5 Reasons to Stop Exhibiting at Trade Shows

I hate trade shows as a marketing tactic.  Add up the cost of booth space, shipping, and travel, and the number of good leads you need to get to show any kind of ROI is too large to justify doing most shows.  And don’t even get me started on how hard it is to be heard above the noise of dozens of other companies battling for the scarce hung-over attention of attendees that are only walking the show floor because they heard there might be free food or booze around somewhere.  Here are 5 reasons to stop exhibiting at trade shows:

1/ There’s no ROI – Did you ever stop to wonder about those free food and booze parties/receptions they hold on the show floor to get attendees to go into the exhibit hall?  There is a clear message – people won’t go in there unless they are bribed to go!  How many high quality leads do you think you are going to get from a crowd of people that want to avoid you?  Not many.

2/ It’s hard to stand out – You can’t afford an Oracle-sized booth (and you’ll also miss out on the keynote talk and premium advertising that goes along with that). You’ll be in a tiny booth along the edges of the show where it’s easy to ignore you.  You could do something really creative to stand out like the company at SxSW that had their entire booth covered in brown paper.  I’d link to them but I can’t remember what they were called.

3/ No one will notice if you aren’t there – Some companies tell me that they know they can’t show ROI for a show but if they pull out, it will somehow send a signal that they are pulling out of a market completely.  Baloney.  Take it from a gal that’s been responsible for pulling out of somewhere around 100 trade shows – nobody ever notices.  The number of times I’ve gotten any negative feedback from a prospect, customer, press person, or anyone else because I pulled out of doing a show equals exactly zero.

4/ You could be doing other things.  Like selling stuff – Don’t forget to factor in the opportunity costs of doing the show which will include travel time and time it took to prepare for the show.  If you have limited folks on the team, remember that every minute they spend on the show is a minute they aren’t spending doing other things.  Things like driving revenue (see point #1).

5/ You could stand in front of the convention center handing out $100 bills and get more qualified leads – OK, OK, that’s the same as point number 1 but you get the idea…

That doesn’t mean there isn’t an opportunity to do something interesting at a show.  I’ve done customer and prospect events during shows that were much less expensive and more effective than exhibiting.  Speaking or simply attending a show can often get you access to the same number of interested customers at a much lower cost.  Just say no to the booth.

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81 thoughts on “5 Reasons to Stop Exhibiting at Trade Shows”

  1. Great article.
    This made me laugh …. “you could do something really creative to stand out like the company at SxSW that had their entire booth covered in brown paper. I’d link to them but I can’t remember what they were called.” … and it got the point across.
    -mike.

    1. Often I think that marketers are just big chickens because they hate pulling the plug on tactics when they are no longer working. We all need to get brave on some of these things and just say no.
      Thanks for the comment.
      April

  2. There’s a reason why trade show sales people always call the CEO first – ego and id.

    So much of being an exhibitor at trade shows is driven by the masturbatory needs of executives to see their company’s name in lights. I can even begin to count the number of hours I’ve wasted over the years trying to talk tech CEOs out of blowing their brains out (and my modest marketing budget) at trade shows or on lame ass sponsorships.

    The old tech shows like Comdex, PC Expo and CeBIT (to name a few) did well for Canadian tech companies like Corel and Cognos in the late 80s and 90s but there’s a reason that they’ve all gone the way of the Dodo bird.

    Besides, I’m way too old to man a booth and my knees need way more under-padding then you get in a 10×10.

    1. Hi Robert – thanks for the comment!
      Yeah, I think there’s a bit of that going on. I did hear of bit of bragging from smaller companies about being in a booth at SxSW and I thought the same things you did – that it might be more about ego than returns.
      Is there a worse job than manning the booth? I remember doing Comdex and by the 3rd day or so I was ready to switch careers…. 🙂
      April

  3. April —

    On the money (as always!). I can’t really think of a reason we would do a trade show booth. Our Workplace Hero campaign at SXSW (http://workplacehero.com) was way more successful at generating quality leads than a booth would ever have been.

    Glad we got to chat in the airport gate even if we didn’t really get a chance to hang out much!

    — Jay

    1. Hi Jay,
      Thanks for the comment.
      For those of you that weren’t there, the Rypple folks were at SxSW and launched their new Workplace Hero campaign there. They were all over the convention center talking to people about the campaign, handing out stickers and inviting folks to a reception they held at a bar (and yes, there were free drinks). Everywhere I looked at SxSW I saw people with Workplace Hero stickers and it was all done without having an official exhibit at the show.
      April

  4. Hi April,

    I’ve been following your blog for a while; however, this is the first time I’m going to comment.

    Trade shows can be effective – it just depends on the trade show and the company.

    Firstly, trade shows can be very effective for small companies that are looking to connect with new customers or companies that are looking to enter new geographical areas. I’ve had success using trade shows to enter new markets of find new customers. Yes – I can quantify my success too.

