Are Trade Shows Worth The Investment? | Episode 37

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It’s trade show season—and a great time to evaluate your investment and performance in this marketing channel. What are the pros and cons of exhibiting at HR tech industry shows? How do you choose events that align to your target audience? How do you stand out from competitors? 

Listen to this episode to hear the GrowthMode team talk through important considerations including your strategy, how to magnify your presence and evaluate your ROI to determine if it is worth including in your marketing mix or not.

There are so many considerations when it comes to trade shows and your exhibition calendar. Check out the episode now for help thinking through what to attend—or skip—to make decisions that maximize your success.  

00:01 Introduction
03:06 Do trade shows have a positive ROI? Reviews are mixed
07:53 Drawbacks including costs and decision maker reach
09:58 Difficulty in standing out from other booths
12:02 Buyer’s perspective at trade shows
16:32 Evaluating the attendee draw
19:31 Determining ROI and sales team excitement post-event
21:01 Benefits of attending trade shows with the right audience
24:57 Pre-, during, and post-marketing strategy
25:32 Long-term nurture strategy for trade show leads
26:59 How to assess value before investing in trade shows
27:01 Conclusion

Hey, everybody. It’s Jenny from Growth Mode Marketing. You’re listening to Demand Gen Fix, the podcast where our team of GrowthModers and our guests discuss the ins and outs of demand generation and why we believe it’s the key to long term sustainable growth, especially in the HR tech industry.
Hey, everybody. Welcome back to the Demand Gen Fix of GrowthMode Marketing. We know it is fall trade show season and that means a lot of HR tech companies are making the rounds at these events. So the goal of heading out to these events is to make new connections, promote your brand, ultimately capture leads that turn into revenue. But are trade shows really worth the investment? They are expensive, they’re a lot of work.
And although you may come home with a lot of names to add to your email campaigns, do those contacts ever turn into clients? So we are going to dig in on this episode to look at all the angles of a trade show investment and help you think through whether this tactic should be part of your marketing mix or not. So let’s start with what is the song and dance that we typically do to go to a trade show?
There’s a lot of factors in it, right? Like, it really is a lot of work. You get a booth space, you send a bunch of team members, you dress them up in cute matching outfits so they’re on brand. You come up with some really cool swag to try to stand out amid all the other companies that are there. You scan the badge of everyone that walks anywhere near your booth, right? Because you want to return home with as many contacts as you can.
You get home, you dump them into your CRM.
It’s a lot.
I was going to say the first step is open your wallet. So much money, right? You got the fees of getting the booth space and then you have to ship everything there and ship it back. You got to pay the fee to get your carpet put down, and the fee for the electrician to plug the plug in the wall, and printing of whatever materials you’re going to bring, and your swag, and everybody’s airfare and food and hotels.
How many countless hours are spent emailing back and forth of I need to change my flight, or I can’t go from that airport. I need to go to this airport. Just seems like it’s never ending, right?
Not to mention all of the time and energy that your whole team spends prepping for it too. All of that stuff that you’re bringing along, all of that has to be prepped. You have to think through your strategy. It’s a lot. It can be worth it. But the feedback is mixed sometimes.
Yeah, the feedback is mixed. And I think when you’re evaluating, like, should we be going to these shows or not, at the end of the day, the ROI needs to be there, because if it isn’t, you’re just throwing away time and money, because it is a lot of effort and it is a lot of cost to send your team to a trade show to represent you. And I can tell you, in talking to leaders of different companies, we really do get a mixed bag of feedback.
Some think trade shows are an absolute must, and some are like, I’m never doing a trade show again, because at the end of the day, we’re just not seeing the ROI on it. There’s probably like somewhere in the middle, is the right answer. So we’re not going to say, yes, you absolutely should do trade shows. No, you absolutely shouldn’t do trade shows. I think you have to look at the factors and decide, if we go to the show, is it going to accomplish what we need to do?
Yeah, that’s what I was going to say. As far as ROI, it’s like, what do you want to get out of it? Do you want to get branding out of it, or do you want to get leads out of it? Depending on what you’re trying to achieve, you’re going to attack it a different way, or maybe not attack it at all. Maybe a trade show just really isn’t the right thing, depending on what your goals are. So you have to figure out what the goals are before you can even decide if you’re going to attend it or not.
