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October 20, 2020
How B2B Marketers Can Win With Virtual Trade Shows
Liz Brohan

The coronavirus pandemic has transformed B2B marketing in many ways, none bigger than the temporary demise of the in-person trade show. In its place is an often uncomfortable and sometimes frustrating option – virtual shows.

In some cases, virtual shows promise a lot and can’t deliver nearly as well as an in-person show. However, there are ways for B2B marketers to get a decent return on their investment from a virtual or hybrid trade show.

We asked our resident trade show expert Doug Davila – Senior VP of Business Development at CBD Marketing – about how companies can make the most out of trade shows in the COVID-19 era.

What is your background with trade shows?

Before the coronavirus pandemic, I would attend more than a dozen tradeshows every year on behalf of our agency. I’ve also helped companies prepare for shows. As an agency, our team has helped our clients exhibit at and maximize their presence at more than 100 unique trade shows. We even wrote a guide that covers every aspect of tradeshow planning to help you prepare and be successful.

What shows have you attended in 2020?

I’ve attended both in-person and virtual shows this year. Just recently, I was part of the team for CBD that “exhibited” at one of the first virtual shows in the country (IGNITE 2020 USA). Also, as a board member of the Chicago Chapter of the American Marketing Association, I helped put on a virtual event—BrandSmart 2020. So I’ve seen shows from all sides.

Do you see tradeshows going back to where they were before 2020?

My answer is in line with all the other best guesses—sometime in 2021 when we have a vaccine for the coronavirus.

International shows may take longer depending on travel restrictions. We also need to keep in mind the lead time to put together and promote a show, which could mean we won’t see events reach reasonable capacity until the second half of 2021.

Now that we’re all attending virtual events, do you think the traditional tradeshow will be extinct?

I don’t think virtual shows will completely replace live events, but they do offer some advantages. The “everywhere” nature of a digital platform allows for a potentially larger audience, and one from a bigger footprint, to participate. In turn, that would provide presenters and exhibitors more value.

We’ve also seen virtual events allow more team members to participate. Those incremental participants can account for a much larger audience.

However, I think we’ll begin to see major events moving toward a hybrid model. And once the major event platforms become more commonplace, we’ll see smaller events adopt the hybrid approach as well.

Virtual events seem like a perfect idea: cheaper than show floors, much more accessible, and education forward. But it sounds too good to be true. What are the downsides?

Virtual events present several challenges. Many events are free or low-cost. With no travel costs required, the event could attract an inordinate number of tire-kickers or companies that aren’t really prospects.

Everyone is suffering from Zoom fatigue as nearly all of our contact now is online. When companies do participate in virtual trade shows, they need to rethink their presence and focus, being sure not to treat it like an in-person event. I’d approach it from a digital marketing standpoint.

Online visitors may be “attending” the event with one eye and doing real work with the other. So trying to cram in as many products and demos as possible will confuse and possibly drive them to another booth. Instead, approach your booth with a digital strategy. What’s the one thing you’d like visitors to do during the event and afterwards? Keep it simple and move your visitors down a customer journey path.

Without a live experience to draw from, your materials will have to work harder and be more engaging.

So, let’s say someone’s decided to go virtual. What should marketers be doing to maximize their investment of time and money?

1. Have a kick ass video at your “booth.” Think of this as the trailer to your movie, with a demo or compelling, interactive content as the can’t miss main event. Be specific with your video title and objective to give your audience reason to view it. Need some inspiration? Look at the cover of Cosmopolitan. While I am not suggesting your material needs to be racy, headlines needs to capture attention. Do the same with your content.

2. Work the chat rooms and networking like you would at an in-person show. While the event promoters will do everything they can to promote all of the booths, it’s still not the same as hundreds or thousands of people walking down your aisle. Promote your booth, explain your product and give people an incentive to visit. Consider hosting a virtual happy hour and give people a fun reason to attend.

3. Have a robust digital strategy to promote your “booth.” Don’t forget the pre-show and post-show email to drive awareness. You can use the traditional methods of building excitement, like giveaways for people who pre-register. You can also include live drawings. And be sure to come up with ways to surprise and delight your visitors after the event.

4. If you are going to be live in your booth, look and act professional. Treat this like a sales meeting and not an internal team happy hour. I also recommend rotating people in and out if you can, always scanning the monitor for visitors. And remember, don’t eat on camera.

5. Treat PR for a virtual show just as you would for a live event. Set up interviews, make sure your SMEs are media-trained, and have a PR person there to help organize the day and guide interviews.

6. Build awareness and engagement on social media platforms. It can result in regular or casual followers of your platforms joining the show to see what all the fuss is about. You can also take advantage of show-specific hashtags to monitor and participate in conversations with attendees.

7. Lastly, don’t delay on following up. You only have a couple of days before the audience starts to quickly forget about the event, so make sure your team is on top of follow-up materials and thank you emails.

Is it a good idea to create your own event?

One advantage to doing your own event is total control—content, attendees, etc. And with everyone quickly getting Zoom experience, this has become far easier than you might have thought at the start of the year.

I’ve heard of several companies creating their own “Buyers Day.” This can be done by:

  • Inviting select prospects and/or clients to an online event you control
  • Offering recorded content, live demos with Q&A, training, panel discussions, guest speakers and open conversation
  • Conducting a Client Advisory Board session
  • Including some of your suppliers or strategic partners to create content, join in or to help underwrite the event
  • Sending a goody box to attendees in advance so that there are munchies and beverages for each attendee, as well as some swag
  • Encouraging attendees to interact on social media
  • Giving a role to team members across all parts of the business.

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