    Large companies with significant market share can also have success, although it may not be easy to quantify. These trade shows are a good way of connecting with existing customers and reinforcing the brand.

    Having said all this, one major drawback of trade shows is that it gives competitors a pulse on company, especially if you’re marketing new products… I love going to trade shows to see what my competition is doing. Funnily, most of the marketing/sales people don’t even ask if I’m the competition…

    With right people and solid plan, trade shows can be very effective…

    1. Hi Farhan,
      Thanks for the comment. I know there are always exceptions to the rule. At a company I worked at a few years back we had one (but only one) show that I didn’t cut because we got just enough leads to keep it interesting.
      The competitive thing is a good point. I’ve done my share of talking to folks in my competitor’s booths to see if I could take the pulse of what we really going on.
      April

  5. I agree with many of your points, but I also agree with those that posted contrarian views. You can always find a reason not to do a show. So if you’re attending w/o a plan you don’t deserve to be considered a marketer. Your blog (I expect to be sensationalist and garner tweets) stated your position to never do a Tradeshow, but as soon as someone actually posted reasons why tradeshows could still work you agreed with them too. Which is it? Are tradeshows allowed as part of marketing or not? (And by the way Robert, “because it hurts my knees” is a crappy reason to turn down a valid opportunity.)

    1. Hi Ric,
      Again, in my experience exhibiting at trade shows has been a lousy tactic, even when we worked hard at doing it as well as we could. My opinion is that they are a rotten tactic and folks should stop doing them. Now if you come and tell me that you are doing the show and measuring the ROI and finding that it’s a great tactic for you, I’m not going to tell you that you should stop doing them – that would be nuts! However, my gut tells me that those are really edge cases (nobody has volunteered much specific information in these comments yet) and it doesn’t change my opinion that you should stop doing shows.
      To answer your question – “Are tradeshows allowed as part of marketing?” Sure they are! If you can show a decent ROI, of course! My point is that in my experience, there are very, very few (in my personal experience 1 in about 100) shows where you can show that.
      April

  6. Good to seem some debate on this topic. With all due respect, if trades shows are not working, then it’s time to understand why they are not working or try to understand if your expectations are realistic.

    I’ve participated in trade shows represented multi-billion dollar companies in various international locations – I’ve also represented companies with revenue less than $10Milllion. The goals for each company are different.

    A very large company is not going to a trade show to generate million dollar leads, although it may happen… they are going there for BRANDING. I too questioned the value of spending $100K to send various employees from all over the world to a trade show. Large companies want their customers to know they have presence. Yes – during tough economic times, these types of events can be scaled back…

    A small company’s participation at a trade show can be for branding, but more importantly it’s for networking and sales leads. If a small company is going to a trade show which will not have their potential customers in attendance, they could be wasting their time.
    Again, with right people and solid plan, trade shows can be very effective… if one attends a trade show with no game plan, they could be potentially wasting their time. Additionally, if they send the wrong types of people, they could be wasting their time…

    Maybe we should put together a blog that gives advice on how to maximize success at a trade show.

    1. Thanks for the comment Farhan. I don’t believe that trade shows are very good for branding which is why I’ve focused on lead generation as the output. Again, in my experience the vast majority of shows have produced much lower ROI than other tactics I was spending money on so I ended up putting an end to the shows so I could spend more on tactics that got me a bigger bang for my buck.
      April

  7. Some very valid points and rational April. I think the challenge is getting these other senior managers to buy into the fact that we don’t need our name in lights at trade shows and that there really isn’t a great way to measure ROI.

    1. I agree with that. Again, I think that sometimes people are reluctant to stop doing things that may have worked in the past but aren’t working anymore. Whether that’s ego or old fashioned fear of change is up for debate…:)
      April

  8. April, I am generally right there with you. On this topic, we differ a bit. I don’t agree with the blanket statement that tradeshows don’t work.

    Crappy shows come and go. There are far too many in any one quarter or industry with no meaningful difference. I 100% agree that attending 4 major events a year and putting forth minimal effort at each isn’t worth any investment. If you are going to exhibit – go for it. That doesn’t mean outspending your competitors, but it does mean thinking through the purpose of your exhibition, goals and what is realistic.

    Tradeshows do lots of things for companies. They generate “buzz”, create excitement inside and outside the company, help them focus their external communications, and connect the organization with customers, partners, journalists, investors and the broader industry. Those connections matter and can help to shape the thinking within the company or business unit. You can definitely make the case that all this should and could done without a tradeshow, but too often in the tech land of 24×7 the burning issue takes precedence. Not to mention if a single exhibition can help you accomplish all that and reach all those stakeholders – you have to think through the ROI. Plus… as you’ve noted, a booth isn’t the only way to host meetings. There are hotels, meeting spaces on the floor and many other tactics.