There’s a lot of companies, they just say these trade shows are what brings in their best leads. They need the leads and the target prospects will be there, and this guarantees that you’re getting in front of those people. And then there’s the other thing that if they don’t show up, it’s going to be noticeable. So even though they don’t get much business from it, they just feel like they have to have a presence there.
Yeah. I’ve also heard feedback depending on the trade show, but that the only people coming to our booth are other tech vendors who want to partner. So if your goal to go to a specific trade show is to meet those other vendors and create relationships, it might be a great opportunity. If you’re experiencing that maybe it’s a trade show you sit out next year. One of the other pieces of feedback that we’ve heard is, tried it, it was really expensive, it wasn’t worth it. So it totally is a mixed bag of either this gets us in front of our prospects, and it’s one of the only ways that we can get directly in front of them. So we see huge value in it, or We’ve tried it, we haven’t gotten any business from it. We don’t know if we really should spend money on it anymore because it’s such a big investment and there’s so much you could do on the marketing front with those dollars, especially if you’re looking at some of the trade shows that are even more expensive than the average. So, for example, if you ever have exhibited at a Gartner event, those are not cheap.
Just to get even the smallest booth there is a very significant investment. You’ve really got to make sure that the value is there for your organization if you’re going to make it.
So let’s talk about what the value of exhibiting at trade shows is. Why would somebody want to do it or why would it be worth it?
One of the first things that comes to mind for me is it gets your brand out there. As long as you’re targeting the right audience, you’ve really got to think through which shows you select to make sure your ideal customer profile is there. But if they don’t know about you, they don’t know you exist, they’re not going to buy from you. So this is not the only thing you should be doing in your marketing mix, but it is something you may want to consider if you’re working on building up brand awareness, and there happens to be a show or a few shows where exactly the ideal customer profile you want to target is going to be there, take advantage of it.
Trade shows are good too, because it puts a face to the company, right? You get to meet some people there, you get to have conversations. They might just really connect with somebody there or find out that the company has some great insights that they never realized when having a conversation with some of the team members. That’s always a good way to look at it, too.
Yeah, there’s something to be said about having that personal connection. Sometimes being able to talk in person and face to face. Like you said, Greg.
They might be walking down the trade show floor and you’re booth catches their eye and they stop to talk, and before you know it, they’ve been talking to you for 20 minutes. That’s a conversation that probably wasn’t going to happen if you just had an SDR cold calling them and reaching out, right? You’ve planted a seed. Maybe they’re not ready to buy right now.
Maybe they weren’t even in the market looking for a solution, but now they know you exist. So I think it creates an opportunity for prospects to consider their options out there for the various challenges they have where they might be like, I haven’t even thought about this, but yeah, I like what that company does.
And they can get a quick answer too. If they had something on their mind, or something came up as they were going through the show. Just ask. Instead of waiting to get back to the office and call somebody, or try to send an email, fill out a form, they can get some instant information from somebody live.
Yeah, especially those people that are actually in market because those are the ones you really want to talk to in person. Let’s also talk about the drawbacks to exhibiting at these trade shows.
We’ve already kind of painted that picture. Right? It’s costly to exhibit at a trade show. Even when you have an affordable booth space, all the costs can add up because you’re paying for the travel of your employees, you’re paying for your employees to be out of the office, you’re paying for their hotel, you’re paying usually exhibition services, depending on the show. They won’t let you even set up things within your booth. It’s not really an option to save money on that piece. A lot of times got to pay for your booth.
That might be a one time cost, but it can be expensive to get those booths created. There’s just a lot of costs that go into attending even just one trade show. And the people you speak to in the booth aren’t always necessarily the decision makers. And I think in a large organization they may not even be an influencer in the purchase process. And I say that because I have stood in the line to get my photos taken at the Bob Booth HR Tech. If you guys have been there, you know what I’m talking about.
Standing next to individuals who are attendees at the event and talking to them and they’re like, oh yeah, I don’t make any of the decisions. I don’t even have any influence in this process. And that’s not to say that every attendee that’s at the event that that is the case, but it does mean not every person that comes to the conference is probably going to be someone that is the right person to talk to within an organization, right, but maybe they could introduce us to the right person in the organization.
