By Susan Tatum

Gene Sower of Samson Media at the BJ Biz Expo trade show.If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard a CFO rant about the high cost and no measurable results of trade shows, I’d have, well honestly, I’d have about 10 bucks. But the point is: the CFOs may be right.

There’s no doubt about it, trade shows can be a huge black hole for marketing investments. However, I’ve learned that, when handled correctly, trade shows can be a very good marketing tool – and they are experiencing a surge in popularity after the post-bubble, post-911 crash in attendance.

Here are 8 keys to making trade shows work for you:

  • Do it for the right reasons. Trade shows are a great place to get face-to-face with both your customers and your prospects. The same is true for media, industry analysts, investors and even suppliers. On the other hand, participating in a trade show just because a) you always have, b) your competitors are, or c) you’re afraid everyone will think you’re in financial trouble if you aren’t there is not a good way to invest marketing dollars.
  • Pick the right show(s). Be sure the show attracts the people who are part of the buying process at your target customer. Check with show management to see who’s expected to attend, sure; but also ask your customers and prospects which shows they attend. Audiences change. So, even though a particular show may have delivered a good audience for you in the past doesn’t mean it still does.
  • Invest in some pre-show marketing. The trade show organizers will conduct a marketing campaign to build attendance for the event, but that won’t necessarily get the right prospects to your booth. I’ve found that direct mail, email, telemarketing and press releases are great avenues for giving prospects a reason to see you at the show.
  • Go for quality. Meeting a handful of well-qualified prospects is infinitely more important for your future sales than collecting the names of 100 people who could care less about your product or service.
  • Capture the right data. This is a great opportunity to find out as much as you can about the prospect or customer’s needs. Many of our clients use it as an opportunity to conduct brief surveys. In any case, a fish bowl of business cards with no notes attached makes qualifying and categorizing leads back at the office a daunting task.
  • Follow up! Research (and experience) shows that an astonishing number of trade show exhibitors never follow up with booth visitors – even if the visitor requested additional information. What a waste.
  • Qualify leads before passing them to the sales team. This may be the greatest secret of trade show success: Do not dump trade show “leads” onto the sales force. Only those prospects who qualify as “hot” (by your company’s own definition) should be sent to sales. Put the others into the marketing pool for on-going development.
  • Measure results. This will give your CFO something to be happy about.

Trade shows wouldn’t be my first choice as a lead generation tool. But once the primary tactics are in place, they do have a role in a well-integrated marketing system. Good enough that they shouldn’t be ignored.

Susan Tatum, co-founder of is a recognized expert in business-to-business marketing. She has been helping companies achieve greater marketing results for more than two decades.