Are trade shows the zombies of marketing?

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By Francis Moran

Following so soon after a recent post that declared, “Your customers aren’t werewolves; stop looking for a marketing silver bullet,” today’s title might suggest that I am stranded in a double feature at the marketing equivalent of a b-movie drive-in. Not exactly, but I was at a trade show last week that had me wondering whether trade shows aren’t marketing’s undead, soulless ghouls that suck the life out of budgets and contaminate sales funnels with lousy leads.

It was the third trade show I attended on behalf of various clients this year. The first one, in January, was that orgy of geeks and gadgets called the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. It was followed closely by the National Retail Federation’s very serious Big Show in New York. These two shows may well be chalk and cheese compared one to the other, but if either is a zombie, someone forgot to tell them how to behave. Both were packed with industry experts, thousands of exhibitors, huge international delegations and masses of clearly alive and lively attendees. No George A. Romero production here.

I wish that it were so at the Oil Sands Trade Show in Fort Mcmurray, Alberta last week. Notwithstanding that this is one of the largest Canadian industry events for what is one of the few genuinely burgeoning sectors of our economy today, there were lengthy periods when large-bore artillery could have been fired down the trade show aisles with little danger of hitting anything that even remotely resembled a likely prospect. Attendees were as badly outnumbered by exhibitors as that plucky band of survivors is by the undead horde in the third act of every good zombie flick.

Like every good zombie flick, though, we had a few good weapons that, in the end, saved the day for us and allowed us to escape into the credits, ready to do battle another day. Whether the shows you find yourself at are living, breathing heros that consistently deliver the goods, or half-dead corpses unable to put themselves out of their own misery, here is a selection of bludgeons, axes and cudgels that will serve you well.

1. Arm yourself beforehand: Know what to expect and what you want to achieve

My client knew going in that this show was not going to be thick with prospects, and nor did it have to be. We need to close only a handful of deals over the next 12 months and, at this stage, gaining five or six new leads from a show like this would be a good thing. We also thought the show would be a good orientation for the three out of the four of us who had never even been to Fort Mcmurray before. We came home with 12 good leads and we three oil-sands newbies had the chance to get a much better handle on the ecosystem into which this client sells its products.

2. Consider leaving the collateral at home

I know it’s a trade show staple and for some, what I am suggesting is just crazy talk. But consider not having anything more elaborate than your business card to hand out. Let’s be honest: Most trade show collateral ends up being collected by the hotel maids as they clean out delegates’ rooms in the wake of the show, making it all about as useful as a popgun against the zombie horde. It’s a prime example of what I call “lazy marketing” that sees us focus more on activities than results. And if we can’t lean on that crutch, we just might have to start doing something far more useful, like actually engaging prospects and exploring with them whether there is any actual basis for us to do business together. In short, we just might have to talk to them.

In the case of the show last week, we had no collateral. Well, that’s not strictly true. My client drove up with his SUV trunk stuffed with brochures, CDs and other standard material. However, we were kind of re-launching this company at this show; new positioning and messaging have been worked out over the past three months since I was engaged as virtual CMO. Timelines have not allowed us to produce any new material yet and the stuff my client had with him was all old messaging and old logo, stuff he had already determined did a poor job of positioning our real value proposition. So although his instinct to bring the stuff was automatic, it didn’t take much to persuade him that it would slow us down worse than the blonde ingenue who gets bitten in the opening act; better to dispatch it with mercy now than to drag it through another scene or two until its inevitable and horrible demise.

And here’s the thing: Nobody noticed it was missing. The tyre-kickers came and went without the comforting sop of being handed a brochure they were never going to read or a CD they were never going to watch. The real prospects stopped and talked, and we learned all we needed to about whether they actually have the sorts of pain our product relieves. Okay, there weren’t very many of them. Which brings me to my next point.

3. Don’t wait for the hordes to descend. Go hunting

We all know that if you’re trying to survive the zombie apocalypse, the last thing you want to do is hunker down in that old farmhouse. It might look like safe shelter but before you know it, the undead are breaking through the walls and it’s game over for your little band of humans.

Same with a zombie trade show. Don’t wait for prospects to come and find you; go and find them. Just as the hero of our flick ventures went bravely out to find and rescue his family, love interest, dog or all three, so, too, you must go in search of every living, breathing real prospect that might be at the show.

In our case last week, we knew going in that many of the exhibitors would be potential customers. Rather than wait for them to find us, we sought them out. We had lots of interesting, informative and educational conversations, and enough useful ones to more than double our target for new leads.

4. Wear comfortable shoes and drink lots of water

Okay, these two are lessons that apply to most things in life. But they’re also good counsel in case of zombie attack and in case you find yourself at a trade show that’s only mimicking real human behaviour.

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