Industry trade shows and conferences are staples in the A/E/C marketing mix, and typically represent a large line item in a firm’s marketing budget. With all the time and resources that go into trade show participation, ensuring your firm maximizes the investment is essential.
Exhibiting at conferences provides A/E/C firms an ideal opportunity to build brand awareness and thought leadership, showcase their expertise, network with prospects and teaming partners, generate new leads and engage existing clients. Industry conferences are a target audience-rich environment, providing your business development team and firm principals face time with many prospects and clients they may not otherwise have an easy time getting in front of. This is precisely why conferences are often a cornerstone in many firms’ marketing plans.
Most A/E/C firm leaders believe that trade shows are important, but truthfully, many come home wondering whether it was worth their time and money. But with some proper strategizing and planning, you can get improved results. Here are 12 ways to maximize your A/E/C trade show marketing strategy and get the most out of your firm’s investment.
1. Be strategic about what trade shows you attend
This should be a given, but many firms will attend the same conferences year after year without giving it the proper scrutiny to determine if it makes strategic sense to return. Just because your firm has participated in a conference for the last twenty years, doesn’t necessarily mean you should continue to do so. So make sure every conference is given strategic considerations each year to ensure that you’re investing in the right conferences.
Quick tip: Consider developing a go/no-go form for conferences and trade shows
2. Start planning far in advance
To do trade show right, you need to begin your planning far in advance. But planning for an A/E/C trade show involves much more than simply registering for your booth, signing up for electricity and Internet access, and booking flights and hotel rooms for your staff. Conference planning should be a very strategic marketing process, where every aspect of your conference—pre-conference, mid-conference and post-conference—are all meticulously thought through and tied back to a marketing strategy that aligns with your business goals and objectives.
Quick tip: Create a mini marketing plan for each trade show the firm participates in
3. Don’t just be exhibitors, be presenters as well
Presenting at an industry conference in front of a room full of potential clients is a thought leadership platform that can be far more beneficial to your firm’s marketing efforts than simply having a booth. Presenting on a topic of expertise to a targeted audience provides instant credibility and demonstrates your firm’s subject-matter expertise. It also provides a great opportunity to invite attendees to stop by your firm’s booth, as well as giving your booth staff something to talk to visitors about. The slide deck from your presentation can also be used as content to nurture leads and prospects as post-conference follow-up.
Quick tip: Keep a master calendar with due dates for conference calls for speakers
4. Set specific goals before the conference
While this may seem ultra-obvious, it’s not enough to have broad sweeping goals for trade shows in general. Instead, specific goals that identify what you want to accomplish should be set for every trade show. For some firms it may simply be about generating brand awareness in front of a particular target audience. For others, there might be specific business development-related objectives, such as targeting a particular prospect, positioning your firm for a particular project, or simply maintaining relationships with existing clients that are attending. The point is, determine in advance what your firm is looking to achieve at each conference, plan your marketing activities around those goals and set specific, quantifiable metrics for measuring success.
Quick tip: Be sure to set S.M.A.R.T. goals — specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely
5. Choose a theme for each conference
While it’s always tempting to promote everything about your A/E/C firm at a conference, it’s generally better to intentionally highlight one particular area and create a theme for each conference. It could be upcoming regulatory changes, a hot topic or industry trend, a new technology that your firm has adopted, a particular service or a unique project. Determine beforehand what message you can convey that will make the most impact and plan your booth, handouts, presentations and overall marketing presence at the conference around that theme.
Quick tip: Narrow your focus by determining the “one thing” you want to be remembered for
6. Work with business development to identify high priority targets
If your firm is going to exhibit at a trade show, it’s assumed that there are specific prospects or clients that your team wants to get in front of. But don’t wing it; be sure to identify who these people are and come up with a game plan for how best to reach them. And be intentional about it: invite them to dinner, take them out golfing, plan a meeting, set up a consultation or ask them to attend your presentation. Have marketing work with the business development team or seller-doers to help schedule appointments with qualified prospects for consultations, presentations, or other meetings in advance of the conference. Face-to-face meetings at conferences are a great way to nurture leads, position your firm for work or even close a deal, so take full advantage of the opportunities.
Quick tip: Plan your theme, content and messaging around the high(est) priority targets
7. Spread the word in advance of the event
You don’t want to wait until the conference is here to start generating buzz around your firm, so be sure to get the word out in advance. Ways to do this include featuring the conference and/or presentation(s) in an email campaign targeted to the specific audience that is likely to attend, posting about it on social media highlighting your involvement, or publishing a press release online about what your company will be featuring at the conference. Take the opportunity to personally invite prospects and clients to meet you at the conference and let them know your booth number. Based on what you’ve planned for the conference (presentation, theme, etc.), give them a good reason to show up to your booth or session.
