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It seems like all exhibitors have switched to electronic lead-capture systems these days. So are paper lead forms dead, or do they still have a place in the trade show industry?
Bravo! You're one of very few exhibit managers that would dare to even ask this question. Most people are so fearful of inching back from technology's "cutting edge," that they've jumped on the high-tech bandwagon before determining if the journey will actually support their marketing goals.

Now that's not to say that electronic lead-collection systems – which enlist everything from tablets and smartphones to stationary kiosks and laptops – don't have their benefits. But you shouldn't pooh-pooh paper systems simply because they're not the newest shiny bauble. Truth be told, paper is a better fit for several exhibit-marketing scenarios, making it an effective tool of choice for many exhibit managers who dare to consider it.

So here's a breakdown of paper versus electronic lead-capture systems. Instead of following the herd like a pack of migrating Wildebeests (who sometimes fling themselves off a cliff into crocodile-infested waters), arm yourself with the following information and then determine which option best meets your needs.

Electronic Pluses and Minuses
Electronic lead-capture systems offer huge advantages over paper when it comes to the speed of data capture and the ability to manipulate that resulting data. After all, with the mere swipe or scan of an attendee's badge, his or her contact information is instantly transferred to a database where you can immediately manipulate it. Plus, compared to paper, post-event processing is drastically minimized. You need only remove duplicates, reconcile data from multiple visits/swipes, and format the data to the requirements of your internal customer-relationship-management (CRM) system. In addition, electronic data can be added, changed, deleted, etc. without printing a single page, so many people consider it a Greener option than paper.

But electronic lead capture also has some pitfalls, particularly when it comes to compatibility. The format of the data encoded on the myriad badge types – e.g., magnetic stripe, 1-D or 2-D barcodes, Quick Response (QR) codes, and Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags – and the format of the data that's then provided to exhibitors remains proprietary to each registration and lead-retrieval system. Thus, some badges can be read by any system, others require special decryption software, and some can only be read using the badge readers supplied by the show's lead-retrieval vendors. So you may not be able to use the same electronic lead-capture system nor the same data format for every show.

Another major drawback is that qualifying questions must almost always be asked in the order that they appear on the device. While some systems allow staffers to move back and forth between questions, doing so often involves numerous page swipes, as most devices have relatively small screens that can only display one or two questions at a time.

Along these same lines, an authentic conversation never follows a script. Yet electronic devices often force staffers to interrupt a normal conversation to initiate a survey, completely altering the flow of discussion.

Electronic lead-capture systems are also strictly for one-on-one interactions. A single data-capture device – whether it's manned by a staffer or it offers a self-guided experience attendees can facilitate themselves – can only handle one attendee at a time. So accommodating vast quantities of people at the same time, perhaps immediately after a theater presentation or when a wave of people surges through the booth at the start of the show, is a challenge.

Finally, while electronic devices may appear slick and professional, they can also depersonalize a conversation. For example, if a staffer is using a paper lead card and talking with an attendee, he or she can easily jot down a note or two on the card with a mere glance at the paper. And some talented staffers don't even have to glance down while jotting notes. But if a staffer takes the same note with an electronic device, he or she is forced to look down at the keyboard for an extended period of time to accurately record the information. Thus, the staffer's attention is riveted on the device – and not the attendee – and face-to-face time becomes face-to-tablet time.

Paper Pros and Cons
So how does paper stack up to its counterpart? Well it, too, has its advantages. Among them, portability and availability are key. If you wanted to, you could easily and affordably hand every booth visitor a lead card and let all of them wander at leisure as they complete the card. Sure, staffers might fill out the card during a one-on-one conversation, but paper frees up staff and attendees to experience more of the booth during the lead-collection process, and possibly to use a sort of passport system to drive traffic throughout your space.

Paper also lets you capture qualifying information from a virtually unlimited number of attendees concurrently. And staffers can easily take the lead cards with them to off-site functions, hospitality events, etc.

In addition, completing a paper lead card is a no-brainer for almost everyone on the planet. In comparison, people in some markets are not nearly as familiar with electronic lead-gathering devices. While that's fine if staffers will be the only ones holding the devices in your exhibit, it can be particularly problematic if you want attendees to interact with the device without the aid of a staffer.

Finally, paper lead forms also support a more authentic attendee/staffer interaction since the questions can be answered in any order. Staffers can have a free-form conversation with attendees and subtly weave questions into it, checking off the right answers on the form in whatever order they happen to occur in the conversation. This fact alone can result in a significantly larger percentage of fully completed lead forms compared to electronic devices.

When it comes to disadvantages, though, paper lead cards must be continually printed and shipped to and from shows. That means they're usually not as eco-friendly as electronic devices, they're an ongoing expense, and there's an elevated risk of them being lost in transit. After all, a box full of even a couple hundred lead cards is a lot more difficult to handle than a USB device housing a database filled with thousands of leads. In fact, almost all electronic lead-retrieval systems now offer online access, which means you don't even need to keep track of a USB. And as discussed earlier, post-event data management is usually time consuming, costly, and labor intensive, as someone must transfer written (and sometimes illegible) text into electronic form. Granted, there are scanner-friendly forms that can speed this process considerably, but this written-to-electronic transfer step is absent from electronic systems.

So while many exhibitors have switched to electronic systems, paper still has its place in exhibit marketing. In fact, sometimes it's a far more effective and cost-conscious choice than a bright shiny bauble.

— Ken Mortara, president, ShowValue Inc., Tucson, AZ
Help Wanted
Send your tough questions about exhibiting to Linda Armstrong, larmstrong@exhibitormagazine.com.

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