Over the past 20 years, I have been the primary company representative at more than 300 tradeshows and conferences within the Events Industry. I’ve worked for five different software companies, held numerous Executive titles, and travelled all around the globe attending these events. For those of us that work in the Events Industry, trade show exhibiting and conference attendance is a large part of our marketing budget. This is especially so now, given that there seems to be an ever-increasing number of shows aimed at our sector.
So how can we make sure that we spend our time and marketing dollars effectively at industry events?
My opinion on this question has changed dramatically throughout the years.
I once heard of a company that measured the success of attending an event by the amount of brochures they gave out on the tradeshow floor – I’m 100% positive that company did NOT get the ROI they were looking for.
Like most people, I used to consider the number of leads a show generated (and then subsequent sales) as the primary way of measuring a return on investment. This is certainly the most obvious benefit we want to reap from a show.
But what if an event does not directly provide leads?
It can provide an opportunity for Networking 2.0.
Networking is a major incentive to attend an event. But what do we mean by “networking”? It seems that some think of networking as catching up with colleagues they haven’t seen for a while, although there’s nothing wrong with that. Others regard networking as going to a social function and meeting as many new people as they can, to “work the room.” While I’ve certainly done that in the past, I have often benefitted more from talking to one or two people and creating a genuine relationship with them. This usually leads to more open and authentic communication after the event because a real connection was formed, as opposed to a simple exchange of business cards and small talk.
So what are the most valuable things to talk about while networking at an industry event?
I believe the purpose of networking is to gauge the general sentiment of people on 3 primary issues:
- The state of the industry
- The perception of my company and products
- The perception of other companies and products
I call this Networking 2.0, because it’s twice as valuable as a stack of business cards and cold or lukewarm leads.
This approach to networking has been instrumental for me because it has offered insight about when my company has lost credibility, has started to lose direction, or has strayed away from the values that clients initially loved about us.
I recall several times at tradeshows when I would talk to an individual and after they found out where I worked, a slight cringe would flash across their expression as they politely smiled and said, “Oh yes, we use that product and it’s been really good, once we got over the hump of learning how to use it.”
What they really meant was, “Your product is good, but it was much too hard to use and now I will always think of it in a negative way.”
I’m a big sports fan, so allow me to use a sports analogy. Let’s say I hear someone talking about my favorite sports team – there is a positive reaction when I hear their name or think of them. It is the same with the converse – if I think of my least favorite team, the initial charges that come to mind are negative.
Once a person develops those initial negative thoughts about a company or a product– it becomes nearly impossible to change their perception.
After getting these negative reactions over and over from various people, it made me realize that no matter how functional the product might be, people really don’t have the time or inclination to deal with a product that is heavily unintuitive.
In addition to paying attention to what your customer says about you, pay EVEN MORE attention to what they stop saying about you.
People used to approach me at events and say “Oh you work at XXXXX? We LOVE your product!” And you could tell they really meant it – kind of unusual in the software world. But over time we’d hear it less and less. It didn’t mean they stopped using the software, but it did mean they weren’t as engaged with us as they previously were, and it definitely meant they weren’t evangelizing for us in the industry like they used to be. Again, it was a signal that the time had come for us to reflect on how we were doing business. We had determined a change in customer perception, and now we had a chance to correct it. If we hadn’t been at these events and listening to what people were saying, we wouldn’t have sensed the change.
However, the key to making such feedback beneficial is taking action on it. Sadly, many companies fail to take the time to reflect on this perception in the market as they grow, and consequently lose sight of what the clients liked about them or made them grow in the first place.
Companies on the rise will recognize their shortcomings and adjust accordingly.
Companies on the decline will ignore their shortcomings and quickly fall behind.
The above examples are from personal experiences. They are extremely difficult lessons to learn. It is vital to be alert and be looking for the tell-tale signs of declining customer interest.
Additionally, Networking 2.0 is a great chance to let people express how they perceive the current financial climate at their company. If they start talking about “hiring freezes” or other cost-saving schemes, it’s a sure bet that they are tightening their belts ahead of an economic downturn. Take note of this, and start doing more research because it might be time to revise budgets yourself. Conversely, when people speak of expansions and new initiatives, this could be a signal that their business is going well.
A couple weeks ago, I went to an industry event that I haven’t attended for several years, and it was incredibly satisfying and energizing to have a constant stream of clients approach our team, give genuine hugs and tell us how happy they were with the software. But more important to me was the constant feedback about how much they love our customer service. We’ve been doing this for 18 years, so our customer feedback shows that we’ve recognized the importance of paying attention to them.
In closing, the rewards we reap from attending an industry event should go far beyond the potential revenue opportunities. It’s a unique chance to find out what is happening in the industry and how people perceive you and your products. These insights are extremely valuable and they can only be attained by being face-to-face with your customers.
I’m especially proud and appreciative of the hard work and genuine customer service focus at EventBooking, but rest assured I’ll be tuned in at future events to make sure we pick up on any shift in perception.
Steve Mackenzie is President at EventBooking, an innovative cloud-based venue management solution that has over 700 clients around the globe, and with regular polling of its clients has an unprecedented 99% customer satisfaction level.