Here’s a little fact about me: I don’t like trade shows. From the visitor side, they make me uncomfortable. I’m always afraid to make eye contact with an exhibitor for fear that I’m going to get the full-on sales blitz. And usually it’s for a service or product that I really don’t need. Ever try to get away from these guys or gals (yes, the sales blitz technique is equal opportunity in its usage)? Nothing less than having a heart attack will allow you to elude their grasp.
From the exhibitor side, I’m not a big fan of them, either. There’s a certain quality of salesmanship that I find hard to grasp…there’s also a certain quality of will that doesn’t seem entirely authentic for me. And I guess it all comes down to my preference for depth. Can you develop a deep connection with a potential member, customer, or client in the span of 5-7 minutes (that’s the average amount of time you get to speak to one person at a trade booth)? Probably not, which is why so much leg work is required after the show to seal the deal. The practice of trade show exhibiting assumes that you already KNOW the needs and desires of your customers – it’s just a matter of talking to them until they fully know it.
Of course, there are alternatives. It starts by doing this: take all the <em>assumptions</em> you have about your customers – what they want, how they want it, what they expect from your products and services – and get rid of them. Write them down and burn them in your wastebasket. Give them the ceremonial flush down the toilet. The important point is to realize you may not know anything real about the folks with which you want to connect.
Now, take all the money that you would spend on your trade booth and put it toward the conference registration (you might even find this is less expensive). Don’t exhibit; instead, be a student. Go to the sessions and honestly listen to what the presenters have to say, attend the workshops and openly participate in the dialogues. In between, strike up real conversations with fellow attendees and figure out what’s going on in their lives and their work. Of course, be prepared with some brochures and swap business cards. But remember, the point isn’t to deluge the other person with info about your product or service (if that’s what you’re really after, be truthful about it and just get yourself a trade booth). The point is to immerse yourself in the rich world of your customer. What you give up in terms of having a long list of prospects (many of which may never be interested in you anyway), you gain in having a deep understanding of the individuals who comprise your market and how you can make their lives better. Trust me, they’ll love you for it.
From Bailey WorkPlay, first published November 7, 2005 (with minor edits)