Maybe, maybe not. Even if they can, they might not be willing to. That doesn’t mean it’s not great to get exposure to that person because maybe they can go to their boss and mention it. But if everybody in the audience wasn’t necessarily the right person, then you don’t want to be exhibiting at that show.
Yeah, the other thing is it’s really hard to stand out. You’re not really differentiated from the rest of the booths. It’s easier for people to just walk by and not even really notice.
Yeah, not only that they don’t notice you at the show, but then also when you’re following up after the show so are all of those other people; all those other companies?
Yeah, that’s a really good point. And I think the bigger the show, the more risk there is of that. So for example, if you look at the big annual Sherham conference or the big annual HR technology conference, there are hundreds of booths and a lot of them are ten x ten, some of them are ten x 20. And then you have the companies that have kind of the marquee booths that are huge, but you can walk all the way around them. They have a ton of people working in them. They’re very interactive.
If you’re an attendee walking through 20 rows of booths, how many do you think stand out to you? Probably the big marquee ones, but everyone else just blends in as you’re walking down that aisle. And how many of those attendees end up walking every single aisle and paying attention as they’re walking? So depending on where you get placed in that trade show, it’s a mixed bag. You might get a lot of traffic, you might not get a lot of traffic. And that’s always something you need to think about as you’re picking where your booth’s going to go and as you’re following up from the trade show to Jenny’s point. If everybody gets back from the show, and let’s say there were 400 booths and everybody who exhibited got their contact information for anybody they scanned in that booth from the conference, if somebody went to a lot of booths, they’re going to get a lot of emails within the first week or two after coming home from that event, right? And how do you stand out from that? You have to think about how you approach that as well, because that could be perceived as a drawback.
And speaking of that too, when you think about how that buyer feels about getting 100 emails, you also have to think about how are they feeling while they’re at the show too, as they’re walking those aisles and stuff, maybe they’re thinking, don’t make eye contact. They might try and talk to me, or I just want the really cool mug. I’ll just listen for a little bit so that I can get that.
Yes. Is the mug worth the 15 emails I’m about to get? Check yes or no? I think the reality is most attendees at a trade show and a conference aren’t likely in market to buy right now. So you have to wonder, are they really interested in chatting with the trade show booths? If you’re not in the market to buy, I just want free swag. You might be walking down and like, don’t make eye contact, don’t make eye contact, don’t make eye contact because the salespeople will try to talk to you. And I’ve walked the show floor. I’ve worked at booths. I know how it is.
The people working in the booth, they feel like, I’m here to represent the company. My job is to engage with people. So you’re trying to pull people in just by making eye contact, saying hi, asking them questions. And as an attendee, I’ve also been on the other side where I’m walking through and I’m like, I hope they don’t try to talk to me because then I have to play nice to them. I’m too nice to be like, no, not interested.
And keep walking. And you end up having conversations that you didn’t intend to have and that aren’t going anywhere because you’re not actually in market or interested in having conversation.
Obviously, people do a lot of research now. If they’ve done their research already and they’re thinking about buying, then they’ll stop and talk maybe, but otherwise they’re not even thinking about the thing you’re selling. Why would they want to stop to talk? I don’t even know why you’re selling me. You’re trying to sell me something. I don’t want to spend my time doing that.
On the flip side, though, there may be people walking around that trade show floor that are thinking, I’m actually in market to buy. I’m going to research the options and I want to learn more. And those are the people that you want to come into your booth and ask questions. And usually those are the ones that when the sales team comes home, they’re excited because they feel like here was an individual,
there seemed to be a genuine level of interest. I think they’re worth following up with. And obviously, if you’re going to a trade show, you want as many of those as you can uncover, but you have to go into it knowing not everyone’s in market right now. So how do you connect with the ones at the show who are.
Greg made a good point, too, with the way that people do their research beforehand. Nowadays, everybody’s buying differently now. Everyone’s looking up things on the Internet on their own. You really do have to stand out because they’re probably going to be more attracted to and beer toward ones they’ve already noticed online. So you might want to make sure that you’re doing a lot of brand awareness and top of funnel kind of marketing even before you ever go to a trade show so that people will say, hey, I recognize that name, and then maybe they’ll come over to your booth. So when is it a good idea to just say, no, let’s just skip this trade show.
