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For many exhibitors, the quantity of leads generated at a trade show is used as an indicator of success or failure — the more leads collected, the more successful the show. However, not all leads are created equal, and in fact, some are downright worthless. But how do you decipher the leads that could actually turn into sales from the ones that will only turn you down? Like everything else in exhibit marketing, it all comes down to strategy. Here, three exhibit managers share their lead-related woes — and the solutions that prove sometimes less is more. By Lena Valenty
Booth-Staff Boot Camp
With more new leads than it could handle, The Original Footwear Co. implements booth-staff training to zero in on its top prospects.

Collecting so many leads that you run out of time to follow up on each one doesn't sound like the worst problem in the world. But for Brett Weitl, marketing director of The Original Footwear Co. (referred to as Original S.W.A.T.), it ranked right up there with not having any leads at all. "Our biggest challenge at any given show was finding the time and space to seek out new leads and cultivate them," Weitl says. For example, at the company's largest show, the Shooting, Hunting, Outdoor Trade (SHOT) Show, the maker of footwear for the military and law-enforcement agencies was bombarded with a constant stream of attendees. That kind of booth traffic was a double-edged sword for Weitl and his staffers, as it was difficult not only to engage current customers that stopped by the 20-by-20-foot booth, but also to quickly identify and qualify potential new leads. What's more, Weitl didn't rent the show's lead-retrieval system, so simply scanning everyone's badge and sorting out leads later wasn't an option.

"In that busy environment, I found it far more efficient to qualify a potential lead by asking a few key questions, swapping business cards, and jotting down some notes on the cards," he says. The problem was that some of his less experienced booth staffers weren't as comfortable with that approach. So to get them on board, Weitl enlisted the help of Matt Hill, president of The Hill Group, a booth-staff training company based in San Jose, CA.

"Like many exhibitors, Original S.W.A.T. needed help with the basics," Hill says. "Inexperienced staffers may be shy or awkward in a trade show setting, which means they aren't being proactive about approaching booth visitors. So someone needs to model the appropriate behavior and teach them how to greet, qualify, and interact with attendees." According to Hill, that includes greeting attendees within 15 seconds of them entering the booth, starting a conversation, and being polite — whether that person is a potential lead or not.

"Every visitor to your booth should have the same, pleasant experience, but you also have a right to screen 'time wasters' and politely disengage and dismiss them," he says. When you know your conversation with an attendee isn't going to result in a qualified lead, Hill suggests wrapping it up by saying something like, "It was nice talking to you; I hope you enjoy the rest of the show." That way, he or she leaves the exhibit with a positive impression, and you can focus on qualifying more leads.

By greeting booth visitors as they entered and asking them some qualifying questions like "What products are you looking for?" and "When do you plan to purchase them?" staffers were able to decipher potential leads from tire kickers, and pass along better qualified leads to Weitl. "I continue to take handwritten notes on business cards and stick them in a three-ring-binder, but the quality of leads I receive has improved immensely," he says. "Now, we turn the majority of our qualified leads into customers."

While training your staff and taking notes on business cards may seem old school, it paid off in new business for Original S.W.A.T.

Out With the Old
Paper lead forms and fishbowls are tossed in favor of a digital opt-in system that helps Balloon Utopia clean up its lead-management act.

Like many exhibitors, Sandi Masori tried everything when it came to lead collection. The head designer at event-décor firm Balloon Utopia has collected business cards, held drawings, gathered attendees' contact information via sign-in sheets, scanned badges, and used paper lead forms.

None of it worked for Masori. "I have a big box of cards and sign-up sheets that I've never done anything with," she says. In addition to becoming overwhelmed by the countless forms and cards piling up in her office, Masori was also losing out on potential business. "I had lost sight of the reasons we exhibited — to generate leads and new customers," she says.

Though Masori wasn't doing anything with the leads she collected at trade shows, she was following up on leads collected via inquiries on Balloon Utopia's website. In fact, she had studied search-engine optimization hoping to bolster traffic to the site. "I was fascinated by SEO and kept taking more and more classes on it — how it works, how to apply it, and so on," she says. "In one of the classes, I happened to hear about a digital opt-in system for lead management, and I was hooked. No more forms, no more spreadsheets, no more cold calls."

Digital opt-in systems are often used for giveaways and drawings — "text and win" messages appear on everything from fast-food wrappers to cereal boxes. The user simply texts a predetermined message or numerical code to the number listed, and receives a short text message in return to let him or her know the fate of the entry.

In addition to simplifying the prize giveaways that had always been a part of Masori's exhibit program, a digital opt-in system lends itself nicely to trade show lead qualification and follow-up, since attendees make the first move and essentially self-qualify. They can then request product information, talk to a staffer via text message, etc. Masori was so intrigued by the process — and eager to ditch the forms and fishbowls — that she decided to make the switch and contacted Instant Customer, a digital opt-in service provider.

Now when attendees enter Balloon Utopia's exhibit, they're directed to 11-by-17-inch posters affixed to 9-foot-tall balloon columns flanking the booth's entrance. The signs contain info about the giveaway, which is chosen based on the audience. "For example, if we're at a public show, then we might offer dance-floor décor." But these aren't just prizes for the sake of prizes — they're used to further qualify prospects.