    Customers are always the most important audience, but there are folks that influence them. I’ve always found that if you are making the investment to exhibit, you need to maximize your presence and connect with all the stakeholders at the show. Could you fly a journalist to see your latest innovative offering? Yes. And, you could most likely convey the importance of it without them ever seeing it, but there is still something very important about building those personal relationships. Don’t estimate the value for employees. I like to bring along someone that isn’t typically on the tradeshow staff to let them see their company in action. (Not to mention… let them contribute to the show’s success.) And, for Wall Street… these are often better venues than the 5 investor conferences companies attend a quarter. Lastly, partnerships are too often overlooked and often key to helping small companies become giants. (Juniper is a great example for that model… although they had some fabulous technology to partner with Siemens. Lucent and Ericsson.)

    It is very true that the days of a $10M order given in your $5M booth are long gone. My view is that you need to align the marketing priorities with the goals of the broader company and sometimes tradeshows can be a component. You need to know you audience, influencers and set metrics. You can’t evaluate a companywide event solely on the number of leads generated. In the carrier world… the customer base is largely known, so let’s hope this isn’t the first time you’ve targeted T-Mobile, for example. I’ll also argue with you on the branding value, but I’ll save that for another thought provoking post from you.

    And, yes… I might be a bit bias after Mobile World Congress this year. That show is hugely expensive and it was a challenge to maximize the investment the client had already made into the show from space alone, but at the end of the week… I am happy to report they exceed nearly all their metrics and I would recommend it again for them.

    As always, thanks for the great topic and post.

  9. April,

    Enjoyed reading the post.

    What you have nicely covered is that there is no major incentive to put up a booth and just wait for the leads to drop by. I agree with that.

    There is another angle to the trade shows. What you do weeks and months before the trade show to setup meetings during the show.

    One of my portfolio companies works with Fortune 500 companies in a related field and through that we have learned a lot about what happens in the weeks and months before a relevant show. Lot of work gets done in the background and a trade show happens to be the place where all the action culminates (after months of planning)

    Millions of dollars worth of deals get moving on the sidelines of the trade show (even today)

    So while I agree that blindly exhibiting in a trade show because everyone else is exhibiting is a bordering towards a flawed strategy, with proper strategy and planning, trade shows can prove to be very effective.

    My $.02 of course.

    Best,
    Rajesh

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  11. I agree with you 100%. I have been at a trade show once where I was afraid I will be run over by the folks who were coming into the booth just to collect the goodies and did not even want to talk to you. It was bizarre.

  12. April – great post and I agree that trade shows have been and continue to be a waste of time.
    Some may argue that it’s a great way to conduct some market intelligence, but I find it a shopping trip for the best tshatshke’s (the trinkets you’re kids don’t want.)

    Let’s all use our money more wisely and may trade shows RIP.

  13. I agree in part. We’ve been to shows where we actually closed deals because we could meet face to face with prospects. Other shows helped us forge partnership that wouldn’t exist if we weren’t there.

    So yes, going to a show just to show off your new booth and hope people will buy is not a good strategy, but if you plan carefully (and have your goals set right) you can get something good out of it.

  14. Hi April.

    I agree and disagree with you on this one. In my experience I disagree because in industry specific trade shows these can be the driving motion for business development – where there are clear buyers and sellers. This is especially true in particularly production industries with production lines.

    The trade shows I really agree with you on are those which are basically poorly targeted. Most of the trade shows I’ve been to have been a waste of time because the organisers spent so much time selling to exhibitors they neglected marketing to attendees.

    thought provoking post though, I liked it.

    1. Hi Leon,
      Thanks for the comment. I agree that a speaking slot changes everything. The best is if you can speak without getting a booth but those trade show folks have gotten wise to that and now dole out a lot of the speaking slots to booth buyers only. For startups, they often can’t afford the booth size that comes with the slot so they are stuck. If you’re lucky you’ve got a charismatic speaker for a CEO and she/he can get these slots on their own.
      April

  15. Great post, April! I’d only add that if you’re in a position where you just can’t sell the idea of pulling out of all of your tradeshows all at once, at least change up your strategy to focus on extracting some sort of value.

    I’ve worked with some clients on moving to a paperless booth concept, with follow-up request kiosks that are web forms feeding directly into their marketing automation tool. This simultaneously a) slashes your wasteful spending on printing and shipping collateral, b) super-qualifies any new leads since they have to be interested enough to fill in your electronic form, and c) ensures your follow-up is consumed since you are sending them an email that goes to both their mobile device and their inbox for back at the office, even making it easy for them to forward your stuff to other colleagues you didn’t meet.

    Nolin @ BrainRider

  16. PERFECT! Couldn’t agree more. I teach B2B Mktg at the University of Pittsburgh and during the class I state some of the exact opinions regarding trade shows you state here. #3 is the #1 reason I hear why companies go—‘what will it look like if we are not there?’—oh, thats a reason to spend money—Trades shows are a waste.

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