How to Get Better ROI Out of Your Tradeshow Spend

David Lazarenko

E Even in the modern Covid era, tradeshows continue to be a subject of interest and debate for ag organizations seeking to optimize their marketing spend. While these debates may now focus more on whether to participate or not, given potential restrictions and attendance, the common question that has existed for years (both pre- Covid and post-Covid) is how to get more ROI from what a very costly marketing effort has long been.

Thankfully, even without the new learnings Covid has bestowed upon us, Think Shift has been preaching strategies to help our clients maximize tradeshow returns while minimizing tradeshow investments, with the net results being better (and more measurable) ROI than their ag counterparts. And now, for your benefit, we will share a few of our fundamental teachings:

Tip #1: Change Your Frame of Reference

This is quite possibly the most important tip we can give as it affects all others to follow. It is also the most impactful, depending on how deeply you embrace it.

First, by changing the frame of reference, we do not mean changing the competitors, marketing tactics, or past/current tradeshows you are comparing your efforts against. Instead, we mean the frame of reference you use when considering “what a tradeshow is.”

For most, tradeshows are an event at which you want to optimize your presence. Unfortunately, this frame of reference significantly limits your mindset as it confines it to the specifics of the event itself (i.e., how much booth space do we have, how much traffic can we generate, what event touchpoints can we take advantage of/sponsor, etc.). And it is this frame of reference that has typically led to the “go big or go home” mindset that leads to excessive tradeshow spending over the past decade (i.e., we need a bigger booth, we need a more prominent sponsorship, we need to generate more traffic, etc.).

To counter this thinking, we suggest that instead of considering a tradeshow an event, you think of it as a congregation of people in a defined region that is densely populated by your markets and audiences of interest. While this may sound like the same thing, it is not as it now considers all the potential touchpoints and points of interaction, including but not limited to the tradeshow itself (i.e., hotels, bars/restaurants, airports, transportation to and from the show, digital connections, etc.). It also opens a new “blue ocean” way of thinking about these touchpoints as it may be much more effective, efficient and advantageous to capitalize on less thought of touchpoints (those that most others are not considering) than simply trying to “outdo” the competition on the “red ocean” tradeshow floor itself (where brand noise and messaging clutter will always be significant hindrances of success).

Tip #2: Failing to Plan = Planning to Fail

Having worked with hundreds of ag organizations of many shapes and sizes, we have come to realize that most do not intentionally set a plan for their tradeshow efforts. Now, for those of you who may be thinking that “we are unique” as you have always planned out the booth, material and tactical requirements for your efforts, this is not what we mean by a plan.

Instead, what we are speaking of is a strategic plan that outlines not just what you are doing but more so why you are doing it. This plan should set out the specific goals and objectives you are aiming to achieve through your tradeshow efforts, including but not limited to:

  • Generating Leads (i.e., What specific number of new prospects do you need to develop to make the show a worthy investment. How many does this equate to each day? How many will come from each touchpoint?)
  • Nurturing Leads (i.e., How many existing prospects do you need to move to the sales meeting stage of the funnel? To the proposal stage of the funnel?)
  • Solidifying Orders (i.e., How many existing customers do you need to get to commit to initial proposals? To new products?)
  • Generating Awareness (i.e., What percent/quantity of the market do you want to introduce to your brand? To a new product? To a specific offer?)

This plan should also consider the three stages of any tradeshow effort, being pre, during and post-show engagement, and should define goals and measures of success for each.

The reason that creating a strategic plan such as this is so critical is that it not only focuses your efforts on the touchpoints and tactics that are most likely to achieve your goals, but it helps you avoid the temptation of investing in superfluous efforts that provide little, and typically non-measurable, returns.

Tip #3: Optimize the Experience

Two of the most common enemies to tradeshow success are noise and friction. While both are common to the tradeshow experience, they can be minimized through proper planning and efforts.

Let us start with noise, which is best described as the continuous delivery and clutter of marketing messages aimed at tradeshow audiences. From print ads to e-blasts, booth displays to sponsorship signage, sales collateral to branded schwag, it is easy to get caught up in the notion that more equals more. Unfortunately, this could not be further from the truth, as the more touchpoints you partake in that everyone else is, the more noise you will be helping to create. And, as mentioned in Tip #1, this then puts you in a position where you need to shout louder than all others to get noticed (i.e., more extensive displays, more ads, etc.), which typically means more significant investments and a lesser enjoyable experience for the audience.

Instead, it is better to consider doing one or both of the following alternatives:

1. Differentiate your messaging:

An effective way to stand out from the clutter is to ensure that your messaging is different from everyone else’s. And by this, we do not mean simply using different words and imagery but avoiding sales and marketing messages altogether. Instead, work to entice the audience into an enjoyable experience with a unique proposition. For example, one year, we offered tradeshow goers the ability to get a “barbershop shave” at the Westeel booth as a means of engaging the audience in discussions about their smooth-walled bins (i.e., “Go smooth with a smooth wall!”).

2. Differentiate your medium:

Another clever way to stand out is to consider delivering your message through less considered, less crowded mediums. A fitting example of this was when a client hired professional drivers to transport tradeshow goers (customers or not) back to their hotels from local bars as a means of ensuring their safety (i.e., “The first step towards seed safety is your safety.”). Another notable example was for a client who decided to forego physical presence altogether, instead they targeted the town the tradeshow was in with “geo-fenced” digital ads that would drive show-goers to their website for an optimized tradeshow experience.

As for friction, this is almost 100% controllable as it has to do with the amount of effort the audience has to take to engage with you. While this may sound like common sense, there are always significant gains that we find for our clients in this area, including but not limited to:

  • Do not force the audience to come to you. Whether it be a side event, a booth space, a meeting room, etc., getting the audience to go out of the natural flow of effort to see you creates unwanted and unnecessary friction. This is typically why points of engagement at or near entrance ways are usually so popular.
  • Do not force the audience to take unwanted steps. If you will use tradeshows to capture audience data, make the process as seamless as possible. Try to avoid asking too many questions, requiring manual entry, and using devices that are not user-friendly.
  • Do not ask the audience to jump through hoops. If you will provide branded schwag to the audience, do so freely without gates or qualifiers. With time and effort both being limited, asking audience members to partake in an activity or enter a contest is a sure-fire way to lose their attention and engagement.
  • Do not take up more time than necessary. Remember that you are likely to be getting more value out of any face-to-face touchpoint with your audience than they are. As such, do not try to monopolize their time. If a meeting only needs to be 15 mins, do not book it for an hour.

Regardless of your size, budget or level of experience with ag tradeshows, there are always ROI gains to be made and benefit from. So, if you are interested in learning more about the strategies that we have taken to outperform the market, reach out and we would be happy to chat.

About the Writer:

David Lazarenko – Group Account Director and Partner at Think Shift

David has spent more than 20 years leading strategy and marketing efforts in agri-business. He has led successful brand and product launches, re-branding and brand alignment initiatives, sales campaigns, and corporate responsibility campaigns for some of agriculture’s most successful corporations, including ADAMA, Bayer, Cargill, Monsanto, Trimble Agriculture and Westeel. David’s commitment to agriculture and thought leadership in marketing was recognized with his award as the Canadian Agri-Marketing Association’s 2018 Agri-Marketer of the Year.


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