I can’t tell you the number of times, as we were tearing down our booth after having had an epic show, that we overheard the guy next door calling back to corporate saying that the show was a “total waste of time” and that the company shouldn’t do it again next year. Of course, he didn’t say that he:
- Staffed the booth only during scheduled breaks and went into the hallway to take calls at other times.
- Sat inside the booth, safely protected from conference attendees by a desk.
- Spent most of his time looking down at his phone, even during the breaks when attendees were out and about.
- Didn’t use his pass to attend a single session.
- Measured the show solely by qualified leads for his territory, discounting company visibility and leads for other territories to zero.
Does this actually happen, you think? Absolutely.
All the time. (And it makes you think twice when you’re on the other end of that phone call – was the show bad or did we execute it poorly?)
I’m a huge believer in live events and an even bigger believer that you get back what you put into them. The difference between a great show and a bad show is often, in a word, execution. In this post, I’ll offer up 10 tips to ensure you get the best out of the conferences you attend.
Ten Ways to Get the Most out of Conferences and Tradeshows
1. Send the right people. Send folks who can answer questions at the audience’s level or one level above. Send folks who are impressive. Send folks who are either naturally extroverts or who can “game face” it for the duration of the show. Send folks who want to be there either because they’re true believers who want to evangelize the product or because they believe in karma . Send senior people (e.g., founders, C-level)  so they can both continue to refine the message and interact with potential customers discussing it.
2. Speak. Build your baseline credibility in the space by blogging and speaking at lesser conferences. Then, do your homework on the target event and what the organizers are looking for, and submit a great speaking proposal. Then push for it to be accepted. Once it’s accepted, study the audience hard and then give the speech of your life to ensure you get invited back next year. There’s nothing like being on the program (or possibly even a keynote) to build credibility for you and your company. And the best part is that speaking a conference is, unlike most everything else, free.
3. If you can afford a booth/stand, get one. Don’t get fancy here. Get the cheapest one and then push hard for good placement . While I included a picture of Slack’s Dreamforce booth, which is very fancy for most early-stage startup situations, imagine what Slack could have spent if they wanted to. For Slack, at Dreamforce, that’s a pretty barebones booth. (And that’s good — you’re going to get leads and engage with people in your market, not win a design competition.)
4. Stand in front of your booth, not in it. Expand like an alfresco restaurant onto the sidewalk in spring. This effectively doubles your booth space.
5. Think guerilla marketing. What can make the biggest impact at the lowest cost? I love stickers for this because a clever sticker can get attention and end up on the outside of someone’s laptop generating ongoing visibility. At Host Analytics, we had great success with many stickers, including this one, which finance people (our audience) simply loved .
While I love guerilla marketing, remember my definition: things that get maximum impact at minimum cost. Staging fake protests or flying airplanes with banners over the show may impress others in the industry, but they’re both expensive and I don’t think they impress customers who are primarily interested not in vendor politics, but in solving business problems.
6. Work the speakers. Don’t just work the booth (during and outside of scheduled breaks), go to sessions. Ask questions that highlight your issues (but not specifically your company). Talk to speakers after their sessions to tee-up a subsequent follow-up call. Talk to consultant speakers to try and build partnerships and/or fish to referrals. Perhaps try to convince the speakers to include parts of your message into their speech .
7. Avoid “Free Beer Here” Stunts. If you give away free beer in your booth you’ll get a huge list of leads from the show. However, this is dumb marketing because you not only buy free beer for lots of unqualified people but worse yet generate a giant haystack of leads that you need to dig through to find the qualified ones — so you end up paying twice for your mistake. While it’s tempting to want to leave the show with the most card swipes, always remember you’re there to generate visibility, have great conversations, and leave with the most qualified leads — not, not, not the longest list of names.
8. Host a Birds of a Feather (BoF). Many conferences use BoFs (or equivalents) as a way for people with common interests to meet informally. Set up via either an online or old-fashioned cork message board, anyone can organize a BoF by posting a note that says “Attention: All People Interested in Deploying Kubernetes at Large Scale — Let’s Meet in Room 27 at 3PM.” If your conference doesn’t have BoFs either ask the organizers to start them, or call a BoF anyway if they have any general messaging facility.
9. Everybody works. If you’re big enough to have an events person or contractor, make sure you define their role properly. They don’t just set up the booth and go back to their room all day. Everybody works. If your events person self-limits him/herself by saying “I don’t do content,” then I’d suggest finding another events person.
10. No whining. Whenever two anglers pass along a river and one says “how’s the fishing?” the universal response is “good.” Not so good that they’re going to ask where you’ve been fishing, and not so bad that they’re going to ask what you’ve been using. Just good. Be the same way with conferences. If asked, how it’s going, say “good.” Ban all discussion and/or whining about the conference until after the conference. If it’s not going well, whining about isn’t going to help. If it is going well, you should be out executing, not talking about how great the conference is. From curtain-up until curtain-down all you should care about is execution. Once the curtain’s down, then you can debrief — and do so more intelligently having complete information.
 In the sense that, “if I spend time developing leads that might land in other reps’ territories today, that what goes around comes around tomorrow.”
 In order to avoid title intimidation or questions about “why is your CEO working the booth” you can have a technical cofounder say “I’m one of the architects of the system” or your CEO say “I’m on the leadership team.”
 Build a relationship with the organizers. Do favors for them and help them if they need you. Politely ask if anyone has moved, upgraded, or canceled their space.
 Again note where execution matters — if the Host Analytics logo were much larger on the sticker, I doubt it would have been so successful. It’s the sticker’s payload, so the logo has to be there. Too small and it’s illegible, but too big and no one puts the sticker on their laptop because it feels like a vendor ad and not a clever sticker.
 Not in the sense of a free ad, but as genuine content. Imagine you work at Splunk back in the day and a speaker just gave a talk on using log files for debugging. Wouldn’t it be great if you could convince her next time to say, “and while there is clearly a lot of value in using log files for debugging, I should mention there is also a potential goldmine of information in log files for general analytics that basically no one is exploiting, and that certain startups, like Splunk, are starting to explore that new and exciting use case.”