Trade Shows Still the Best Bet for B-to-B Marketers

Sarah Steimer
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Key Takeaways

What? Reports show trade shows are effective tactics for B-to-B companies.

So what? In-person events make up the biggest share of marketing spend, so a poor strategy can cost a firm.

Now what? Companies should choose trade shows that are contextually relevant and set up a strategy for increasing awareness by presenting or speaking and building relationships at the exhibit booth.

Aug. 11, 2016

Face-to-face interactions and relationship-building opportunities are keeping exhibitions and trade shows highly relevant for B-to-B organizations. 

Companies looking to attend these events should plan accordingly—beyond purchasing a spot and showing up—to make the most of the experience.

Content Marketing Institute’s “B2B Content Marketing 2016 Benchmarks, Budgets, and Trends — North America” reports 75% of survey respondents say in-person events are effective. This was the highest-ranked tactic on the list, above efforts such as webinars/webcasts (66%), case studies (66%) and white papers (63%). Similarly, the Center for Exhibition Industry Research released a report, “Marketers Find Exhibitions an Essential Marketing and Sales Tactic,” that found business-to-business exhibitions rank second as a marketing and sales tactic and are identified as the primary channel by 77% of surveyed exhibitors.

“It’s a two-way communication, and that's why it’s so powerful,” says Tim Asimos, vice president and director of digital innovation at circle S studio. “It’s a forum for building relationships with people that you would ordinarily never be face-to-face with.”

What a company might get out of exhibiting at a trade show depends on how much it prepares for the event, Asimos explains, warning against having a reactionary or sloppy approach to shows.

“Trade shows are a great tactic, but they’re only as good as the strategy you have,” he says. "I think that’s where the disparity is: trade shows are a great tool, but you have to know how to use the tool if you’re going to actually get some ROI.”

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Choose the right show and presentation

Asimos says the first step to being successful with exhibitions is to be selective with which to attend, finding one with not just the right audience but the right context of the environment. He explains that some can be more conference-oriented while others are focused more on the exhibit hall. He also suggests not just exhibiting, but presenting.

“Speaking at a trade show—whether it’s a keynote or a breakout session or whatever the situation is—you’re speaking and gaining some awareness for your firm, your expertise or your solution, services, product, whatever it might be,” he says. “Then your exhibit, your booth, gives you a hub for conducting conversations offline once you’re done speaking.”

How a company presents itself at the booth matters as well. Asimos recommends against being too flashy, but instead suggests a billboard approach that is very simplistic in communicating what the company is and what it does. He says someone passing the booth should be able to quickly discern what the company has to offer, so they can determine whether it’s something they are interested in discussing.

Have a strategy

A company should set a plan for every stage of its engagement strategy: pre-show, during the event and post-show follow-up. The company needs to determine which representatives to send, how to generate buzz and awareness, how to nurture and engage with those who come to the booth.

According to Asimos, companies need to be intentional. He says the most-missed step is the post-conference follow-up. Asimos explains that once the company representatives make connections, there needs to be a plan for what to do next.

“Maybe they follow up with hot leads where there’s an immediate opportunity for a sale, but the ones that are cold or warm that just need to be nurtured for a while, what’s the follow-up plan to nurture and engage those people?” he says.

Asimos emphasizes the importance of relationship-building at these face-to-face events. He says the booth itself is simply a means to prompt such opportunities.

“As much as we marketers always believe that marketing is a silver bullet, marketing ultimately keys up an opportunity to build a relationship, and face-to-face relationship building is the absolute best kind,” he says. “That’s why trade shows can be so great: When the people going are there to make connections and strike up conversations and look for those opportunities from attendees, that’s why people get so much from them. It’s a candid, captive audience.”

The key is to have a plan and to take that strategy to the right event. Otherwise, an unintentional presence could mean a waste of money for the company. According to a Forrester report, “2016 B2B Budget Plans Show That It's Time For A Digital Wake-Up Call,” in-person events still take the biggest share of marketing spend at 18%. Forrester B-to-B analyst Laura Ramos, principal author of the paper, says in the report that marketers have a love/hate relationship with these events, despite their “professed intentions to act differently.”


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Author Bio:

Sarah Steimer
Sarah Steimer is a staff writer for the AMA's magazines and e-newsletters. She may be reached at or on Twitter at @sarah_steimer.
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