Planning to succeed: tradeshow edition

“Tradeshows are easy – you just slap some logos on your booth and wait for customers to roll in.” – only ignorant people

I’ve recently returned from a couple of weeks gallivanting around Europe, with a solid chunk of that time spent at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona (and the remainder working on another fun project).

First, let’s get this out of the way: I still have my passport, wallet, and phone. Hooray! (the same cannot be said for all of my colleagues)

But this post isn’t about my amazing pickpocket-deterrent skills, it’s actually about the background planning that goes into a well-executed tradeshow.

Why is this topic of importance? Well, in the many conversations about tradeshows that I’ve had over the years – with industry vets and newbs alike – it’s become clear to me that most people don’t have a friggin’ clue.

I’m not saying I have all the answers, but I’ve got some of them.

Mobile World Congress

MWC is big. Like, really big. Like, small-city big. 100,000 telecom folks and probably a few thousand pick-pockets descend on Barcelona for a week of madness. The show floor itself is a cacophony of sensory stimulation split across multiple gigantic halls. Having grown well beyond the “mobile” focus, it’s now the global tradeshow for telecommunications.

If you took the bright lights and distractions of Las Vegas and distilled them into a tradeshow and managed to get a PG rating, then you’d have something kinda similar to MWC.

Why the backgrounder? Well, you’ve gotta know what you’re getting into.

Top-Down Planning

A few months ago, a couple of us marketing leader-folk got together to start planning our MWC presence in earnest. We work with an agency to construct our booth (and you pre-book your booth location a year before), so the general shape and structure was known.

So this meeting wasn’t about tactics like booth design; instead, it was about our overall theme. Why is a theme important, you ask? A theme is like an objective, in that it provides you the focus that you need to develop your strategies and tactics. Without it, you just have a mishmash of crap. Sure, you might get lucky with that crap (especially if you’re going to a fertilizer convention), but a theme increases your likelihood of success.

A theme is like an objective, in that it provides you the focus that you need to develop your strategies and tactics. Without it, you just have a mishmash of crap.

And that last part is important: “increases your likelihood of success”. There are no guarantees in tradeshows. Too many external factors are at play, so the best you can do is take control of the things you actually do control, and make sure you’re in the best position to succeed.

As context for our theme, we considered a few things:

  • Who goes to the show? In the past, MWC was largely mobile and largely execs. Now, it’s all of telecom and all hierarchical levels.
  • What’s our overall objective? What’s the point of the theme? Some combination of increasing awareness, demand, and leads.
  • How do our potential customers behave at the show? The reality is that many customers and prospects pre-book meetings with us, so the show theme doesn’t really change that. Even if they don’t have a meeting, they’ll often stop by to say hi. That’s a perk of being an established market leader. Objectively, then, our theme must appeal to people who are only vaguely familiar with our brand or have really, truly, never heard of us.
  • What are our customers and prospects looking to do? We have a range of solutions, but what is most likely to get their attention?

Themes themselves can be jerks: too specific, and you appeal really strongly to a tiny subset of your potential market at the expense of the vast majority; too broad, and you’re too damn vague for anyone to give much of a damn. In a tradeshow environment like MWC, making someone think “Hm, I wonder what that means?” or “Hm, I wonder what they do?” in response to your vague messaging isn’t nearly enough to get them to break stride. You have to really capture their attention.

What you’re looking for is a Goldilocks zone: not too broad so as to be below their give-a-crap threshold, and not so specific that they decide your solution, while understandable, isn’t for them.

What you’re looking for is a Goldilocks zone: not too broad so as to be below their give-a-crap threshold, and not so specific that they decide your solution, while understandable, isn’t for them.

Note, too, that in my list above of things to consider, I didn’t have anything that was internal – and this is important. To be an outside-in organization, your priority must be on the outside. As a marketer, you’ll face all sorts of pressure to make a big stink about something just because a bunch of people have been working hard on it, or to base your whole theme and thrust around some new product or product update. Those things are neat and great and of some importance, and they should come into consideration, but only much, much farther down the line.

