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Why do some exhibitors fail to grasp this point?

Trade Shows…The Original Social Media Marketing Platform
The concept of a trade show is as old as the bazaars in Persia dating back to the 7th or 8th century. When you think about it, an institution that has thrived for centuries must have something going for it. And it does. According to a Wikipedia entry, “Social media refers to the means of interactions among people in which they create, share, and exchange information and ideas in virtual communities and networks.” Remove the word “virtual” and you have a pretty good definition of a trade show.

Trade shows have been a vital element in my business career. In the early 70’s my partners and I were young, eager and pretty naïve when it came to product development. We actually thought that the credit card imprinting machines that we made (you know, those old zip-zap, knuckle-busters used to record a credit card transaction) were pretty good. Actually, they were not. We had four North American competitors, two of which were Fortune 500 companies. The two other competitors were no slouches either.

Our machines were manufactured in assorted (sordid?) venues: my studio apartment in New York’s Yorkville neighborhood, the basement of Claremont Liquors, the basement of a Queens bingo parlor, a former stable, a barn on the East End of Long Island…you get the picture. Our “assembly line” workers included many of the regulars at O’Brian’s Tavern, at the time a Yorkville institution. Among the crew, an out of work stockbroker, a semi-employed actor, a lawyer and my partners, Ed O’Reilly and Alan Heftman.

The odds would appear to have been stacked against us. In fact, they were. But we beat the odds, in good part due to our success at trade shows. On a shoestring, we built a very profitable $9 million business (about $15 million in current dollars).

Trade shows represented a big risk for us. We had very little money for marketing. Our collateral material was less than brilliant. Our booth was built in house and it showed. As mentioned, our product was not first-rate…or even second-rate. Third-rate? O.K., third-rate. Going in, we didn’t have industry contacts. Yet trade shows proved to be a major factor in our success.

The key was relationships that we formed with other exhibitors. Our fellow exhibitors, the ones not competing with us, proved to be extremely important to our success. We socialized with them, enjoying one another’s company. We had fun. We formed friendships.

As a consequence, established, well regarded exhibitors introduced us to their friends/customers who quite often were our potential customers. These potential customers made suggestions on how we could improve our products. Eventually, many of them became loyal customers.

When the exhibit floor closed each day, many of our competitors went to their rooms, turned on the TV and called room service. We, on the other hand, readily accepted the invitations of the “old hands” among the exhibitors to join their merry band. We had fun, formed friendships that have endured and got an entrée into bank credit card departments that probably would not have otherwise been open to us.

That is why I view a trade show as “social media”. Meeting people on the web is fine. Social media on the web is here to stay, rightfully so, but nothing  beats face-to-face.

What takes place on the trade show floor is only half the battle (and not even half the fun). The social aspects of a trade show should never be overlooked. You want trade show sales leads? Take a sincere interest in your fellow exhibitors. Socialize with them. Help them with sales leads.

One last thing (a little self-promotion): Be prepared to keep track of the relationships your form, the leads that you get. The best way to do so is to make use of a tool that’s always with you, your mobile phone. With your phone and a lead retrieval app, you will be able to keep detailed track of the new relationships you form. It only takes a moment to make a voice-to-text note, to take a photo, to capture contact information. As I have pointed out in previous posts, one lead could be worth millions.

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