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trade show bob

Bob Milam, independent industry consultant, is a former EXHIBITOR Editorial Advisory Board member and a past All-Star Award winner, and a current EXHIBITOR Conference advisory board and faculty member. tradeshowbob@gmail.com


ules are meant to be followed - and for good reason. They keep us safe, prevent chaos, and help to ensure fairness. Everyone stops at red lights, for example, because running through them is a good way to render yourself roadkill. You don't use the word "bomb" at an airport because it's pretty likely to cause panic among passengers. And cutting in line at Starbucks is just plain rude to those patient people who queued up before you and waited their turn.

Polite society also dictates that exhibit managers follow certain trade show rules, from those enforced by convention centers to show-specific regulations outlined by show management to plain-old conventional wisdom.

But what if the rules are wrong, keeping us trapped in marketing conventions that hold us back from true success? And how do you know when to break the rules and when you should follow them?

What follows are three sacred cows of trade show marketing. While these guiding principles needn't be erased from the rule books just yet, there are times when each can be ignored for the right reasons. So get ready to run that red light; some rules were made to be broken.

Make your signage simple. Go to any trade show where science guys write the text for booth graphics, and you'll see this rule being broken in a very bad way. Any time an exhibit graphic takes more than five seconds to read, it is too long. Furthermore, the rule of thumb states that any text not legible from the aisle will never be read by passing attendees.

That rule, of course, was made to stop exhibit managers from turning a basic graphic into "Moby Dick." Attendees should be enticed from the aisle, not scared at the sight of a graphic that has text ranging from eye level to the floor in ever-decreasing font sizes. The rule's corollary includes warnings against complete sentences and technical jargon.

Exception: Walk the aisles of a heavy-equipment expo such as ConExpo-Con/Agg, and you'll find good examples of exhibitors breaking this rule for the right reasons. Since the rule was made for exhibits trying to stop attendees passing in the aisle, it can be broken if and only if attendees have already made a commitment to stop in the booth.

At ConExpo a few years back, Mack Trucks Inc. included detailed technical
information about its trucks in its exhibit. Of course, the information was meant to be read by attendees who had already walked more than 10 feet into the Mack booth. In fact, the information graphics could barely be seen from the aisle, so using them to lure attendees into the exhibit would have been foolish. Here, the graphics weren't intended to attract attention; they were intended to impart vast amounts of information.

And Mack knew what it was doing. Attendees eager to read up on the latest tractor-trailers wandered toward the huge vehicles and read each line of description on the trucks. In this case, not providing product specs would have left booth visitors wanting more - and not in a good way.

Make the edges of your booth space clear for entrance and egress. Open architecture is the way to go, right? Exhibitors want attendees to wander into their booths, so multiple, unobstructed entry points are best. How else will staffers snare potential customers in their lead-gathering web if the booth isn't open and inviting?

This rule also comes with a corollary: Be accommodating to everyone who visits your booth. After all, no one wants to be seen as snooty or unfriendly. Both descriptors are simply bad for business.

Exception: The problem with being welcoming is that you end up welcoming everyone. Sometimes you aren't at a trade show to gather a ton of unqualified leads or build brand awareness; you're there to meet with specific prospects and clients.

My former employer had a booth at the World Wide Food Expo, which attracts thousands of attendees. Our goal was to see 90 pre-identified ice-cream manufacturers. Since our product was so specific, spending time with any attendees outside of our 90-member target audience just didn't make sense.

To that end, we created an exhibit that would separate those 90 VIP attendees from those just looking for one of the free frozen treats we handed out at the show. A front-and-center welcome area had ice cream for the masses, but the back half of the booth was reserved for our 90 top prospects who were ushered back for invite-only one-on-one meetings.

While we didn't break the secondary rule on being accommodating and friendly, we certainly bent it, keeping the riffraff out of the main part of the booth without alienating any attendees in the process.

Don't exhibit outside your industry. Your industry is where your customers are, and industry-specific shows are a target-rich environment. Going outside your industry means putting your brand in front of an audience that may not be familiar with what your company does or how it can benefit them.

Exception: If you never go outside your industry's trade shows, you may be missing new markets. Stepping outside that industry-specific box might give you a big chance to create buzz about your brand among fans you haven't met because they don't go to your shows.

At the 2010 International Vision Expo, most exhibitors fell into one of two categories: They sold either eyeglass frames or medical diagnostic equipment used by ophthalmologists.

In the middle of this nearsighted crowd was one exhibitor with the foresight to find a target audience in an unexpected place: Callaway Golf Co. Attendees flocked to the company's exhibit, chock full of sporting goods and sports apparel. And, yes, while some of that apparel included sunglasses, Callaway had one entire exhibit space (of its two at the show) devoted exclusively to golf balls, clubs, and equipment.

Why? Doctors, which comprise one of the biggest attendee segments at the show, are known to hit the links. While Callaway can probably do better business at a sporting-goods show, courting an audience of end users proved a powerful marketing strategy - especially since none of Callaway's competitors were there to steal its thunder.

So don't be afraid to break a trade show convention now and then. With good reason and careful consideration, occasionally throwing the rule book out the window - or at least a chapter or two here and there - can be the best move you'll ever make.e

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