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How to Create Buzz and New Business at a Trade Show

By Elizabeth Sullivan and Burkey Belser
September 13, 2017
How to Create Buzz and New Business at a Trade Show

Usually, we celebrate our clients’ successes, but this month, we’re celebrating one of our own because we believe it will be instructive for you. Recently, we went to the annual meeting of the American Society of Association Executives in Toronto as an exhibitor. Despite having participated in shows just like this for 30 years, we’ve never flipped all the switches for a trade show, and shame on us. The return on investment for our efforts this year was off the charts. By the end of the show we had 197 business cards (relationships) and four RFPs after two days on our feet. Here’s how we did it.

You have only one goal.

We had been going ‘round and ‘round about our goals for the conference: get the messaging right, meet new people, create a splash, but suddenly, for no reason at all, we realized there was only one goal: get a business card or the equivalent contact information. Everything else was secondary. It’s taken all these years for us to understand that we purely and simply want a contact, a potential lead. Not a sale. Awesome thought to get a whale, but catching whales immediately is either rare or just dumb luck. What we realized we needed to do was establish contact so we could nurture a lead. Think of it as a seed in your hand, unplanted, wanting life; but a seed is a success. Jack traded an entire cow for three seeds—the promise was that valuable. All the other data entering your calculations? Forget them. Get the seed. The seed can feed you for a lifetime. We’re not asking you to lower your ambition. Far from it. We’re asking you to get smart and put one foot in front of the other. Just. Get. The. Seed. An utterly simple goal clarifies everything.

ASAE - 250 boxes

Engage the attendee. Make a trade.

It follows that if the only goal is to get the business card and a few moments of time, you need a darned good offer to lure the exhibit-goer, because the classic course of an exhibit hall visitor is to walk the center line between booths without eye contact and a stoic display of indifference. If two or more are walking together, they’ve got each other’s flank. It becomes even harder to breach the wall.

Typically, in our booth, we lead with thought leadership—a report or paper on a topic of particular interest to our client. And, in fact, that works very well. An aggressive booth minder can peddle those from the edge of the booth and most will politely accept the gift of information. A personable booth minder can even engage a portion of passers-by with tidbits from the research, but this rarely results in a visitor willingly handing you their business card. It will still be a bit of a tug of war. In years past, this has been our typical MO. At the end of a two-day conference we might have 30 or 40 business cards. Not bad…and we would pat each other on the back. But not off the charts, either.

So, what could we trade? Hang on, because our answer turned out to have several layers, but let’s start with the obvious: something of value. We didn’t have the budget that would allow us to give away a blockbuster gift like an iPhone, for example. And, anyway, you’ve got an iPhone. So, we researched what piece of technology (because this relates to our brand) was predicted to be the hottest seller in the coming year. Bingo. Amazon’s Echo, Apple’s HomePod and Google’s Home. One of those gifts would be appealing and we could stay in our price range. 

Still, why would a single Echo, for example, inspire anyone to engage with us? And once that was won or given away, we would wind up standing in our booth like the proverbial bumps on a log. So, we chose the Echo Dot that was cheaper. We bought three of them. We should have bought five, but who knew?

As a brand design firm with deep roots in technology, the Echo Dot answered part of the brand challenge but not the whole thing. We had an appealing giveaway but nothing to wrap it in. Imagine, “O, hey, yeah, here’s your Dot. You’re welcome.” But how could we make the brand connection between the Dot and Greenfield Belser?

That’s when Joe Walsh, one of our creative directors, went back to our website to remind us of an image on our own homepage—bees buzzing around an iPhone announcing “compelling content results in a beeline to your door.” He had earlier reworded this headline for a proposal to read, “buzzworthy brands attract and keep clients.” Change “clients” to “members” and we had our creative direction: bees buzzing around an iPhone with “buzzworthy brands attract and keep members.” Voila!

Good start. The right goal. The right message. The right draw. But, yeah, seriously, so what?

Everyone loves a contest.

Exhibitors have come to believe everyone loves contests as a truism without asking what’s behind it. Does everyone love every contest? Well, no. We’ll never get it completely right. We were making progress, no doubt. The iPhone and bees delivered a beautiful backdrop—the stage set for our show. We had settled on a gift—what most Americans wanted this coming year. But we had not solved how to engage all attendees. Probably most exhibitors would have quit right about here, dusted their hands and moved on. We kept pushing. There’s a sign in our office, a simple graph, a line with 0% on one end and 100% on the other. In the middle is 95%. That’s where most folks call it quits. They believe they are 95% there, close enough, but in fact they are only halfway. That’s the difference—that five percent—between good and great.

