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Most Marketers Suck at Trade Shows. Here's Why.

Trade Show Marketing is....

Some marketers will hint at it. Others are evasive. Then there are those who are honest. They don't understand trade show marketing. That's not surprising. It's rarely taught in college either on the undergraduate or graduate level. At best, it's mentioned in passing in a textbook. How do I know? After earning an MBA, I went to work for an exhibit builder. On Day 1, I was clueless.

I'd love to say that trade show marketing is marketing... but that's not entirely true. It's odder, less compact, and more unpredictable than other forms of marketing. And, depending on the company, it can be more difficult to measure results.

That doesn't mean that marketers can't understand trade shows. Obviously they can. But it requires recognizing it as a specialized form of marketing and learning from those with years of experience. You can't "wing it" and be successful at trade shows.

3D vs. 2D Marketing

Marketing has traditionally been 2D -- print, television, brochures, websites, etc. It's static, controllable, and familiar. On the other hand, trade show marketing adds human interaction in a temporary, somewhat uncontrollable environment.

It's about creating conversations, before, during, and after the show. Does that make it more sales than marketing? More technical than schmooze? It depends on the show, the exhibitor's booth staff, and the always random attendee who enters your exhibit.   

Then there's the booth design. That's outside most marketers comfort zone, and the dollars involved make it even scarier. It's easy to panic when the costs begin to hit six digits for a modest island exhibit.

Variable Measurements

Unlike print, television, or web ads, there are no standards or no reliable source for subscriptions, ratings, or clicks. Counting leads works, but it's a crude measurement. More sophisticated exhibitors track pre-show promotions, leads, and sales through the entire sales channel, but they are the exception.

That's not to say tracking ROI is either impossible or not worthwhile. Given the cost of trade shows, it's essential. There isn't a CEO or CFO who doesn't want to know how much the show cost vs. how many sales it generated. Every company measures their success differently. The key is to choose one that can be measured.

It doesn't have to be sales. It can be pre-scheduled appointments in the booth, completed surveys, or total attendees at presentations. For some exhibitors, it's less about the trade show floor than about the show's education sessions. 


Trade shows are the ultimate competitive sport when it comes to marketing. It's the one time you and your competitors are all in the same room, all vying for attention with the same audience. You see what they're doing... and vice versa. That can be intimidating, especially if your trade show skills are sketchy.

Uncontrollable Variables

No one likes unpredictability when it comes to their marketing campaign and implementation. Yet, despite one's best efforts, trade shows can be chaotic. Freight doesn't arrive on time. Items are broken. Flights are cancelled. An exhibitor on the far side of the exhibit hall is giving away beer and sandwiches. The exhibitor nearest you has their music so loud you can't talk to potential clients without shouting.

You can't anticipate every unknown, but planning, experience, and a cool head goes a long way to minimizing the "Oh shit!" moments. That's when the true marketer earns their pay, turning lemons into lemonade.


Most medium-sized companies participate in two to five trade shows per year. Some as few as one. That makes it challenging to become an expert quickly. Plus, each show may not only have a different audience, but also different rules, layout, and resources. Too often, just when the internal "expert" understands how to maximize the company's trade show efforts that person is assigned to other responsibilities. Then someone new has to start fresh.

Sales and Marketing

Before, during, and after a trade show, sales and marketing must be partners at dance. You're a team. Face-to-face marketing requires sales skills and marketing expertise perfectly choreographed. And no matter how much sales and marketing claim to play nice, there's always a wall at most companies. It's that wall that dooms most exhibitors from fully benefiting from their trade show program.

So how do you become an expert at trade show marketing? Four tips.

  1. Go to trade shows as often as possible as an attendee. Ask questions and listen to what works and what doesn't. Plus, be willing to take classes at industry events about trade show marketing, even if you goal isn't to become a trade show certified manager.
  2. Rely on your local trade show professional. If they only know how to sell you a display, but not how to succeed at trade show marketing, then find someone else.
  3. Tap into industry consultants. These folks know how to avoid the potholes and the meandering paths so often taken by trade show exhibitors. You can find them in LinkedIn, Google, or simply ask your local vendor.
  4. Plan to succeed. Create a comprehensive plan that targets pre-show, show, and post-show marketing and put specific goals in place for each one.

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For more information about trade show or event marketing, give us a call or Contact Us. We welcome the opportunity to assist you with your next event. 

Article Author:

Mel White, CEI