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Many Happy Returns
While there is no standard, one-size-fits-all template for determining the success of a trade show program, there are eight steps every exhibit manager should follow when it comes to developing a measurement plan. By Candy Adams
ithout ironclad facts and figures reported at the end of each trade show to justify participation, it's no wonder that management often looks at exhibiting with a skeptical eye. Most managers want to see formal, strategic goals and objectives and quantitative or qualitative analysis of a show's performance. And they want to make sure that the money being spent is not just another marketing expense, but an investment that's yielding measurable returns. Basically, what management wants is proof that exhibit managers are being good guardians of the trade show program's bottom line.

But setting up a comprehensive exhibit-measurement program to calculate ROI isn't without its challenges. Before embarking on this sometimes-vexing task, consult this list of eight must dos, and you'll be well on your way to gauging the kinds of metrics that matter to upper management.

Select your metrics.

The first step in any measurement program is, of course, deciding what you're going to measure. I'm a firm believer that when it comes to shows you can assign a value to almost anything. Common sales-related metrics include cost per interaction, cost per lead, cost per qualified lead, cost per sale, and average sales revenue generated by exhibiting. Then there's the most common sales-related metric of all, return on investment (ROI). Simply take the revenue generated by show-related activity (minus show-related expenses) divided by the total cost to exhibit. For example, if a company spends $50,000 to exhibit at a show and it makes $150,000 in net revenue, its ROI is $150,000 divided by $50,000, or 300 percent.

You can also track marketing-related metrics to determine the outcomes of promotional campaigns, such as product awareness, media and press relations, brand favorability, and audience education and perception. Here, you're not necessarily measuring sales generated, but rather return on objective (ROO). So let's say your marketing team wants to increase booth traffic at a show using pre-show mailers. There are many different approaches to calculating this metric, but it all starts with establishing measurable objectives up front, and then measuring your success to determine whether or not those objectives were met, and at what cost.

In the past 10 years or so, however, there's been an increasing interest in another metric: return on relationship (ROR). It represents the incremental value (actual or perceived) generated by nurturing a client relationship over time. For example, say a company places a value of $800 on a face-to-face meeting with an existing client, and meets with 50 existing clients at a show. That's a relationship value of $40,000. So if that company had invested $20,000 in the show, that's an ROR of 2-to-1. This metric is particularly valuable for marketers trying to underscore the efficiency of exhibiting versus sending salespeople all over the country to meet with clients and prospects face to face.

Determine who will have input.

Since the quantitative and qualitative information used to evaluate and measure exhibiting success might ultimately come from multiple departments within a company, all stakeholders who will contribute data should be in the preliminary meetings so you can gain their input on which metrics are to be measured and how. Warning: If the strategy meetings to establish your measurement program's criteria and process are anything like the ones I've held, just sit down, hang on, and watch the political posturing begin as people struggle to identify who is ultimately responsible and accountable for the various measurements of any trade show exhibit's success.

Once the dust settles and there's a consensus among your stakeholders on what should be measured, you can use what you've learned to craft your qualifying questions. For example, if stakeholders want to know if an ad campaign in an industry publication has increased awareness, you could ask attendees, "How did you hear about the company?" Or perhaps the goal is to increase the number of new leads. In that case, you could ask, "Have you ever purchased our products before?"

Identify consistent areas of measurement for all shows.

Part of the reason for measurement is to compare shows' results in the same, or different, categories, e.g., by type (vertical versus horizontal shows), location (international versus domestic shows), or booth size and/or type (linear versus island). So a measurement system needs to be implemented that can compare the same criteria across all shows, or at least the segment of shows you want to compare, with consistency, to make recommendations on future participation based on each show's return. As an example, if you compare the cost per qualified lead of exhibiting at a larger, industry-wide horizontal show to that of a smaller product-focused vertical show, you may note a much higher cost per lead at the more highly attended horizontal shows, and be able to justify the cost of exhibiting in more tightly targeted and lower-cost vertical shows in the future.

Another point that requires consensus among company executives is the expenses used to calculate the cost of exhibiting. Are you only factoring direct costs paid for that show, such as booth space, new exhibit properties required for that event, promotional costs, shipping, and on-site services such as electrical, material handling, and labor? Or are you also including more indirect exhibiting expenses in the total figure, such as the prorated cost of exhibit properties and their maintenance, exhibit-staff salaries and overhead, and travel expenses for all staff attending the show?

Determine "cost per" formulas to assign value to marketing and sales activity.

It's generally agreed that measuring the value of any marketing program is a good idea from a fiscal viewpoint. But when it comes down to the dollars and cents of exactly what will be measured, and each marketing activity's value toward a subsequent sale, the answers become more vague.

For example, whose sale is it? Often, there's a difference of opinion between marketing and sales departments regarding whether (and to what extent) credit for any given sale should be attributed to at-show activities versus pre- and post-sales activities that could generate a sales commission for the closer. Very few sales are closed solely on the basis of one touchpoint in an exhibit. One marketing rule of thumb says the largest percentage of sales will be made on the fifth contact.