We decided a hexagonal box, not a shoebox, would keep close to the creative idea and the brand expression. So, we set off in search of boxes. Where do you go? I’ll bet everything turns up Alibaba.com, but usually a purchase requires 50,000 boxes (or pins or flowers or whatever) as a minimum order. Fortunately, we found affordable boxes that were, on inspection, perfect! We would hide our Amazon Echo Dots in these boxes, 7” x 7” x 3”.

We discovered in our solution a formula for success we did not realize at the time: the element of mystery. Perhaps it was the element of chance. Or maybe it was both. No matter what, we would not tell attendees what was in the box. They had to choose one in exchange for their business card. In this magic box was an opportunity to win an Amazon Echo Dot, period. The box was big enough to pique their interest, a kind of miniature hatbox. Size matters, we think, but we’re not sure. You might be able to pull this off with a smaller box, but the size of the box was definitely an indicator of its importance as well as the importance we placed on the prize.

Now, if the visitor picked up the box and found one heavier than the other, he or she would have known immediately they were a winner. We had to disguise the winners. So, no Dots got boxed. (I love that sentence. You can pause and reread it if you like.) Just the Willy Wonka golden ticket got boxed. 297 boxes contained a “So sad, don’t be mad,” while only three contained, “CONGRATULATIONS, YOU’RE A WINNER!”

That got us to thinking about the not-winners. We didn’t want them to feel like losers. Imagine hundreds of losers chanting our firm’s name throughout the conference, feeling bad. We had to take control of the negative emotion that comes with not winning the prize. Ever think of that? “O, poo, I didn’t win. I neither love you nor hate you but I will erase this moment from my mind, thanks.” We designed a card that said, “Darn, that stings,” to express the emotion of not winning, followed by, “But we wanted to leave you with something sweet…” It was perfect. Not-winners (totally different from “losers”) were delighted and appreciated the honey sticks we put in the box as a substitute. Did individuals feel like they missed the brass ring? Sure, but they were quickly redirected to, “Hey, it was only a one-in-many chance anyway and I got honey sticks, not nothing, and they care about me and my emotion.”

People first.

What we loved most of all, as we stacked our boxes in honeycomb fashion as high as practicable (before instant collapse), was the care with which people chose their boxes potentially collapsing the honeycomb. By the time half the boxes were gone, we had no idea where the winners were. We refused to hand them a box because we did not want to take responsibility for the “loss.” “Go ahead, pick a box,” was our mantra. They picked from the top, the bottom, the middle, the back and the front. Hope springs eternal and that was when we realized we had found a human formula for a human event. Chance is just that…chance. There was in this choosing both delight and mystery, both opportunity and missed opportunity, both gain and loss.

Design matters.

At the end of day one, a nearby exhibitor came by to ask why we were so successful with lines at our booth when they had none. Was it the mystery of what was in the box? The experience overall? Or the design of the box itself? Perceptive questions, and while we answered quickly, we answered too quickly. In the end, our instant answer was probably the right one: all three.

Social and other marketing.

ASAE is smart and a complete marketing machine on its own. We were given the names of registrants, regularly updated, with a single chance to communicate before, and once after, the show. We sent out an e-blast the Monday before the show inviting folks to come see us. It’s tough to measure the impression even the best promotion makes. We hit with astonishing ferocity. But we also peek at emails in our space around events we are about to attend. Some who showed up at our booth quoted us unwittingly because the phrasing could only have been ours. Email works. 

We also created blog posts for a week leading up to the event and a week following. That sentence was way too short, failing to “admire the problem” as some say. Daily blog posts were developed on a grid and targeted to hit our most prized visitors as a friendly deluge. We hit Instagram, LinkedIn and Facebook. We were relentless. Our team worked in the background posting material even if it was just silly and trivial. We were chattering like a set of teeth wound up and walking across the kitchen floor. Remember: Just. Get. The. Seed.

In the end.

Could any one of our efforts have been neglected in this promotion? Probably not. Could any one have been improved? You bet. We just don’t know which one. Marketers who chose to advertise a belly band around the daily newspaper of the conference were smart, we thought. We hate those damned things but I noticed. We even read them as we stepped over them on the floor after being ripped from the paper. (No, we have no dog in this fight. Just saying.) With enough time, money and commitment from the top, we could probably nail this conference. But we were happy with what our results because we never quit until we felt we had our bases covered. We followed our goal through every emotion. You won’t read that sentence often but you should commit it to memory. There’s gold there. You’ll be pleased to know that at breakfast the morning of the first day of the conference, one of us leaned in and confessed to our colleague, “What if no one takes a box? What will we say?”