8 Common trade show mistakes (and how to avoid them)
“Everyone makes mistakes” is a saying for a reason. No matter how much time and prep work you pour into your upcoming trade show appearance, you’re bound to stumble now and again.
And that’s okay. With every trade show you attend, you’ll have the opportunity to tweak your approach so you can maximize your time and boost your return on investment.
What you don’t want to do is make costly, avoidable mistakes that result in wasted time and money—and potentially even harm your brand.
That’s why we’ve rounded up the 8 most common trade show mistakes exhibitors tend to make. In this blog, you’ll uncover tips and solutions for avoiding these pitfalls so you can zoom past the competition and experience the ultimate trade show success.
Common trade show mistake #1: Not establishing specific and measurable goals
Nearly every company has the following goals:
Convert leads into customers
But if you’re heading to a trade show without having established specific and measurable goals, your staff won’t know where to focus their efforts. This can result in a trade show effort that’s largely disjointed, ineffective, and perhaps even confusing for your customers.
Specific — Clearly defined with little room for confusion
Measurable — Tied to a specific number you can track and measure
Attainable — Realistic and achievable
Relevant — Applicable within the current climate of your industry
Timely — Based on a specific time frame
Why are SMART goals important? First of all, they help guide your marketing efforts. They provide the framework for measuring your results and determining the success of your trade show exhibit.
They also help you determine whether the show was a valuable use of your time (and one you should return to next year) and whether there are tweaks you need to make in your sales and marketing strategies so you can have the best shot at success.
Common trade show mistake #2: Choosing the wrong show for your goals and audience
There’s no way around it—trade shows are expensive for exhibitors. From renting your booth space and designing your display to travel, shipping, and storage costs, there are a lot of costs to unpack.
When you exhibit at a show where your target audience is in attendance, you have unlimited opportunity to interact with potential leads, establish new relationships (and build upon existing ones), shorten your sales cycle, and retain repeat business. You’ll feel excited about the prospect of following up with leads and inspired to optimize your sales and marketing strategies.
But when you funnel your time, money, and energy into the wrong trade show, you end up wasting your budget and resources. A bad trade show investment can drain your energy and dampen your enthusiasm for future shows.
In the meantime, here’s an overview of the key questions you should ask before committing to a space at an unfamiliar show:
Is the trade show well established within our industry?
Has it attracted a decent number of attendees in years past?
Do our competitors attend the show? (If yes, will we be able to set ourselves apart?)
Do we expect our target audience to be in attendance?
Are the sessions, workshops, and speakers relevant?
Common trade show mistake #3: Going too cheap on your trade show display
It can be tempting to rent a generic trade show booth in an attempt to save some money. You can bypass the cost of hiring professionals to design your booth from scratch and you won’t have to factor in certain logistical costs, such as storage.
Maybe you’re willing to invest in a custom trade show design company, but you’re tempted to go with a cheaper agency that has mediocre reviews. They can’t be that bad if they’re still in business, right?
Here’s the truth: if you’re not willing to invest in your business, your prospects won’t be willing to invest in you. A poorly designed trade show exhibit is as obvious to potential customers as it is to you. Not only will a bad display fail to help you attract qualified leads, but it can actively damage your reputation.
How to fix it
A well-designed, strategic, and eye-catching display will enable you to showcase your products and services in a way that deeply resonates with your target audience.
A quality custom trade show exhibit company will work with you from start to finish, using their design expertise and years of experience to refine your initial concepts and ideas. They can design and build a booth that presents a truly magical experience for your prospects.
If you need more convincing to invest in your booth, consider these additional benefits of custom trade show exhibits:
You can tailor every aspect to accurately represent your brand and connect with potential leads. Customize everything from the dimensions, floor plan, and technology to the type of flooring, lighting, and graphics.
Your custom trade show exhibit company will take care of the logistics for you. The team you hire will design and build your display, transport it to the trade show venue, assemble it, and stick around to troubleshoot any issues. At the conclusion of the show, they’ll disassemble it for you and transport it back to the warehouse.
Custom exhibits can be more cost-effective for frequent exhibitors. Sure, they require a more significant up-front investment, but you can use them over and over and modify your display as needed to match the audience of each show you attend.
Common trade show mistake #4: Creating cluttered or unappealing graphics
Trade show attendees are bombarded with messages from the moment they walk through the doors.
It’s hard enough to get your graphics to stand out in the sea of lights, banners, colors, and noise when they’re well-designed and strategically placed. If your graphics are too busy, poorly made, littered with error, or just generally unappealing, your prospects will walk right past them.
After all, your competitors are right next door.
How to fix it
Luckily, there are plenty of design strategies you can use to ensure your graphics effectively communicate your message and entice passersby to stop by your booth and learn more.
Keep your copy concise. Showcase your company name and logo and list your unique selling points via bullet points. But save the finer details for your product brochures and one-on-one discussions. Utilize plenty of whitespace to help balance your designs.
Stick to two or three colors and no more than three different fonts. Colors should be bright enough to attract attention and fonts should be sans serif and easy to read.
Get feedback on your designs before you move to the print stage. It’s always helpful to take a step back from your design and get another set of eyes on it. Your fellow team members can help you spot spelling and grammatical errors and make suggestions on where you can improve.