If you’re lucky, what will get people’s attention and what you have ready to launch align, and you can knock of two objectives with one theme. Most of the time, these don’t align, and you have to stand up to organizational pressure. Failure to do so will result in a weak theme that achieves nothing and has everyone miserable at the end.

Remember, a tradeshow is a communications channel. An expensive one, yes, but just a channel nonetheless. You should exploit a channel, rather than having it exploit you.

So, what did we pick?

At a high level, we have six solution areas (clearly visible on our website); for MWC, we chose to cast a spotlight on two of them under the theme of “Subscriber Services and Subscriber Engagement”. No matter what market we’re talking to, our customers generally want to do those two things. Now, this theme isn’t a tagline, so it doesn’t have to read nicely; it just has to tell our own folks what it is that we’re focusing on.

I guess that’s another key point, because I had to keep reminding people of it. They’d read that bland text and show concern, and I’d have to reassure them that it wouldn’t appear in text anywhere on our booth.

If you’re a smaller company, your theme might be basically your company tagline. That’s fine if that’s the case, but you should go through the planning exercise nonetheless: maybe you end up at your tagline, and maybe you end up with something different. Give yourself the opportunity.

In our case, yes, this theme means that someone who walks by our booth and is (a) unfamiliar with our company, and (b) looking for a cyber security or traffic optimization solution, likely won’t stop. But those are the realities of the marketing world. You can’t be all things to all people, so you shouldn’t try. We’ve made a calculated decision that “Subscriber Services and Subscriber Engagement” is our Goldilocks zone.

This theme, now established, becomes the true north on our MWC compass.

This theme, now established, becomes the true north on our MWC compass.

The Trickle-Down

To maximize your (potential for) success, every aspect of your presence must play a coordinated, choreographed role in the overall dance that is the tradeshow.

In Lieu of Booth Babes…

A few times I’ve used the expression “break stride”. As with most things, I was being literal. Recall what I said about MWC: big, bright, loud, chaotic, etc. To catch the walkers-by, you need something that gets their attention.

I suppose this falls into the strategy part: what is our strategy for getting attention?

Some booths (you know who you are) rely on the unfortunately-not-antiquated practice of booth babes. Others have (lame) give-aways or (expensive, ineffective) drinks receptions. Our competitors tend to go with drinks and give-aways, and I think that’s terrific…for us. They spend gobs of money and get nothing in return. I encourage them to pursue this approach wholeheartedly.

We decided to go a different route. Our booth design (recall that I said it was already mostly done) called for two TV screens facing the aisles. So back in January, I got together with one of my team members (he owned the “Subscriber Services” portfolio) to decide how best to use these TVs as a tactic to support our strategy of getting people to stop and to look at us in support of our overall theme. See how it all fits together? Neat!

The booth design called for a couple of 40ish inch monitors, and traditionally we would use these to show some rendered video. He and I had some problems with this approach:

  • You usually get a one-time-use video, because it’s all MWC this and MWC that; it’s not the end of the world to have a one-time-use video, but it’d be nice (read: efficient) to create something that has lasting value, if possible
  • Did I mention that MWC is big and bright and loud? The usual type of tradeshow video, with all its buzzwords and fancy renders, basically blends into the background noise
  • The TVs are too small. To get noticed, we need bigger and better.

So our job was to figure out how to achieve several concurrent objectives. Our primary objectives were to get attention and support/reinforce our theme; our secondary objectives were to create something that could get reused, to have something that could serve as a kick-ass demo if someone was there to actually speak to it, and to have some ‘hooks’ that would let us introduce or talk about our other solution areas without compromising in the least the focus on our overall theme.

And that last point is extremely important. THE THEME MUST NOT BE COMPROMISED!

In the end, we came up with what was – for our company, at least – a radical proposal. We would use the TVs to showcase real-world examples of subscriber services and subscriber engagement. OK, so what makes that radical? Well, a few elements:

  • We wanted giant TVs, and we wanted them to look like smartphones in a portrait landscape…in addition to this breaking from tradition, it’d incur additional cost
  • The videos themselves would showcase 8-12 short use cases
  • There would be no narration, no explanations of what was happening, or how it worked…nothing other than what was recorded from an actual mobile phone to showcase the true subscriber experience: this meant that every short use case would have to stand on its own…it would have to be self-evident
  • Our company had never done anything like this before

That last point is important. People are naturally risk-averse, and companies even more-so. Trying to do something new, no matter how well-intentioned and well-planned can be an insurmountable hurdle.

