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Golden Retrieval
Simply put, leads are the reason most companies exhibit. To help you collect your due, here's a rundown of the most common lead-management methods. By Candy Adams
At my first trade show almost 25 years ago, I suffered through a fair share of hiccups and hurdles, but my boss made it very clear that whatever happened, our leads had to make it home safely. I was also responsible for counting and sorting the leads into groups based on how quickly we needed to follow up on them the next week. And in short, they needed to be ready to be input into our lead-management system when I walked through the office door.

As heavy-handed as he seemed at the time, at least my boss had a plan for how our show booty was going to be managed. He wasn't going to let anything come between him and that goal – and you shouldn't, either.

The counting of leads, and more specifically counting qualified leads, is typically a key metric in proving a show's success. So having a lead-management system that closes the sales loop is crucial to prove the current and future value of a specific show. As such, best practices in lead retrieval and management should be an integral part of your strategic plan, not an afterthought.

While I'd really like to provide a straightforward pros-and-cons list comparing various lead-management systems, it's just not that easy. For example, you might want a lead-retrieval system that allows you to customize the qualifying data collected at a trade show, including the ability to ask multiple-choice and closed-ended questions and a place to record notes. Or perhaps the most important attribute is the system's compatibility with your company's own customer-relationship management (CRM) software.

Other factors that come into play when determining the type of system to use are: cost of owning versus renting lead-gathering equipment; access to the data collected; ease of use in terms of uploading and distributing leads with minimal input and cleanup; ability to view, analyze, and track data using dashboards and tie sales revenue to specific shows; uniformity of data collected over multiple trade shows; integration capabilities; and potential enhancement of your program's return on investment. With those variables in mind, here are some common lead-retrieval and -management options.

► Show Rentals Most larger shows name an official contractor that provides the lead-retrieval system rentals for exhibitors. The system works hand-in-hand with the show's attendee- and exhibitor-registration system to provide exhibiting companies with the data collected when the badges are scanned. And, depending on its system, this vendor can provide a number of badge-reading options, from smartphone apps to the old desktop scanners. Some of the smaller shows, though, still use the older technology of more "historical" scanners that read bar codes, magnetic strips, or Quick Response (QR) codes that are printed on the badges.

Scanned data is sent to exhibitors after the trade show, usually in comma separated value (.csv) files that dump into a spreadsheet format. These files can then be saved into Excel format where columns can be added for additional information such as lead ratings, follow-up dates, and assigned salesperson/territory.

Note that you can also purchase your own lead-retrieval system, but there is no guarantee that it will be compatible with the badges used at every trade show you attend.

► Smartphones and Tablets The biggest lead-retrieval advancement in recent years is the use of smartphone technology. Using various smartphone apps within your exhibit allows you to break the old tether of being tied to a stationary kiosk during the attendee-qualification process. And generally, the data is immediately transmitted to a portal in the cloud, allowing instantaneous access to scan records, lead counts, and device usage. This mobile technology also allows the ability to scan badges anywhere your phone is – whether you're on the hotel shuttle bus to an off-site hospitality event, in a restaurant, or at the hotel bar. And the data captured in real time can be sent to a salesperson or your company's CRM system for immediate processing. Such apps can even send a thank you message to the prospect, along with links to product information.

The use of large-screen smartphones, iPads, and tablet PCs has exploded over the past few years. The possibilities are endless in terms of using these devices as mobile sales and marketing tools to gather and qualify leads, facilitate e-literature fulfillment, and deliver content such as product-demo videos. Just the cost savings of printing, shipping, and material handling for marketing collateral can pay for the purchase of these devices used for at-show lead gathering and collateral fulfillment. And it takes another layer out of the post-show sales-fulfillment process, leaving no chance for an attendee's request to slip through the cracks.

► Near-Field Communication (NFC) Another technology driving smartphone use at shows is Near-Field Communication. NFC allows the exchange of information based on a chip and small antenna embedded in a badge or wristband. Data is then transmitted when attendees place their badges near an exhibitor's NFC sensor, which could be in a badge reader or any display in the booth.

My issue with this technology is that it takes the face-to-face element out of the exhibit, since attendees can request product info, enter a raffle, or complete a follow-up request without talking with exhibit staff. To me, that's negating much of the memorability of visiting your exhibit, and attendees may as well have just gone to your website and requested information.

That said, NFC isn't limited to lead retrieval. The technology can be used to track a variety of attendee-centric metrics, including product interest, behavior inside the exhibit, and even in-booth presentation participation.

► Paper Lead Forms It doesn't get much more low tech than writing lead data on paper leads and then manually entering that information into a spreadsheet. But for exhibitors dealing with a small number of leads or shows, and especially for small shows that don't employ a technology vendor and scannable badges, this may be your best – and most customizable – bet. That's because you can personally design the forms to include a specific set of lead-qualification questions, and tailor them to meet your objectives.

As useful as paper lead forms can be, there typically isn't any way to instantaneously back up the data collected. So if you go the paper route, enter the forms into a spreadsheet daily while you're at the show, and at the very least, make copies. After all, if the forms go missing, the value of your exhibit-marketing investment vanishes along with them.

► Business-Card Scanners Using an off-the-shelf business-card scanner that outputs data into a spreadsheet format is a step up from manually entering data from paper leads into a spreadsheet. But be aware that not all attendees carry business cards, so having paper lead forms as a backup plan is wise.

Also, keep in mind that a business card is not a lead – and certainly not a qualified one. Unless you're inputting additional qualifying information, a business card on its own isn't any better than purchasing names and addresses from a database.

► Downloadable Databases Scanning badges isn't the only way to get attendees' contact information. Some lead-retrieval vendors offer a service that allows exhibitors to download a snapshot of the registration database so they don't have to be constantly connected to Wi-Fi to access it. A code printed on the face of the attendee badge is then typed into the device (laptop, tablet, or smartphone) rather than scanning the badge. The attendee's badge data appears, allowing you to verify it, add notes, record answers to your custom qualifying questions, and/or input additional information.

► DIY Solutions Some exhibiting companies custom design their lead-management systems in-house. They do this by using the resources of their information-technology department or hiring an outside software development consultant or firm to develop software that integrates lead data with their current CRM system. This solution gives exhibitors the maximum flexibility to update and revise their system, and the added bonus of using a system with which sales teams are already familiar. But an in-house system also brings with it additional costs of resources invested in both personnel and equipment.

► Off-the-Shelf Systems There are many enterprise CRM systems that integrate lead management from shows, including SalesForce, Microsoft CRM, Leadmaster, Goldmine, and Sales Logix. These right-out-of-the-box solutions can be installed and managed internally and are already full-featured to offer many standard fields and enhancement capabilities such as lead assignment, automated emails, follow-up reminders, and data reports. Show leads in .csv format can be easily uploaded to these systems for distribution. But the selection and management of them is generally in the hands of the sales department, not the exhibit-marketing department.

Best Practices
Regardless of the lead-management system you decide to implement at your next show, always prepare for worst-case scenarios. The hard copies of leads were once stolen from my locked reception counter when left overnight. I've also had hand-held devices that were dependent on the show's Wi-Fi, which spent more time down than up. And then there was the vendor who put its NFC scanners on neck lanyards, and every time the scanner swung by the exhibit staffers' badges, it scanned another lead.

Granted, these scenarios are somewhat unavoidable, so my suggestion is to instruct staffers to take notes during the show and then back up the lead data as soon as you get back to the office. Even with all the technology readily available these days, it's important to never underestimate the power of pencil and paper. E

Candy Adams
"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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