Travel, Schmavel – Get Your Leads at Virtual Trade Shows

Exhibiting at traditional trade shows is one of the most common marketing tactics used by companies targeting the industrial and manufacturing marketplace. The opportunity for direct engagement with prospects, customers and other vendors who could be potential partners or customers is invaluable. And the opportunity to “shake hands” with key clients, thanking them for their business, is often perceived as priceless.

On the flip side, exhibiting tends to have the highest cost of other marketing alternatives when factoring in space fees; booth setup; storage and shipping costs; associated communications and promotion; and travel, meal and lodging expenses. It’s also a challenge to tangibly and quickly prove return on investment, as exhibitors have very real time and logistic demands from the show that can impact timely attendee follow-up.

It’s not surprising that the worldwide economic situation has led to many companies having both scaled-back budgets and staffs, creating a very real decline in attendance and in exhibitors at many industrial shows. The challenges facing the traditional trade show market have only been exacerbated by the additional issues of travel woes and hassles due to the scaling back of flight choices, the continued dominance of the Web as a primary research vehicle, and the explosion of social media options.

These realities have created a “perfect storm” opportunity for the emergence of virtual trade shows or online events as a viable alternative or supplement to attendees and exhibitors alike.

Comfort Zone

Almost everyone is comfortable interacting online today. People attend webinars and view video presentations, they earn online university degrees or certifications, comment on blogs and rate products, and engage in social networking via Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

Industrial professionals are no different, and they have largely migrated online for work-related purposes. Online events are an emerging option for these professionals to gain the information and insight they require for their jobs, without many of the downsides associated with traditional trade shows.

For attendees, online events

  • provide opportunities to interact with suppliers in a comfortable online environment;
  • give quick access to information from multiple related vendors in a centralized manner;
  • eliminate the hassle and expense of travel, hotels, meals, and time away from the office;
  • offer a wide array of educational and professional opportunities; and
  • enable attendees to easily abandon the event if it doesn’t meet their needs or expectations (marketers take note).

For marketers, online events

  • provide many of the benefits of location-based events, including branding exposure and lead generation at a fraction of the cost and hassle;
  • help reach a targeted, yet broad and global audience;
  • offer the convenience and productivity of allowing exhibitors to remain in the office at a computer while hosting and managing an event;
  • generate important and relevant sales lead information on attendees, such as their interest area and online activity, in a timely and organized fashion;
  • position companies as thought leaders; and
  • free marketers from promotional items and giveaways (no more booth visitors feigning interest just to collect the goodies!)

Online trade shows can be highly interactive, allowing attendees to visit suppliers’ “booths,” chat with suppliers, participate in discussions, and access content such as white papers and collateral. Much like traditional trade shows, these events provide the opportunity for one-on-one conversations with attendees, and many attendees of virtual events gain a sense of empowerment and comfort from the ability to interact with you the way they prefer — online, at their own desks.

Event Planning

Before exhibiting at an online trade show, determine which content will be most valuable for attendees — such as white papers, data sheets, and other collateral — just as you would for a location-based event. Also, line up the people who will staff the booth and interact with attendees. Then, be sure to choose a virtual event that offers the following:

  • targeted marketing to attract the right attendees to the event;
  • opportunities for visible branding within the virtual environment;
  • rich opportunities for audience engagement, such as online chat, real-time Q&As, online panel discussions;
  • tools for attendees to interact with each other;
  • tracking and reporting of attendees’ online booth activity, allowing exhibitors to discover areas of interest; and
  • complete intelligence reports on attendees with full contact information and other relevant data for sales team follow-up.

Exhibiting at an online trade show is in many ways like exhibiting at a traditional location-based event, complete with multiple vendors showcasing their products and services, branding visibility, and interaction with a target audience. Of course, there are no travel costs or time away from the office — for you or your attendees.

Are there tradeoffs? Sure — a chance to be face-to-face with an existing or potential customer or the opportunity for someone to see your products “in action” are two big ones, and virtual experiences will never replace those in-person opportunities.

However, the economic, time and resource benefits of virtual trade shows and online events are too big to pass up.

Brian Carter, senior vice president, sales for GlobalSpec, is responsible for leading operational and strategic sales and customer service initiatives. He can be reached at [email protected].

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