Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas and the RSA Conference in San Francisco. While wandering around the shows I made some observations that would make a great blog post.
Like any marketing activity, you need to know the objective in going to a trade show and how you are going to measure success. In the pre-Internet era Tradeshows were an incredibly important part of the eco-system for many industries - this was where you found new products, resellers, distributors, and of course, customers. But in the Internet age information is instantly available anywhere in the world. There may not be any need to physically be at a show, when you can watch a simultaneous podcast and get the same information, or meet needed contacts through other methods such as Linkedin.
Of course this depends on your organizational goals - you may have strategic reasons for being at a show, such as getting noticed, speaking with customers, partners, press and analysts etc. Sit down and rationalize how best to meet your objectives, and don't just go for the traditional booth because "we've always done it that way". Measure success to help decide the ROI and value of each event and activity.
Many groups measure success by numbers of raw leads and will scan anyone walking by to meet their goals. Unless you have a group of people who go out and re-validate each lead, it's better to gather just leads from people who have shown some interest. If marketing people love to tell you how many trade show leads they gathered, make sure the leads are real, and not just "raw" - I've seen people scan the line at the food court to make up a more impressive lead count. On the other side of the coin, I've gone up to a booth and talked for sometime, and they let me wander away without bothering to scan my details - not sure how they intend to follow up.
The most concerning aspect at almost any trade show there is a large number of booths staffed with employees who don't want to talk to potential customers. They'll be checking their email, having a private conversation, meeting old friends, sitting down and looking bored, or doing anything else except talking to booth visitors. Many of them likely partied too hard the night before, and viewed the show as a free trip to the trade show city. Then you have the numerous booths that are sitting empty with nobody in sight - who knows where these people are?
At the RSA show this week there was one company I wanted to talk with, and spent 15 minutes "hovering" at their booth, but could find nobody to help. Out of about 15 employees, many were playing the video games installed for the customers, others were having their own private conversation, checking Blackberrys, or using the demo machines to do email. This was in a booth that cost the company well over $100K, and this was repeated numerous times at both conferences - so as well as not giving me information, these companies have created a negative impression. In all honesty, out of about 15 people manning the booth, nobody was helping a customer, and I wasn't the only one trying to get attention. I shouldn't need to mention this, but the employee enjoying the burger at his pod - eating at your booth is a definite no-no.
If you're going to have a booth, make it effective, and have someone in charge who can plan, train, manage and follow up. Have a booth meeting before the event, and hand out written booth schedules, background material and collateral. Explain the objectives and make sure everyone understands. Show everyone how to ask customers if they can help and how to direct them to the right part of the booth. And make sure everyone understands that email, Blackberry, cell phone calls, eating, nose-picking, butt-scratching etc are not allowed in the booth - do them on your break. And don't sit down - standing up is much more welcoming to customers. Yes, manning a booth is tiring and difficult, but you need to suck it up and do a great job.
Lastly, I'm a big fan of Oscar Wilde's quote that "the only thing worse than being talked about, is not being talked about". Marketing is all about getting attention, and trade shows are full of sound, noise, and attendees become overloaded. If you're going to make the effort to attend, try to be different. At Netoria we dressed our booth staff in outrageous Mambo loud shirts, and got huge amounts of attention at every event. Note that getting attention doesn't mean "booth babes" in skimpy clothing - you're going to turn off many of the audience (even if you personally like that type of thing).
At every tradeshow you have a chance to make a great initial impression with a new customer, partner, investor, press, analyst etc - like every marketing activity, make sure you know the goals and how you will measure success, and then put your best into creating the right impression.