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Trade Shows After the Pandemic


Trade shows and scientific meetings are a place to showcase current products, introduce new ones, and efficiently meet large volumes of customers. It is a place where companies often invest a significant portion of their marketing budget. But for years customers have been increasingly turning to digital sources for product information and exhibiting has become a less effective method of lead generation. In addition, attendance at trade shows will certainly drop for a while as a result of the pandemic, and may never come back at the same scale. So how do you replace the trade show? How do you redeploy marketing budget money to get the best ROI.

As you weigh your options don’t start with what you want to accomplish at the trade show – start with what your customers want to accomplish. That is generally four things – education, networking and building community, updates on new products, and have a little fun doing it.

Providing education is one of the easiest things to do remotely, particularly by offering webinars – either live or pre-recorded. Filling in for the trade show means this education needs to be on important topics of general interest, not just on your product. If you sell a diagnostic or therapy to detect or treat a specific medical condition, then make the education about new approaches or decision-making pathways for treating that patient population. Find an expert in the field to give the workshop they would have given at a cancelled or scaled down trade show. Bonus points if you can offer continuing education credits for necessary for licensure, etc. Put a product call to action in the program, but keep it subtle.

Advertising live webinar events builds brand awareness even to those who do not attend live, and taping the webinars creates a nice piece of content going forward. Other opportunities to provide education include white papers, and curated collections of published articles, case studies, blog posts, and how-to videos and e-books. Pick a few options and do them well, diverting trade show budget to pay for superb production and experts in the field. Share and advertise on-line, in social media by email or even snail mail. If you are offering something of genuine value customers will not perceive it as Spam.

Trade shows provide three types of community building for attendees. One is the opportunity to rub elbows with superstars and thought leaders or build their own reputation as an expert. Two is to catch up with old friends and associates. Three is to be immersed in a group of people who have the same interests, worries and day to day experiences. Stay plugged in to the social media communities your customers use whether on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, etc. Remember these are communities of individuals, so if you actively post have it be a designated individual, preferably someone with primarily educational or technical responsibilities. Avoid posts that are not-so-subtle ads for your product. Don't be the guest at the dinner party who tries to sell everyone life insurance.

A big part of trade shows are dinners, parties, competitions and other social events. Customers often do not expect or want companies to be the pivot point for informal social and networking gatherings. Even at live trade shows attracting attendees to exhibitor sponsored events can be a challenge. However, the post-coronavirus comfort level with videoconferencing might open up some new opportunities, particularly in the void of cancelled events. Maybe offer to host an on-line cocktail hour for a regional association meeting or training program alumni group that got cancelled. Sponsor the traditional fun run as a virtual event with runners sending in their scores from neighborhood runs and treadmills, or even change it up to an on-line step competition. Associations that sponsor trade shows will be looking for creative ways to keep their traditions alive and being part of the solution builds relationship with both customers and the association.

Product promotion can be done subtly in all the education pieces, and anything sponsored or supported drives brand and brand awareness. However, there is also opportunity to do traditional promotion through advertising and education. Make sure your website product pages are up to date and interesting, since this may be taking the place of your fancy exhibit booth for awhile. Run product campaigns that are a little more over the top. Think of all the silly and high production value stuff you do to drive traffic to your trade show booth and put that creativity and money into digital campaigns and even direct mail.

For many years trade shows have been losing their potency as a place to reach customers and introduce products. The coronavirus pandemic will certainly accelerate their decline. But every disruption of the status quo creates new opportunities. The winners will be those who can move fast and effectively to be first-movers with a new approach, and make it last.

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