Quick tip: While it may be tempting, don’t send unsolicited (SPAM) emails to the entire conference attendee list
8. Design your booth and messaging for impact
In a sea of booths of A/E/C firms with similar services and expertise, you have mere seconds to attract a passerby to your booth. So creating a powerful visual impact with simple and clear messaging and great design is very important to lure people in. But remember, your booth is intended to be a backdrop, not a brochure! People walking by should be able to instantly recognize who you are and what you do, but it’s your booth staff’s job to take it from there. Also, be sure your brand is prominent and consistent with your other marketing materials.
Quick tip: Aim to stand out with a booth that looks and feels different than all the rest
9. Make your booth space open and inviting
Choose your booth location wisely and know your booth setup in advance: the dimensions of your space, where it is in the room, ceiling height, access to electricity, Internet, etc. This will determine how you set up your presence. Having a table across the front of the booth space can make it appear closed off and uninviting. Instead, create an open space where people can enter without feeling trapped. You can create different stations in the space for people to learn about your firm and services. To create a truly differentiating presence, infuse various immersive touchpoints to engage prospects and clients and create an experience. Some of these include creative scenic design, 3D projection mapping, ambient interactivity and the use of AR/VR. (see our 2020 B2B Marketing Trends article for more details about experiential marketing trends)
Quick tip: “Level up” your booth experience by borrowing ideas from the B2C/retail approach
10. Develop a booth engagement plan
Your firm’s booth should be staffed with energetic, enthusiastic and knowledgeable employees that connect with conference attendees and are implementing the strategy defined in advance. Working on laptops or tablets, scanning emails on smartphones and sitting down in chairs is sure to send negative signals to a passerby. And while marketing staff can certainly provide valuable support running the booth, be sure that your A/E/C firm’s subject-matter experts are also available, especially during the times of the day when the exhibition hall is crowded. If firm leaders are unable to staff the booth, consider bringing along junior technical staff that can answer technical questions and provide more in-depth information than marketing is typically able to.
In addition to having engaging conversations, consider something else to lure in an audience and create some buzz. Contests, games, promotions, food, unique giveaways and other creative methods have all been used to help firms achieve their trade show goals. But think beyond just swag and Apple Watch giveaways. Consider packaging your own products or services (e.g. assessments, consultations, etc.) as the giveaway that you promote and that attendees want. Be sure to have a plan of action for generating conversations, identifying legitimate prospects and capturing their contact information through a scanner or landing page. This will be helpful when implementing a lead management process after the event.
Quick tip: Consider a “uniform” for all booth staff to create a seamless, more sophisticated brand presence
11. Create a post-conference follow-up strategy
Just because the trade show is over doesn’t mean that marketing’s work is done. This is where many conference efforts miss the mark. Identify the prospects or clients that warrant additional follow-up, and follow-up quickly. Also, connect with the rest of the attendees that visited your booth and provided you their contact information by sending them a brief email to thank them for stopping by and offer them a free download of your presentation or some other helpful content. You should also consider setting up a lead nurturing campaign to engage conference contacts on an ongoing basis. By the number of unsubscribes you get from your initial email, you’ll pretty quickly know who was interested in your firm and who just wanted that Apple Watch you gave away.
Quick tip: Hand-written notes accompanied by relevant content will make a post-conference impact
12. Set up a post-conference debrief meeting
After you return from a conference, it’s critical to promptly set up a post-conference debrief meeting with members of your marketing, business development and seller-doer teams. It’s important to get a 360-degree download of the conference: successes, failures, shortcomings, the good, the bad and the mediocre. The reality is that sometimes your best ideas may fall flat when put into practice or your team is forced to improvise or adjust for one reason or another. Post-conference debriefs are helpful to identify any lessons learned and action items that need to be taken to improve the success of the next conference. And lastly, measure the results of your efforts according to the goals you set for the conference and do so for several months after the conference is over.
Quick tip: Re-evaluate the go/no-go decision after the fact to see what, if anything would impact next year’s decision
Make the most of your trade show investments
Your A/E/C firm has invested a lot of money just to be exhibiting at a trade show, so it is imperative to ensure that you maximize the return on investment. Don’t get caught up in the tactical details. Instead, put forth the necessary strategy, planning and effort to make your investment worthwhile.