People are naturally risk-averse, and companies even more-so. Trying to do something new, no matter how well-intentioned and well-planned can be an insurmountable hurdle.

Luckily, in our case my boss is very receptive to new ideas; he got on board immediately and championed the idea within the organization.

MWC - vid plan

Evidence of the video planning session; please don’t judge Jesse on his childish whiteboard writing.

Overall Booth Design

Here’s one of my pet peeves: the idea that “more branding = better branding”. It’s wrong.

Now, there’s a certain amount of branding that’s necessary: when people are looking at your booth from any angle, they should know whose booth they’re looking at. Anything beyond that is destructive.

There’s a certain amount of branding that’s necessary: when people are looking at your booth from any angle, they should know who’s booth their looking at. Anything beyond that is destructive.

What do I mean by destructive? A bunch of things: it detracts from your theme, it distracts from your points-of-interest (e.g., demo stations, marketing collateral, information monitors, etc.), and it makes your booth look about as aesthetically pleasing as a coupon-flier.

In our planning, we decided to take a nice, clean, minimalist approach to our booth visuals.

Our “break stride” videos are fighting for attention with enough things already, they shouldn’t have to fight with our own booth.

Demo Stations

Once someone is in the booth – whether they sought us out or whether they broke stride – we have to make the best use of that conversation. To maximize these opportunities, our booth had two demo stations, both of which could be used to show any of a half-dozen product and technology demos. These demos ran the full range of our solutions, going beyond what was covered in the theme.

Why is it OK to go beyond the theme in the demos? Because the people are already in the booth. The theme is a focused message to get people in; once they’re in, you need to be able to show off all sorts of things. In fact, being able to do all sorts of neat stuff (rather than just one or two neat things) is one of our company’s differentiators, so it’s imperative that we get that across to all who come by.

Why is it OK to go beyond the theme in the demos? Because the people are already in the booth.

People

The people in your booth can make or break your show, so you need the right people. Identify the key functions, and then invite people who fit; don’t let people come just because they want to. Consider:

  • Onsite problem solver: who’s going to make sure everything’s working from a high-level perspective? We’ve got a fantastic tradeshow manager, and she’s got all the vendor and service numbers in her phone…if we’ve paid for something and it’s not working as expected, she handles her business. At a tradeshow, the meek are ignored.
  • Greeting/triage: who’s going to greet people as they arrive, diagnose what needs to happen next, and then hand them off or encourage them to leave?
  • Demos: do you have enough people to effectively run all demos every hour of the show?
  • Sales meetings: these go better when the actual account managers are there, so planning is key
  • Executives: make the best use of their time
  • Specialty roles: analyst relations, investor relations, etc.

We took a bottom-up approach to our booth staffing, and it proved incredibly effective.

Importantly, always consider the theme: do you have people at the show who can speak, comprehensively, to the theme you’ve chosen?

Collateral

It should go without saying that the point of the collateral is to support your theme. But it needs to be said because everyone has a different idea about what should get sent to the show.

See how the theme is such a wonderful tool? It gives you direction, it breaks all ties, it’s your justification for everything.

See how the theme is such a wonderful tool? It gives you direction, it breaks all ties, it’s your justification for everything.

So here’s what we took with us in moderate quantities:

Note: we didn’t take anything that didn’t support our theme. Behold, our self-discipline!

There were two exceptions, but it’s important to note that neither was on display:

  • Our Director, Investor Relations had his own investor relations material
  • We took copies of our recent Global Internet Phenomena spotlight on encrypted traffic, because we knew we’d be fielding questions…but again, this wasn’t on display

Why didn’t we take anything else? Two main reasons:

  1. Everything else is available on the website
  2. IT DOESN’T SUPPORT THE THEME!

The Results

I mentioned earlier that the best you can do is to put yourself in a position to succeed. Sometimes it works out; sometimes it doesn’t.