We’re not doing this trade show. I think the obvious one is it’s not the right audience. And I say the obvious one, but sometimes I think it’s not obvious for organizations because they’re like, oh, you know what, there’s probably HR tech buyers there. It’s literally called the HR tech conference. And I keep mentioning that one because it’s about to happen. By the time this episode comes out, it probably will have just happened. So it’s top of mind for us, but you got to look at the makeup of the audience and usually conferences will share this information out there for people or organizations that are considering attending the trade show as an exhibitor or sponsoring stuff, what roles are coming?
What percentage of each role is coming, who are influencers versus decision makers? What industries are they from? They’ll provide a pretty good breakout most of the time for these conferences, especially if it’s a well established, long standing conference that can help you evaluate, are these the right people? And one of the things that I would recommend as you’re thinking about that audience and whether this is the right fit for you is if you have a defined ideal customer profile.
And let’s say you’re selling your HR. Technology, and you’re specifically targeting hospitals and healthcare systems with your technology because that’s your ideal customer profile. It may make more sense to go to a conference that is specific to that audience and that vertical than it is. To go to the Shuram conference or any of the other HR focused conferences, because that’s going to be so broad with the type of people that are there. It might be the role you want to reach, but it’s not going to be the vertical you want to reach. And so you have to evaluate any show that you look at, like, who are these people?
Is it enough of my ideal customer profile to justify this, or is it a bit too general or way off the mark for what we’re trying to do and who we’re trying to reach ideally.
Before you started that, I was going to say it’s also helpful to look at who the other exhibitors are, right? So you can see if they align, if it makes sense. But from what you just said, Deanna, it’s interesting because in that way, that doesn’t make sense, right? Because you would be going more to the vertical, so the exhibitors wouldn’t necessarily align, but the ICP aligns.
Yeah, that’s a good point, and I think that’s where I would say, don’t go on autopilot, meaning you’re going because your company has always gone, or you’re going because you see all your competitors will be there. At least take a step back and ask the question, do we have past results that justify going to determine whether this is really worth it? And if you have been going for years and you’ve never actually tracked back to see, were we getting our money’s worth out of this? And I say that knowing that. Many organizations, of course, do this, but there’s a surprising number that actually don’t tie things back and look at it and say, hey, here’s the ROI that we actually got from attending this conference last year
because we see it’s one of the touch points where we actually had a conversation in person with this company and these individuals, and now they’ve become clients that you can tie back and you can show, okay, there was value in doing that. If you don’t have that, it’s really hard to say, like, yes, there’s ROI, and we absolutely should continue to do this. I also think it can be challenging if you’ve never attended the conference before, to be able to determine, like, should we go because you’re not doing it then on autopilot, you’re doing it because you’re looking at it thinking, this is an event we should probably go to. All of my competitors are there. There must be a reason they’re going.
But remember, they might be doing it on autopilot. And so I would just go back to the make sure it’s the right audience for you, and it’s okay to skip it and look for a different way to invest your money, whether that’s a different event or conference or a different marketing tactic altogether.
You could consider, too, is like looking at what are the topics that are being discussed there related to what your trying to get across to your unique point of view or their interest to your ICP, just to get another kind of take at what’s happening at the conference with the trade show. But those are trade shows, right? They’ve been happening forever. Trade shows are older than dirt almost. Right. Put everything on display and put your wares out there and let them combine and start a conversation.
Yeah. It is interesting how they really haven’t changed, right? Trade shows have not changed even through the pandemic. I mean, they were halted and paused, but it’s just like right back to the same old thing.
Yeah. And reality is, buyer behaviors have changed. Trade shows really haven’t. I think it is okay to evolve your marketing strategy and skip the trade shows if it isn’t a high return on investment. A couple of things to kind of throw into the when to skip the trade show mix, I would say, one, none of the leads from last year panned out, meaning you came home with a bunch of leads, you thought they would be decent. They were the right titles, the right organizations, but it never turned into anything.
So there was poor ROI. The other one you can look at is, did your sales reps that worked at the event last year come back super excited about who they talked to, or were they lukewarm and like, I don’t know. It was okay because they’re on the front line at those events. Whether it’s sales reps or marketing people or your executive team that are working in the booth, they will have a pretty good handle coming out of that event of how valuable it was to spend that time there.