"Attendees that aren't planning an event in the near future likely won't need dance-floor décor, and are less likely to opt in because they're not interested in the prize or becoming a client at that time," she says. In addition to prize info, the signs also contain instructions on how to enter."

As soon as an attendee sends the text, he or she receives two open-ended, qualifying questions, such as "Thanks for entering the dance-floor décor giveaway. What kind of event décor are you currently using?" and "How often do you purchase event décor?" A third message is then sent that reads, "Thank you very much. Check your inbox — I've sent you an email." The email contains a link to the company's site, where visitors can view past projects.

All of the messages are automated and prescheduled, reducing the amount of time Masori spends following up with leads. "We collect way more leads, follow up with them quickly and consistently, and are able to have an interactive conversation with every attendee that opts in," she says. "I don't waste my time talking to people who aren't interested, and can instead focus on the leads that are likely to become customers."

Higher Learning
NewSchool of Architecture and Design charts a path to find the perfect lead.

Most people don't think of education as a commodity. But Lisa Apolinski isn't most people. As the marketing lead at the NewSchool of Architecture and Design (NSAD) in San Diego, she is charged with building brand awareness for the school and increasing enrollment. In essence, Apolinski sells higher learning. And although a college education isn't as tangible as, say, a sports car or TV, it's a product nonetheless, and sales — in this case, enrollment — drives the marketing program.

In early 2013, Apolinski's marketing budget was reduced by roughly 15 percent, yet the school's new-enrollment goals remained the same.

Looking for a way to maximize revenue while minimizing the amount of time wasted on leads that won't, well, lead to anything, Apolinski and her team developed an intricate scoring system that determines which leads are worth the money and time to pursue. "I figured if I could zero in on leads that have a higher propensity for conversion, I could use my time and limited resources in a smarter fashion," she says. "I could determine which type of leads would have a higher conversion rate based on three factors: marketing channel, conversion cycle, and target-market demographics."

Rather than simply plugging those numbers into a spreadsheet, Apolinski used a 3-D graph, which contains x-, y-, and z-axes and can be used to plot three variables. She first plotted the number of leads generated from each of NSAD's marketing channels (e.g., website, trade shows, social-media networks, direct mailers, etc.) on the x-axis. Next, she evaluated the conversion cycle, meaning she examined the various touchpoints (e.g., emails, phone calls, campus visits, etc.) through which leads travel before converting to enrollees, and assigned those numbers to the y-axis. Finally, she took target-market demographics (e.g., incomes, education levels, ages, geographic locations, etc.) and plotted them on the z-axis.

Here's where it got tricky. Apolinski looked at where the values for all three factors intersected, determining that point represented her "prime lead pool." By graphing the data in this manner, Apolinski was able to identify which types of leads had the highest conversion rate.

For example, let's say the leads collected via NSAD's website had a 10-percent conversion rate, while those collected via direct mailers had a 1-percent conversion rate. Marketing dollars would be diverted from direct mailers and invested in the website. The same practice is applied to the conversion cycle. If leads contacted by phone had a 2-percent conversion rate, while leads that visited the campus had a 15-percent conversion rate, Apolinski and her team would promote campus visits.

Demographics are analyzed the same way. If 18-year-old high-school grads from New York had a 19-percent conversion rate, and 21-year-old undergrads from Utah had a 5-percent conversion rate, NSAD would focus its resources on targeting the former.

And though it's too early to tell if her hard work has paid off, Apolinski is projecting a significant lead-conversion rate increase for the summer and fall terms. What's more, she believes her strategy is applicable regardless of the industry. "There may be pushback from management when you first switch from a quantity-focused lead approach to a quality-focused strategy, but when you apply evidence-based decisions as the rationale for modifying your approach — and you can provide results — you'll get more buy-in," she says. Now that's a formula for lead success.

Lead the Right Way
In the past few years, lead-retrieval technology has streamlined the lead-management process for many exhibitors. But the newest technology doesn't mean diddly if your booth staffers don't know the first thing about lead qualification and follow-up. So whether you use paper lead forms or iPad apps, here are three basics every badge-scanner-wielding staffer needs to know.

Define the Lead
Lead collection often falls on the shoulders of your booth staffers, who may or may not be salespeople. "You have to tell your staffers what is and isn't a lead," says Jefferson Davis, president of Competitive Edge, an exhibit-staff training company based in Charlotte, NC. "Identify what information you need in order to qualify a lead — it can be anything from company size, revenue, and intent to purchase to current client status."

Fill in the Missing Information
"When you're qualifying a lead, capture as much information as possible to bridge the gap between the conversation at the show and the conversation that needs to take place after the show," says Marc Goldberg, owner of Marketech360, a training and performance measurement company based in West Dennis, MA. "That way, whoever gets the lead can pick up the conversation right where it left off."

Follow Up
"If you take a lead at a show, you're making a promise to follow up with that lead," says Matt Hill, president of The Hill Group, a San Jose, CA-based company that offers booth-staff training. "And the timeliness of that follow-up is a direct reflection on your company's interest in a potential client — and a good indication of how that client will be treated in the future. It's important to make a positive first impression."

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