the marketing-technology field? Yes, you’ll get that. 200 or even 20 new customers? Maybe. Be sure to set goals and lay groundwork ahead of time.

Like other traditional marketing channels, trade shows and conferences must compete with inbound marketing and social media for budget dollars.   If you go, go big and make it worthwhile.

Carolyn Pione Micheli is communications director at CincyTech and trustee of the Greater Cincinnati Venture Association. Bill Cunningham is the founder of and the shop foreman at the GCVA.

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