Chris Horn: People skills key to making trade shows work for you

Every visitor is a chance to educate on the differentiation and benefits of your product

What is the best way to get noticed?

Spring is a prime time for trade conferences. Among many others, Mobile World Congress has just been held in Barcelona, SXSW just finished in Austin, Texas, the O'Reilly Artificial Intelligence conference will be in New York in April, and the ACM International Conference on Big Data and Computing in May in Guangzhou.

If you and your company are exhibiting at a major international trade show, how on Earth can you get noticed among the myriad booths from your competitors and others? For a young company, it can be intimidating to be surrounded by the extraordinarily lavish and enormous stands of major corporations, which are always flush with eager marketing staff grabbing the attention of passers-by.

I recently found myself sharing some of my own “war stories” in a boardroom discussion. One way to get noticed is of course to do something wrong.


W-shaped booth

At my start-up, Iona Technologies, our first major trade show was in San Francisco. We had a beautiful booth designed and made in Dublin, and duly air-freighted it out to the show. It had four panels, connected in a "W" shape. Unfortunately, on the day before the show when assembling the panels, we made the angle between them too shallow. The entire edifice then keeled over, nearly destroying the neighbouring booth of our major competitor. We also drew attention from some well-muscled union men, as we did not realise we were supposed to have contracted them to assemble our stand rather than just do it ourselves. Fortunately our Irish accents won everybody over, and we were forgiven over a couple of rounds in a local Irish pub.

Irishness certainly gets you noticed. Another well-known Irish start-up organised an after-show party with Guinness and crates of oysters. However, it was only minutes before the party started that someone realised that no catering staff had been organised to actually open the oysters, and that none of the team really had much of the requisite experience in doing so. A few heroic friends were very urgently press-ganged into opening them, and the party memorably survived.

Almost every company has trade show giveaways – pens, T-shirts, bags, notebooks, mugs, USB flash drives and so on. Booth visitors have come to expect them, and this is another opportunity to differentiate from the crowd of competitors. However, be attuned to local cultures. Anything with a clock face, or a handkerchief, is an insult in some cultures (implying termination), as is any kind of mirror (implying ghosts). Colours matter: for example white, black and red have different connotations around the world. A green hat would not go over well in China where it would be associated with connotations of infidelity

A measure of success is not just how many visitors come to your booth, but how many come back a second or third time, and bring their colleagues. Having them return purely to pick up more swag for their children and friends is certainly not a key performance indicator. Having them return to further engage in business and technology discussions with your team certainly is a critical measure.

Design your booth as a story, almost as a piece of theatre. How do you get your audience settled and attentive, and how does your first act stimulate them? Why will they return for a second act, or even a third? I have found that one of the best ways is not only to show a visitor what your product does but to allow a visitor to explore your product, and to interact with it themselves. Plan to have some smart devices available where they can experiment. Even better, have a self-service offering in the cloud, so they can try it out themselves when they leave the trade-show floor, and perhaps then return the following day to have further discussion.

Tutorial sessions

Every visitor is an opportunity to educate on the differentiation and benefits of your products. At Iona, we frequently organised short tutorial sessions and discussions around a trade show, over for example a working breakfast or at the end of the afternoon. Best of all is to have representatives from existing customers attend at the show. Create opportunities for them to evangelise on your behalf on why they chose you as a vendor, and their experiences to date.

My own mentor wisely observed that you never do business with companies, but rather only ever with people. Thus, the professional social relationship that you establish with visitors to your booth becomes critical. Visitors should not just remember your company, but even more importantly your team. They should return to their work after the show knowing that they have direct contact to people who can help them be successful in their projects.

Ultimately, and in due course, you should strive to host your own user conference. This then becomes a showcase event in which you bring together existing companies to share their own experiences and best practices, as well as a magnet for prospects and new opportunities to become persuaded by those who have already chosen you.

How do you get noticed? By getting others to show what you have already achieved.