You spend a lot of time, money, and effort to exhibit at a trade show and you want a solid return on that investment. To maximize your return, you have to develop a trade show strategy, a clearly defined path that converts your investment into sales.

Your trade show strategy begins as part of your event planning when the management team determines the goals of your exhibit. Set measurable marketing goals; it’s the only way to know whether your strategy was effective and successful.

Start building buzz before the show, not just during. Create a killer trade show display that clearly announces who you are and why you’re there. Register early for the best location, and choose your promotional items carefully, instead of offering the same old, same old.

Finally, your job doesn’t end with the event itself. Closing the deal is all about the follow-up.

What Are Your Goals?

Why do you want to host a booth at this trade show? Are you looking to build brand awareness, or launch a new product? Is your goal landing a certain number of sales leads? Are you building a target-rich database? Are you a startup in need of investors? All of the above?

You need to answer this question before you do anything else, because that answer informs every choice you make, from exhibit design to the team manning your booth. If you’re looking to generate hot leads, you want hungry reps eager to build a client base. If your goal is brand awareness, you want to fill your booth with people who know your product or service inside and out.

Every choice, every step of your plan, must lead directly to achieving your goals.


Building Buzz Before The Show

Movies don’t just open cold and hope an audience shows up. You’ve got trailers, interviews with the cast and crew, social media promotion, and more. You don’t have to match 40 percent of your event budget with pre-show marketing dollars the way blockbuster films do, but you can learn a lesson from Hollywood’s advance marketing tactics.

Work with your marketing team to build buzz around both the event and your participation. Post on social media (using the event’s hashtags). Publish a press release. Post a webinar on your website. Write a series of blog posts that talk up the event, particularly if it’s one of the larger shows in your industry. Talk about scheduled speakers, any breakout sessions your team plans to lead, and what sessions you think to offer the most value.

In short, why do you find this trade show valuable? What inspired you to host an exhibit? Make that answer part of your pre-show marketing. And, of course, offer teasers about what you’re bringing to the event.

This is also the time to send out personal invites to anyone you’d like to see at the trade show. Tell them what they’ll get for dropping by your booth or attending your session. Also, if you have warm leads who you think are likely to attend, schedule appointments for demonstrations or consultations.


Drawing People To Your Booth

At a trade show, the competition for attendees’ attention is fierce; you have literally seconds to draw them in. With killer design, though, a single glance is all they need to know exactly who you are and what you offer.

Once you grab their attention, you have a couple of options to lure them into your booth. Videos, motion graphics, and demonstrations are compelling, engaging media for drawing in an audience.

Avoid placing a table across the entrance to your booth, which gives it a closed-off feeling. An open space feels much more inviting. Create informational stations where your booth staff can answer questions, or attendees can engage with interactive displays.

You can also use promotions, contests, and product giveaways to build hype and buzz around your display. Of course, great swag doesn’t necessarily translate into legitimate leads, even if you do capture their contact information (which you should). You also need great booth staff.

Too often, companies seem to employ zero strategy when it comes to staffing their booth. Big mistake. You want a team with high energy and plenty of enthusiasm, people who aren’t afraid to engage with attendees as they pass by. At the same time, you don’t want staffers who are pushy and overbearing.

It should go without saying, but make sure whoever staffs the booth understands why they’re there. No sitting around, scrolling through their phone, or working on their laptop. They need to appear ready and engaged, not bored.


Location, Location, Location

The best spaces go quickly, so register for the event as early as possible to raise your odds of getting a prime spot.

During your event planning phase, study the exhibition floor layout, looking for high traffic spots. Typically, the premium spaces (which also come at a premium price) are larger and in high traffic areas. Again, early registration increases your odds of landing your ideal location.

You also need to understand your space: dimensions, ceiling height, and access to lighting, electricity, etc. This information determines your booth setup.


No Pointless Promotional Items

Marketing teams love branded promotional items because they’re a great way to keep the company’s brand fresh in people’s minds. However, the type of promotional item you choose is key to making that a reality.

Avoid stress balls (everyone seems to have a collection of trade show stress balls) and other items your target isn’t likely to use (flimsy nylon bags, anyone?). Instead, work with your team to brainstorm ideas that align with the reason you’re there or your booth’s theme.

If brainstorming results in nothing but a headache, you can always offer practical, useful giveaways instead of the same old, same old. Items people aren’t likely to toss into a drawer and immediately forget about include multi-purpose key chains, earbuds, portable chargers, and insulated cups or water bottles.


Follow Through On Leads

A lot of companies make it through the trade show, pack up their exhibit (or hire someone else to do it), and head home, figuring their work is done. If only.

If you want those leads to become sales, you need to follow up with each and every one of them. Make it part of your marketing plan, and do it as quickly as possible (and definitely within a week).

Of course, you won’t be the only company following up with attendees, so you need to leave your mark. During the event itself, take notes about every lead. You’re going to refer to those notes during your follow-up.

If you really want to make an impression, add a phone call to the routine, not just an email or Facebook message.

An effective trade show strategy starts well before the event and doesn’t end when the show does. Understand your goals, plan ahead, design a killer booth staffed with energetic people, and follow up with prospects afterward to make the most of your trade show investment.