Getting the Best Value From Your Trade Show Exhibit

A trade show can really help your sales if you are hitting the right target audience, and it sounds like you are. We actually got our start and have stayed successful mainly by attending trade shows. Of course, our book is a non-fiction practical guide for teachers. It is very unique in the fact that most "academic" books are full of jargon and are hard to read. Teachers are very busy people who don't have time to wade through all that extra stuff. They want the ideas and they want them quickly. That's what our books provide.

However, even having a book that has gotten fantastic feedback, you can go to a show and totally flop. We've been to many shows over the last seven years and every exhibit is different. Some shows we walk away with very few sales (10 books with a show of 4,000 attendees) and other shows we'll walk away with what I consider to be good sales for a trade show (250 books with a show of 4,000 attendees). Much of it depends on your location, the economy, and interest in your book.

It also depends on how you draw people to your booth and what you do with them once they are there. The one thing I have noticed is that an author is more likely to sell their book at a trade show than a sales rep (unless the book is already well-known). As my husband likes to say, you are not selling a product, you are selling yourself. If people like you and like what you have to say, more than likely they'll buy your book (if it fits their need and their budget). We were also told by long-time trade show exhibitors to think of the trade show in terms of making a presence. Just by attending and being in front of the people attending the show, you are getting your name, the name of your company, and the name of your book(s) in front of the end-user. The more of these you attend, the more results you will see in the long term. A trade show is not a short-term marketing tool. If you attend once and then never go again, you've wasted your money. People see you as a fly-by-night operation. Being new to the show is different from attending one show and never going back. You can capitalize on being new.

We focus mostly on getting the word out that we are experts in our field and after seven years we actually have show attendees who come looking for us. They are disappointed when we choose to take a break from a specific show. One way we do this is to submit a presentation proposal for the conference/trade show we are attending. You usually have to do this quite far in advance, so you want to go online and start calendaring different shows that would be appropriate and that are also looking for presenters.

Another way we do this is by writing up a short one to two page article or tips sheet to pass out to the attendees. I'm not sure how it is at other shows, but I know that at the shows we attend most people walking around in the exhibit hall do not want to be accosted by sales people. If they notice you eye-balling them, they'll quickly move out of range and on to the next booth. It is a strange phenomenon to me since they are obviously there to shop around and see the available products. Go figure. Anyway, what we started doing is simply having articles in hand and ask as people go by, "Would you like a free article on...?" Most people love free information, especially if it is helpful. Some will just grab the article and go, but many people will stop, look at our booth, and then stay to look at our books. It is just enough to grab their attention without seeming like pushy salespeople. Also, we've had attendees actually come back to our booth either later that day or the next day after they read our article to see our books.

The biggest thing to remember is that if you want to make an impact and get people to talk to you, you must grab their attention. Paying a booth fee and showing up is not enough. I've seen people who do that and they sit bored for all two-three days of the show. They may talk to one or two people, but that's it. Here are a few tips we've learned over the years:

1. Make your booth seem inviting and comfortable. We use nice tablecloths, set up a chair and small decorator table near the back and put a vase of red flowers on the table. We also put a vase of red flowers on a small decorator table near the front. I started using red flowers after I was told that red encourages people to spend money.

2. If you publish more than one book, make a vinyl banner (any local sign shop can help you with this) that has your logo and company name. If it is colorful, all the better. This will both help you catch people's eye AND work on brand awareness.

3. Have something with movement. Movement attracts attention. We sometimes get a bunch of balloons in solid colors that match our booth - some metallic and some regular. Right now we have a book that has a theme of fire, so I purchased some of those Halloween fake flames and put them on the tables at our last booth. We got a lot of attention and it was a great conversation starter.

4. Have a drawing of some sort. We just use a simple fish bowl and a sign that announces our drawing. I have small contact postcards that attendees can fill out with their contact information and also check products/services they are interested in learning more about. They fold these and put them in the fish bowl. Other people bring labels with their contact information and simply put these on a small piece of notepaper or index card (that I have handy). Still others bring their business card and drop that in the fish bowl. I usually do a drawing for a free copy of each of our books. Five or more people can win. I do the drawing at the end of the show and mail the winners their prize. This way I can include a nice thank-you card/congratulations card as well as other information along with their signed copy of the book. This helps me justify the attendees writing down their contact information. But best of all, now I have a nice number of leads for future customers. After the show is over I usually send a letter, a catalog, and any other information I think they may find helpful. Not too much to overwhelm, though. For people who I spoke with in particular and had a nice conversation, I send a hand-written thank-you note. I try to take notes on an index card, their business card, or some other way so that I have something specific to say about that person & our conversation in my note.

5. Build relationships. You need to actually talk to people. Actually, you need to ask questions and listen more than you talk. If you hit people with a sales pitch immediately, they will be turned off and will politely nod through your spiel. Then they'll leave. I've found that just starting a conversation and asking about where they're from, what they do, etc. allows them to open up and tell me some of their own stories. Usually somewhere in there I find that I meet a need for them with my books and I can mention it when it is appropriate. Many times the conversation naturally leads to the attendee asking me about my books. Either way, I've gotten much better responses and purchases from this approach.

6. I've also seen people do something fun at their booth to attract attention. My personal favorite is the "Wheel of Fortune" type activity. Attendees spin the wheel and get either extra chances in the drawing or a freebie of some sort. If it were me, I'd do mostly extra chances in the drawing and then have the freebies be a pen or bookmark or something inexpensive like that. One company did an "Ice Cream Social" for Social Studies products. I think their motto was "We put the Social in an Ice Cream Social" or something like that. It was cute. You just need to be aware of how much money you have budgeted to spend on stuff like this. This is one reason why I personally like doing a drawing. It costs me nothing more than a book or two.

7. Before you give away any freebies, make the attendees do something. If you just have masses of pens, candy, or other freebies sitting out on your booth, people will grab handfuls and never stop to say hello or look at your product. I do have bookmarks out for people to take because they are useful and they contain either book or company information. However, for my special freebies, attendees either have to enter the drawing or buy something before I'll hand them out. This year I'm doing a little sack with a matchbook that says "Light the Fire of Learning" (and of course our company/contact info), a small tea light candle, and a special Classrooms that Spark bookmark, which also has our company/contact info on it. Each freebie cost me about $.25 to make (although it took me a while to put them all together). If you go the freebie route (again -- you need to judge the benefit over the cost), then you need to find something memorable that links specifically with your book/your message so that people will link the two together. For example, bookmarks are great at a conference with librarians.

As I said earlier, these are just some ideas/thoughts to keep in mind if you do decide to go the trade show route. Remember that people want to be entertained, so the more you are able to entertain through witty conversation, an eye-grabbing booth, etc., the more likely you will see sales. Also, you won't necessarily see sales at the trade show, but you will more than likely make some great contacts for reviews, collaboration/networking, and future book sales. Keep in mind that doing a trade show is a long term marketing strategy rather than short term.

Written by Emma McDonald, M.Ed., co-founder of Inspiring Teachers Publishing and author of Classrooms that Spark, Survival Kit for New Teachers, ABC's of Effective Parent Communication, and several other books. Emma has been marketing books and services to educators for over seven years. Please click here to contact her.

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