Ensure the quality of your graphics is up to par. Don’t risk damaging your reputation on a last-minute print job. Choose a reputable print house with solid reviews. Have your marketing materials printed early enough that you can correct any inconsistencies in color or quality. Ensure all your panels perfectly align.
Common trade show mistake #5: Not taking advantage of the opportunity to check out your competitors
Trade show visitors frequently attend shows to learn about new developments in the industry, establish relationships with vendors, and find solutions to the issues they’re experiencing.
But what many trade show exhibitors fail to realize is that these shows are the perfect opportunity for them to do the same.
We know it can be tempting to stay in your booth, surrounded by familiar people and products, waiting for prospects to come to you. But when you fail to explore the trade show floor for yourself, you miss out on a real chance to discover what the competition is up to and how your company can improve.
How to fix it
Here are just a few benefits of exploring the other exhibits, attending seminars, and mingling with the crowd:
Stay up-to-date on your competitors’ products, marketing strategies, and technology. Make sure you’re keeping up with the competition and discover new ways to improve.
Learn about the latest industry trends and the newest technology. If you know where your industry is headed, you can make the adjustments necessary to stay ahead of the game.
Get inspired. When you do the same work day in and day out, it’s easy to lose that spark of creativity that initially drove you. When you walk the trade show floor, you’ll discover innovative solutions that will inspire you to upgrade and streamline your own business processes.
Network with fellow exhibitors. Not everyone will be your direct competition. When you walk around and talk to other people in the industry, you open the door to establishing new affiliate relationships and strategic business partnerships.
Find deals. Many exhibitors will be offering discounts, deals, and incentives that could save you money down the line.
Common trade show mistake #6: Not properly training your staff
One common mistake is sending your newest staff member to represent your company at the show. Another is assuming your staff members are prepared to exhibit just because they’re knowledgeable about your products and company.
If you don’t invest time and resources in training your staff, you run the risk of failing to connect with your visitors. At best, your representatives might waste the opportunity to establish new relationships and generate leads. At worst, they might give your company a bad name.
How to fix it
Choose representatives who are charismatic, outgoing, knowledgeable, and articulate. Provide them with talking points they can use as a starting point in their conversations with potential leads.
Make sure they know they can’t just stand in the shadows and wait for trade show attendees to approach them; they must have the skills required to start conversations and entice prospects to visit your booth.
Ensure your staff is well-groomed and wears attire that clearly identifies them as members of your team.
Finally, provide each staff member with the following list of “don’ts”:
Don’t sit down in the booth. This displays a general lack of interest and energy.
Don’t talk or text on your cell phone. Personal calls should be made on your break where prospects can’t see you.
Don’t chew gum or eat at the booth. This reeks of unprofessionalism.
Don’t ever leave the booth unattended. Not only does an empty booth appear abandoned, but you might miss out on a great new lead.
Don’t underestimate the importance of proper hygiene. No one wants to smell bad breath or greasy hair during a one-on-one discussion.
Common trade show mistake #7: Failing to properly qualify leads
Another common mistake is to assume everyone is a potential lead. People attend trade shows for a variety of reasons, and not all of them will be a good fit for your product or service. If you spend time trying to sell to people who aren’t quality leads, you’ll miss out on spending time with people who are.
How to fix it
Prior to the trade show, you’ll need to establish a system for capturing and qualifying leads. Common lead-capturing tactics include filling out paper forms, collecting business cards, and scanning visitor badges.
However, these methods can be slow and inefficient. You need to be able to gather information quickly so you can move toward a solution. You also need the ability to take notes so you can craft personalized follow-up emails after the show.
You should also prepare a list of questions to ask potential prospects, such as:
What are your objectives for attending the show?
What types of products or services are you looking for?
What issues are you facing that are holding you back from reaching your goals?
If you don’t solve these issues, how will it impact your business?
What product or service are you currently using? What do you like about it and what would you change?
Common trade show mistake #8: Failing to follow up with leads
Following up with the leads you generated at the show is perhaps the most important (and obvious) factor in determining your trade show success. And yet many companies fail to do so.
In fact, when Salesforce founder Brian Jeffrey hired someone to distribute business cards to exhibitors at a major industry trade show, he found that 85% of exhibitors didn't bother following up—even though the person he hired explicitly asked them to.
Of the 15% that reached out after the show, some took over 50 days to do so. “By that time,” Jeffrey asserts, “any interest a prospect might have had would be long dead.”
How to fix it
To avoid making this common mistake (and essentially throwing your entire trade show investment in the garbage), follow these 3 tips:
Make sure your trade show booth representatives understand what you expect from them. Encourage your staff to focus on obtaining quality leads, rather than obtaining sales. The heavy focus on the immediate sale can overwhelm visitors who are still in the “awareness” or “consideration” stage of the sales funnel and turn them off to your brand entirely.
Prior to the show, establish a system for following up with the leads you’ll capture. Prepare different email templates for each type of lead. Before you send an email, personalize it with your lead’s name and the product or service they’re most likely to be interested in based on the information you gathered at the show.
Measure the results of your follow-up efforts. To do so, you’ll need to track key performance indicators like email open rate, click-through rate, conversion rate, and return on investment.