And if they’re not excited, that’s a sign right there that they weren’t having meaningful enough conversations to make it worth the investment.
So then, on the flip side, let’s talk about why a company should decide to hit a trade show. What are the benefits to going.
I think we talked about it a little bit before already, but if your ideal customer profile is well defined and you know that those people are going to be there, then it absolutely makes sense to be there, right?
I’d also say if you’ve got active deals and some of those prospects will be attending the event, it’s a great opportunity to be there because, one, they’ll see you there. Two, hopefully they’ll stop at the booth and have a conversation to help solidify, kind of, the relationship with them and keep them thinking about why they would want to choose you. In that same vein, I would say if you’ve got clients attending the event, it’s a great way to connect with clients, and it goes beyond just having a booth there. But if you know that you’ve got prospects who are actively in a selling cycle with you there, or clients like reaching out to them ahead of time to tell them we’re going to be there; we’d love to take you out for dinner or drinks, have a conversation, stop by our booth. To make that connection with them in advance so that they know that you’re there and hopefully you have the opportunity to catch them versus hoping they just randomly walk by the booth and decide to stop and talk.
If your target audience is there and you’re not, and they’re going to notice that you’re not and think, what the heck is going on, that might be a reason that you should just go too. because it looks bad. If everybody’s expecting you to make a presence and then you’re not there. There’s going to be questions, what’s going on with this company? Are they going out of business? Why aren’t they here? They’ve always been here before.
It probably is good to make a presence if that’s something that’s going to be noticed.
If the stars align. Ideal customer profile is there. You have active deals like prospects coming there, you’ve got clients there, you’re like, okay, this probably makes sense to go. I think another factor in favor of going is if you have a budget that allows you to do cool things to make your booth stand out so that as they’re walking row after row of ten x ten booths, you don’t get lost in the shuffle.
Those big booths that you see that are really pretty and have really cool activities happening in them, those usually don’t come cheap, and they’re not budget friendly for smaller organizations in the HR tech space or any industry for that matter. But if you have an infusion of cash and you’re ready to make a splash, like, let’s say you have this big product launch, you need to build brand awareness. You’ve got the budget to do something really cool, it might make sense to invest in one of those larger booths so you really stand out and then have some activities and different things in the booth that would get people to notice and stop and talk to you.
Related to that too, a little bit, because it would take some organization and some money, if you have somebody in your organization that could be a thought leader, and be on a panel, or be a speaker at one of the sessions, that kind of stuff is really valuable too, but it does take some budget and some organization to make that happen.
Yeah, and I think if anyone is considering going to the trade show, you’ve decided there’s ROI there, and you’re going to do it. It’s important that you have like a pre, during and post marketing strategy to support it. So don’t just go to the trade show, set up your booth, have conversations, come home, and it’s business as normal. Warm up those prospects and clients before the event so they know you’re there, so they’re interested in stopping by your booth.
During the event, usually marketers, if they’re sending you to the event, are going to think through like, how are we going to handle the in booth activity? What can we offer as swag? Maybe there’s contests, some kind of big giveaway, different things to gather names, but then also have a strategy for afterwards. Keeping in mind if it’s a really big trade show that that prospect may get hit up a lot in the next week or two following the event, that you need to have a marketing strategy that goes beyond the first few days after the event for a long term nurture of those individuals.
A little bit more obvious reason that you should go to a trade show is if it’s always worked for you. Right? I mean, we’re talking about all the reasons that it’s hard and all that, but if you’ve got proven ROI from exhibiting at that same show from previous years, it’s kind of a no brainer. If you’re making money and you’re getting leads, then definitely keep doing it.
Mainly what we’re talking about today is that it’s important to choose the right marketing mix to build your brand awareness and credibility and trust. So marketing is a journey. To create demand, it takes many touches, and a trade show might be one of those touches, but it shouldn’t be the only touch. So before you invest in that expensive and time consuming trade show schedule, make sure that the value is there, and if it isn’t, it’s okay to skip it.
Thanks for joining us on the Demand Gen Fix, a podcast for HR tech workers brought to you by GrowthMode Marketing. I sure hope you enjoyed it. Don’t forget to subscribe for more perspectives on demand generation and B2B marketing strategies. Plus, give us a like, tell your friends, we’ll see you next time.

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