If you think back to a couple of years ago and heard the term “trade show,” most of us would think about rows of tables, everyone wearing badges like a sad dating social scene and, of course, free pens. Nowadays, trade shows have a bit of a different image: They're quickly evolving into a channel of marketing that allows companies to interact with thousands — often tens of thousands — of current or potential consumers, distributors, retailers and even competitors in a setting that promotes engaging a large amount of people on a personal level. With the emergence of online marketing, social media and global communication becoming as easy as a text message, trade shows still continue to be the go-to venue for companies to get to know consumers on a personal level, a level that surpasses the efforts of any point-of-purchase questionnaire or survey could ever do.
So why the sudden change if trade shows have been around for quite some time?
The question has many answers, but the following are some of the major trends that continue to fuel the trade show fire:
We hear over and over again how this recession has forced companies to scale down their operations, most often starting with cuts in their marketing and advertising budgets. Instead of spending money on commercials that people can now fast forward through or Internet ads that many of us don’t look at, companies are now focusing their efforts on opportunities to directly interact with their consumers. This is where trade shows come into play. Instead of being present at every industry-related show, companies are now focusing on 4 to 5 major trade shows throughout the year where they believe they'll have the best opportunity to display their line of products in all their glory, unveil new products, and staff a booth of professionals and experts who will engage and educate attendees throughout the show. By scaling down their efforts to only a few major shows a year, companies can pour more money into each show, resulting in more extravagant exhibits, leading to increase popularity at the show and of course the ability to promote their presence at the show through specific show sponsorships, online advertising related to the show, and social media interaction with fans and attendees.
So with the economy on the supposed upswing, we've seen trade shows begin to creep back up to the top of the “to-do list” for most companies as they choose what shows they want a presence at and what message they want conveyed to the general public. For consumers, retailers, and distributors alike, these shows are a true “stage of innovation” where companies can flash their creativity by constructing booths that entice all the senses. Illuminated graphics and lighting, guided demonstrations, giant flatscreen TVs, friendly brand ambassadors and the always coveted free “swag” (premiums), all contribute to attendees experiencing something that they've hopefully never experienced before: An entertainment-like atmosphere where a brand can connect with consumers on a personal level so that the marketing dynamic leaves the B2C realm and enters “relationship marketing”.
Return on Investment (ROI) is a term that'll be around until the end of time. It's an age-old barometer for companies to see if their efforts are bringing in the desired return to warrant continued spending. Where else can a company engage 25,000, 50,000 or 100,000 people in a three-day span than at a convention? A chance for large volumes of the “right people” to see and learn more about their product without spending the money on mass marketing channels that they hope people see, understand and remember. Instead of marketing managers blindly hoping that the message is correctly perceived, companies can now be involved in the interaction itself in order to make sure consumers leave their booth with a positive and lasting impression of their company.
Another benefit of trade shows that I alluded to is the natural filtration process that takes place before the exhibitor even walks through the convention doors. Trade show attendees are there for a reason. They are there to see new products, set up meetings, gain beneficial business contacts, expand distribution, receive free items, and interact with company officials who they normally wouldn't have the opportunity to meet. All are under the umbrella of a company’s target demographic, in some shape or form, and ultimately save a company time, money and advertising costs that would normally be allocated towards mass marketing tactics.
3. The Perfect Forum.
If a company comes out with a new line of products, where can they personally reveal them to the public? Traditionally this would be done at a product launch party, company-sponsored event, in-store demos, or a broadcast of the unveiling through the company’s website. But all of these media outlets cost a great deal of money and usually yield a smaller number of people exposed to the event. A more ideal setting would be trade shows because they give potential consumers a chance to touch, taste, smell, see and hear the new products that exhibitors feature, usually without the pressures of making an on-site purchase. It's a “sneak peak,” “quick free trial,” or even “a quick education” to a person that is most likely at the show because they're an innovator or early adopter (referring to Rogers' innovation curve) and want to experience something new.
Trade shows have essentially become a two-way conversation where consumer voices can be heard while companies make a case as to why consumers should buy their products. A large part of the “selling” process is how the company is viewed and interpreted by the general public. Perception is everything in marketing, and the first impression attendees get is what an exhibit says about the company.
Reality Sets In
But even trade shows aren’t recession proof, and to claim that would be naive. Many shows have felt the brunt of budget cutbacks as exhibitor lists have shrunk and attendance numbers have dipped. Also, with the emergence of virtual trade shows, live show blogging or use of social media in realtime, professionals can attend a show anywhere in the world, an amazing opportunity to have a presence at a show that they never had in the past. If this trend continues to grow, exhibit houses will now need a creative team over union laborers that can “build-out” virtual trade show booths. This may open up new avenues of revenue for show decorators because of first-time or global exhibitors choosing to have a presence at the show, but it can also be a slippery slope of despair for hosting cities that thrive on shows throughout the year to help stimulate local economies as attendees spend additional money at businesses, restaurants, hotels and tourist-related establishments and sites.
An example of a physical and virtual presence was seen at CES 2011 in Las Vegas, Nevada, where companies such as Yahoo and Microsoft used their massive online presence to provide gadget enthusiasts with not only amazing sites and sounds on the show floor but also up-to-the second online narratives/blogging about what was happening at that very moment and what amazingly innovative product was being revealed to attendees. CES (Consumer Electronics Show) is essentially the grand stage for established companies to flex their research and development muscles as well as a chance for start-up companies to get their name out to the public and be noticed by potential distributors and retailers.
In the End
With all things constant, a successful trade show features a unique and creative exhibit, innovative ways to showcase products, and the necessary follow-up to make sure that attendees who entered the booth walk away with something tangible and intangible. By making sure that attendees leave with a positive impression, it begins the process of creating a curiosity about the product, leading to initial purchase. If the product is as great as it was presented during the show, it'll lead to repeat purchases and eventually to the coveted, brand loyalty. Understanding that a positive show experience greatly contributes to creating brand loyalty truly reveals the power of trade shows.