So I have to go with Saeed here in response to Steve’s posting on tradeshows. Just because a lot of companies handle trade shows badly doesn’t mean they’re worthless. Most companies can’t do email marketing right either; I would not suggest that you stop emailing customers and prospects.
But before we think about what to do at the trade show, let’s review what a Product Manager can get out of a trade show. Two things: one, leads and two, conversations.
Now, leads may not be your direct responsibility, but everyone needs leads. Are trade shows the cheapest way to get leads? Nope. Are they the best way to get leads? Nope. But unless you generate more leads than your salespeople can handle, you need more leads. Even if you have too many leads, how many highly qualified leads are coming in through your other lead generation channels? (The answer is never enough!) Web- and email-based marketing is the #1 source of leads for many B2B companies and I can come up with plenty of ways that companies do web and email marketing wrong. That doesn’t mean they should stop doing it.
You need to have an ecosystem of leads, just like you need to have customers in more than one region or vertical market. And trade shows remain a good way to get new leads. I hate scanning badges as much as anyone, but it works.
Also, if you can’t prove that trade shows are generating quality leads for you, then that’s not the trade show’s fault. Implement close-loop leads tracking! You have a CRM system right? Creating a campaign in Salesfore.com and seeing how many opportunities result from it isn’t rocket science.
Second, conversations. A trade show lets you have longer, more fully engaged conversations with both customers and prospects. Prospects are key here – when was the last time you talked to someone who was actively looking to buy a product like yours but wasn’t yet in your company’s sales funnel? Talking to prospects is so important because if you only ever talk to customers you’ll never find out about what the people who decided not to buy your product think. Prospects can decide not to even consider your product or service based on your positioning, without ever talking to a salesperson. I have yet to find a better venue than a trade show to meet these people and talk to them.
Conversations at trade shows are also more casual and relaxed because of the whole circus-like atmosphere of the show floor. (Being at a circus is great, as long as you’re not one of the clowns). Customers have come up to me and said “I love your product! I use it every day!” I rarely get that sort of enthusaism over the phone during customer calls. Customers have also come up to me and said “I like your product very much. There are twelve things wrong with it. They are…” – I heartily recommend doing a few trade shows in Germany because you will get this kind of feedback from more than one person. It’s great. When you work in enterprise software (my experience has been in development tools and IT management tools) you rarely get to have an animated conversation about the strengths and weaknesses of your product. The development team has never actually used the product and my wife and friends don’t really understand what I’m talking about when I try to explain what I do. Trade show conversations have provided me with months’ worth of stories and user feedback that I trot out during requirements planning sessions.
So, can you do trade shows wrong? Sure. Any marketing activity can become a mindless exercise if you lose track of what your real goals are. But we need to do trade shows.
So, why demo at trade shows? Come on – people need something to look at. Imagine going to an auto show where there was nothing but booths and flyers about all the hot new cars. (Let’s ignore the booth babes for a second. Besides, I haven’t seen a booth babe in years at the Toronto Auto show. I think they may be extinct north of the 49th parallel)
The demo isn’t the goal – it’s just a tool to get people’s attentition. Entrepreneurs talk constantly about honing their elevator pitch. There better be more to your business plan than your elevator pitch, but that’s what the demo is at a trade show. It’s the shiny, animated prop that backs up your elevator pitch. Actual software that’s more than just canned Powerpoint slides says that you have a real product that goes with the pitch. Right or wrong, this is the bar that trade show attendees want to see before they’re going to stop and pay attentition to you. And once you have their attentition, you get to do the two really important things: scan their badge and have a conversation.
As a side note, one product I demoed at trade shows was a web-based marketing automation system. It was next to un-demoable. It worked great, but it was challenging to develop, deploy and track an integrated email marketing campaign in five minutes. (I probably could have done it in ten minutes 🙂 ). But as I went through the pitch, everyone wanted to see something. One person wanted to see reports, one person wanted to see how to compose email, someone else wanted to see how the automation system worked. This was really a polite way of saying that I was full of sh*t and that there was no such product. My “demo” didn’t really show all that much but it proved that I had a real product, which made my message a lot easier to accept and remember.