This is the story of how I outsmarted my competition at a major trade show without out-spending them.

Attending a trade show can be a highly effective tactic.  But it can also be expensive and resource draining. Startups and small companies often find that their entire budget was consumed by one trade show – and they have nothing to show for it. This post will share highly effective strategies for maximizing trade show budgets.

Sometimes, you just have to look at the problem in a different way. How can you achieve the most possible benefit out of a show without busting your budget? I’m going to tell you the story of how I neutralized Fortune 500 competitors and delivered amazing results!

They say necessity is the mother of invention. Isn’t that the truth? When my boss told me that we were going to exhibit at the 2007 RSA Conference (one of the largest conferences in the information security industry) and that I had 3 months to plan it, I have to admit. I was freaking out, just a little. I mean, 90 days and a minuscule budget? How was THIS going to work?

I mean, here is what I was facing:

  1. Budget – our entire budget was about 1/20 of what our competitors were spending
  2. Booth placement – we were late to sign up, so all of the prime space was taken.
  3. Our competitors were making the event into a circus – I mean, booth babes, Sumo wrestlers, free beer, Whack-a-Mole games
  4. Visibility – we weren’t major sponsors. We were one of 5,000 other companies with a booth.

Despite these challenges, I was not discouraged. Armed with a positive attitude and fond memories of my days in the non-profit world, I decided that we would have a successful show. Not just an ok show, but a GREAT SHOW. The question was… How? Here’s my recipe for creative trade show success… To help you put your best foot forward, I’ve packaged up all of the key components into this handy trade show briefing guide.

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Exhibiting at a trade show requires goal setting:

I knew that making this trade show a success meant that I had to set and manage expectations across our team. So, I set out to define what some attainable, but lofty goals would be. Many times, there is disappointment because goals are not clearly communicated, leaving each person to formulate their take on what the goals are. Eliminate this and start with the goals. By taking control from the beginning and getting everyone on the same page, the entire planning process fell into place and each strategy and tactic was measured against its ability to move us toward our goals.  For this event, we wanted to build out our contact list of potential customers, as well as partners. This meant that our number one measurable result would be the number of badges we were able to scan. In order to achieve that goal, I knew I needed to get a lot of people to our booth and offer them something that was worth enough that they would let us scan their badge.

Standing out at a trade show takes creativity:

There were many challenges  to overcome. The biggest was our budget… our “big investment” was equal to the amount our competitors were spending on just one raffle prize.  Literally, one of our competitors was giving away a brand new Smart car. You’ve got to be kidding me. How can we compete with that? Thankfully, I’m not the type to shy away from a challenge. Out-spending the competition wasn’t an option, so I had to get creative.

When you don’t have a lot to work with, you learn to be smart with your resources. So, rather than going crazy trying to out-spend the competition, I spent my time thinking about my audience. Who goes to the conference? What do they do when they’re there? What do they want the most?

Success at a trade show depends on your plan:

Armed with goals and a good understanding of my audience, I set out to design a plan that broke all the rules of trade shows and put our little booth in the back row at the center of attention.  I had a number of key issues to address in order to make this plan work:

Why I chose the back of the conference hall:

All of the logical “prime” booth space was taken, but a quick glance at the floor plan highlighted a few options that I thought could work. The conference had several refreshment vendors along the back wall, right near the restrooms. They also were bringing in complimentary beer & wine which would be set up along the back aisle each evening.  It was a given that attendees would be making their way back to the refreshments, restrooms and free beer. So, I selected a prime booth location right between the refreshment stands and the restrooms.

I had to overcome objections from some of our more traditional thinkers who wanted us to get a booth as close to the front as possible. But, this was guaranteed to be a dead zone… people enter an aisle, get dazzled by the first exhibitor and their fancy whack-a-mole game and then wander down the aisle, paying little attention to the exhibitors in the middle. But, they perk up near the end of the aisle as they start looking for refreshments and restrooms. Luckily, we would be there to lend a helping hand!

What could I offer that the audience wanted:

If you’re in the information security industry, you know all about the RSA Conference and its legendary parties. Several of the major conference sponsors are also known for throwing raging after parties. Literally, a bunch of middle aged men re-living their frat house days. What happens after these parties? Conference zombies. Thousands of bleary-eyed conference goers jonesing for a strong cup of a coffee and a handful of Advil. And there was my answer. I needed used my competition’s strength against them. They threw such a great party that no one could function the next day.

I would be there ready to solve the pain and suffering of the day. After all, who could even think about entering a raffle when they had a pounding headache.  Now that I had my big idea, I had one last challenge to overcome…

How was I going to let everyone know?

We couldn’t buy a list and we couldn’t afford to sponsor a conference-wide email or announcement. I had to find another way – and it had to be cheap. So, I tapped into the free and powerful social media network the conference had set up. Leveraging some key hashtags, I got the word out to thousands of ailing conference zombies.

A Successful Trade Show and a Happy Ending…

The conference doors swung open promptly at 9 am. It was the moment of truth. Bright eyed, eager sales reps were circling at the front of the conference hall, ready help the attendees  enter into a raffle or entice them to play a game. But something was amiss, the attendees were marching straight past the promise of a new SMART car or a free t-shirt. Marketing managers watched their tens of thousands of dollars in marketing spend swirl down the drain as the attendees marched straight past them and to the back of the conference hall?

Why, you wonder? Because a little known company at the back of the room had sent out a tweet announcing free freshly brewed espresso and Advil. So, the zombies marched past the $200K booths, not even bothering to enter in the drawing for a Smart car (seriously, who wants one of those, anyway) and made their way straight to the Angel of Mercy with their freshly brewed cuppa goodness.

At first, we had a small line, just 4 or 5 people, but as the news travelled, the line grew. It was pure genius! Our sales reps stood in line and casually chatted with the waiting zombies. And, as they perked up after a cup of strong coffee, they were curious to know more about this amazing company who had brought such wonderful goodness in their time of great need.

Our booth became so popular that the fire marshal was summoned by one of our jealous competitors and we were forced to put up barricades to contain the crowd. We left the show with hundreds of new contacts, many of whom continue to be loyal customers to this day. All that for the cost a barista for a day and 10,000 packets of Advil.

We won by solving today’s pain rather than the hopes and dreams of tomorrow (winning the smart car) By understanding the audience better and working smarter, I was able to turn a dire situation into a huge win.  All I can say is, thank you the sponsors in the front row for spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to create a problem I could solve with Twitter, coffee and pain reliever pills.

Do you have a tough challenge? Ah-Ha Marketing can turn it into your big advantage. Contact us today to learn how your next event could be your best ever.