Another question you need to ask your stakeholders is "What is a lead?" For exhibitors whose main metric is counting leads, one of my favorite initial questions to pose is, "What constitutes a qualified lead?" Is a lead "qualified" based on whether or not the individual meets a certain percentage of criteria listed on the lead form, such as product need, buying influence, available budget, or purchasing timeframe? Or is a lead rated as qualified based on a subjective, overall impression?

Finally, determine the dollar value you want to assign to each touch or impression (e.g., meals, sponsored banners, speaker sessions, press briefings, media coverage, etc.). For example, let's say you sponsor a luncheon that costs $25,000, and 500 people attend. That $25,000 investment would have to yield an average of $50 in sales from each attendee in order for you to break even financially. You (and your stakeholders) have to decide if the expense is worth it based on your measurable objectives. Maybe sales isn't a goal, and instead you want to increase brand awareness. If that's the case, incorporate a post-event survey to determine how many attendees remember the name of the luncheon's sponsor, and use that metric to determine whether the sponsorship was successful.

The latest brouhaha simmering over trade show measurement is how to accurately value social-media channel activity generated or influenced by an exhibit, such as tweets, "likes," comments, shares, and blog mentions, and their eventual effect on sales. This is extremely difficult to determine. Do you factor in the cost of your social-media manager's salary? Or just the campaign for that show where you decided to run a Quick Response (QR) code scavenger hunt? Unfortunately, I don't have a simple answer for exactly how to accomplish a positive return on social-media investment. You have to decide what equals social-media success for your company, set corresponding goals, and then measure the results. For example, maybe you want to get 200 "likes" for a Facebook gallery featuring images of a new product. That's easy to track, and it's a tangible goal. Whether reaching that goal makes the time and resources spent creating the photo gallery worth it is completely up to you and the team of stakeholders.

Ensure easy access to all post-show data.

If your company gathers prospect data at your exhibit, it's a good bet that it will end up in a customer-relationship management (CRM) system that is monitored by the sales department. But how will this data be reported by the keeper of the system? Is there even data to accurately track if leads are disbursed to an outside channel of distributors or sales reps who aren't on your company's payroll and have no motivation to report back on sales attributed to trade show activity?

Since management of the marketing and sales functions often resides in separate organizational silos, the accountability for the results of exhibiting – increased sales revenue – often lies with a company's sales department, who will be graded by the follow-up of qualified leads and conversion to sales, assuming the data's available and accessible.

The accessibility issue goes back to ensuring everyone is on the same page by getting stakeholder buy in early on. Otherwise, you might get stuck in "lead limbo" as marketing and sales argue about who has to report what to whom, and who gets territorial rights to the leads, data, and sales generated after the show. So get these questions answered in pre-show stakeholder meetings, which should include decision-makers from both the marketing and sales departments. Ideally, they will agree on the value of the items being measured, such as leads, qualified leads, sales, etc.

Pinpoint program weaknesses and recommend improvements.

Management not only wants to see the statistical results and comparison of exhibit measurement programs, but also wants to know what you're going to do to improve on the weak areas for future shows.

After identifying underperforming aspects of the exhibit, astute exhibit managers include recommendations for program improvements and the required resources – both human and financial – to make the necessary changes. If there's ever a good time to request additional funding to enhance your program, it's when you've got management interested enough to look closely at your well-documented recommendations.

Appropriately time post-show analysis and reporting.

Depending on the length of your company's sales cycle, accessing the data to analyze and compare results to your written show goals and objectives within a reasonable timeframe can be tough, if not almost impossible. How long is long enough to wait for the sales outcomes of your exhibit? Only your company stakeholders can decide, because you have to get their buy in regarding what can realistically and accurately be measured in a reasonable timeframe.

This goes back to my old saying about mind over matter – if they don't mind what you're counting, it doesn't matter. If bean counters expect an exhibit manager to measure success, they have to contribute to determining what will be measured, how it will be measured, and when it will be reported. Furthermore, they have to agree that if those criteria are met, the exhibit manager is off the hook. Time and time again, I see somebody (usually sales) drop the ball on tracking the leads within the agreed-upon timeframe, and it comes down on the exhibit manager's head for being unable to generate an accurate report.

Allocate human and financial resources to measurement.

Other than exhibit-marketing staff that will likely compile, analyze, and compare the data collected for each trade show to measurable objectives and goals set prior to the show, who else will be tasked with the implementation and ownership of your entire measurement program? And what other financial and human resources will be required to maintain it?

Any exhibit-measurement program you integrate into your overall evaluation of company marketing programs will take time and effort to set up, not even considering the time spent reporting after each show. Many programs look good until you seek funding and time allocation of existing or added staff, especially from other departments, to properly implement and manage them on a continuing basis. This is why it's critical to get the chief bean counters and marketing and sales executives involved as early in the process as possible.

There's no "easy button" to push to overcome the challenges I mentioned above and to retrieve
all the data needed to compile concise reports for your executives. But one thing I do know for sure is
that regardless of whether you measure ROI, ROO, or ROR (or all three), the bottom line is the same: accountability for the dollars spent today, and justification for the dollars we want to
spend tomorrow.

Candy Adams, CTSM, CME, CEM, CMP, CMM,
"The Booth Mom," is an independent exhibit project manager, trainer, speaker, consultant, and an Exhibitor Conference faculty member. CandyAdams@BoothMom.com

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