In our case, boy did it ever work out!

I must admit, I was a bit nervous about the giant-phone-use-case-videos; not the videos themselves, as Jesse did a fantastic job creating them (I think that kid has a future in video), but in their reception. Would they work?

They did.

People would be marching through the show, seemingly oblivious to all around them, and then they’d stop suddenly and watch our video. The giant phone appearance caught their attention. The straightforward nature, the genuine nature of the video caught their attention. Against our relatively simple booth, and the general cacophony of the show, the videos got them to break stride – exactly as hoped.

MWC vid

This image comes from a use case in which the subscriber purchases an application-specific plan to use WhatsApp.

After one terrific meeting that generated a very strong lead, I asked the gentleman (who had earlier confessed not knowing about our company, and is the CEO of his own): “If you don’t mind my asking, I’m curious what made you stop at our booth?”

He replied, “I’m walking through the hall, and I have in my mind a list of problems that I need to solve. I saw your booth and it clearly showed that it can solve some of my problems.”

He replied, “I’m walking through the hall, and I have in my mind a list of problems that I need to solve. I saw your booth and it clearly showed that it can solve some of my problems.”

Damn, that felt good to hear.

MWC-preshow

We chose a very simple, non-buzzwordy text headline for the giant phone videos. Clarity, for the win!

Once someone stopped, we’d let them watch for a little while. Sometimes, they’d watch for 15 seconds and then immediately come into our booth; other times, someone would approach them, now having the opportunity to do so because the ice had been broken.

So, the videos spectacularly achieved their primary objectives.

What about the secondary ones? Again, ’twas a slam dunk. I used the giant-phone-video in pretty much every customer conversation I had, because they really showed what we can do. The demos are great for going a step deeper, to the how-we-do-it level, but the use case videos really resonate and make an impression. Plus, we worked in some secondary messaging around Cyber Security and Traffic Optimization, and those hooks let me introduce some of our other solution areas without it seeming contrived or foreign. Finally, we’re going to repurpose those videos in the near future, so we’ll get lasting value out of our efforts.

Some other good signs:

  • Our salespeople were asking me where they could get copies and when they’d be posted to YouTube
  • Competitors came by and were recording them (the jerks!)
  • Other booth designers and marketers were crowding around and taking pictures
  • We’d have second and third groups of people from the same prospect come back, saying things like, “My boss saw this video yesterday and told me I needed to come by and see it, too.”

As an added benefit, the giant-phone-videos allowed us to virtually extend our booth space off into the aisles: we’d often have a half-dozen people crowded around, and because they were in the aisles that freed up our precious (and expensive) in-booth floor-space for deeper conversations, meetings, and demonstrations.

Once people were in the booth, the demos and collateral did their jobs perfectly.

MWC-demo

My colleague, Ian Hassard, gives a demonstration of some of our Cyber Security capabilities.

On the last day, we got a bit more validation of all the work we’d done. Some of the show organizers were walking around shooting promo videos, and they chose us as one of their subjects. I honestly don’t think they’d have done that if our booth didn’t have a certain pizzazz and appeal.

MWC-promo

Hey, it’s Lee, and he’s doing stuff!

But what’s it all mean?

Many folks confuse a crowded booth with a successful show.

Many folks confuse a crowded booth with a successful show: that’s why the cocktail receptions and giveaways are popular. But those crowds are unfocused, and, frankly, they come for the booze and the iPads and then they leave. They look good in photos, but they add no value.

I said earlier that our high-level objective was “Some combination of increasing awareness, demand, and leads”.

In our case, our booth was steadily crowded with qualified people for the entire duration of the show (indeed, even beyond the duration of the show…we had two meetings ongoing while our booth was being torn down). I lost count early on about the number of demos we gave, the number of leads I personally scanned, the number of follow-up actions taken.

So, all things considered, I’d say it was a terrific success. Now we just have to replicate and extend next year!

Our booth was steadily crowded with qualified people for the entire duration of the show; all things considered, I’d say it was a terrific success.

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