How to Win at Tech Conferences and Trade Shows

March 15, 2017


I have never EVER walked away from a technology trade show or event empty-handed. By this I mean the following:


I have secured at least one valuable partnership, had a profitable order placed, or received a job offer as a direct result of every single conference and event I have attended — sometimes even when I wasn’t trying. And I am still gaining opportunities and clients from trade shows I attended more than a decade ago.


I guess you could say that I “win at conferences.”


I do not say this as a boast. In fact, just the opposite. When I reflect back on that statement, I am humbled by it. But the question becomes why or how, right? For years I didn't know the answer. In fact, I never gave it much thought. But I think that I've figured it out. 


I've Been Around

I have lost count of how many tech conferences and trade shows I’ve been to in my career — small ones, large ones, and gigantic ones all over the world. I am certain that it numbers in the hundreds by now. Perhaps more important to the point is that I have attended in all capacities. I have been:

  • An attendee.

  • An exhibitor.

  • A speaker.

  • A sponsor.

  • A contract producer of collateral materials.

  • And now, as a part of my work, I get to help put them on with my own unique points of contribution.

That’s just about everything, right? I suppose that the only thing left is for me to physically build the conference centers myself. The point is that I have participated in a lot shows and seen them from all sides. In all that experience, I did not set out to determine what works or use complex analytics to discern the proper ratios and success mertics. I think that I just stumbled upon it naturally.  


I was having a discussion with one of my customers about various trade shows and events and he asked me for my advice .... he wanted to know my secrets to being successful at events. I thought about it a lot, and this is what I came up with.


What are NOT the Secrets to Success at Technology Trade Shows

Others may disagree, but in my opinion and experience, success is:


NOT about giving away tchotchkes and “swag” — All those branded USB drives and squeezable stress balls are fun and even collectible. And yes, they can really help with your product branding and be a conversation ice-breaker. They are tools, but tools are not enough.


NOT about booth babes and celebrities — Yes, strategically placing attractive people and/or celebrities in your booth will get attention. It might even draw a crowd. But that attention is tenuous and fleeting. When the beautiful and famous people go home, the attention dries up like water in the desert. It all still comes down to you and all those other “normal” people.


NOT about contests — If you offer up a drawing for the latest game console, Apple iPad, or hot ticket to a rock-concert you will get everyone — and I mean EVERYONE — dropping their business card into your fishbowl for a chance to win. Congratulations! Now what?


NOT about software platforms — We all love technology and automation. But even the most sophisticated customer relationship management system (CRM) or sales funnel cannot automate human interaction, manage relationships, or establish a reputation.


What Winning Means

Business success is often measured in Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). So, before we review my secrets to technology show success, let’s start with my personal KPIs for every conference and trade event that I go to.


Winning KPI #1

This is a long-term game. If you are only thinking about the deals you close today, you are already losing. Individual contacts and sales are tactical victories. Success is best measured across years and your entire career. If you think that this KPI is ridiculous — if you don’t have a long-term focus — stop reading this blog post now and go back to skimming Facebook Headlines.


Winning KPI #2

I believe that real success in business is when everyone benefits. In this case, if you are sponsoring, exhibiting, or even just attending a technology conference or trade show, everyone should have the opportunity to win:


  • Your employer should win — Your employer pays your salary and likely paid your way to attend the event and he/she deserves a return on that investment in you. Make sure that you do the work and earn your place. Most people seem to intuitively understand this point.


  • The customers/prospects should win — If the product or service you are delivering does not have a reasonable chance of delivering more value to the customer than it cost them to acquire it, find a different job (seriously).


  • The people running the conference should win — There are a lot of real people who have done a lot of hard work to put on the event and bring everyone there, so anything that you can do help-out or show your appreciation should be done. Take a moment and straighten the chairs in your row; don’t be needy, demanding, or rude (even if there is a problem); be neat and don’t leave your trash in the session room; shake the hand of one of the organizers and say “thanks.” You should do all these and more whether you are an unemployed first-time attendee or the CEO of the event’s largest sponsor.


  • Other random attendees should win — If you don’t care about the folks around you unless they are going to buy something from you in the next 90 days, then you are on a “losing” track. Deliver friendliness, courtesy, and value to everyone you meet to the best of your ability.


  • What you might forget is that you have to win too — And “you winning” is not limited to just your next commission check (see KPI #1). Nor does it mean that you got more than your share of free cocktails at the conference after-party. You winning means that you come away with more than just value. It means that you come away with real “career wealth” that pays benefits for the rest of your life.


Once you accept — once you BELIEVE — in these KPIs, then the steps to success at conferences and trade shows are easy to understand.


“Winning!” In Six Easy Steps

Nothing about this success formula is external. Everything is about you, your attitude, and what you do. And this is not just my personal experience — I have seen dozens of others use this same formula to achieve great things.


This is how you do it.


#1 — Have a Message

This does not mean “have a pitch.” Every salesperson in the world has a pitch. You need to have a message. Let me try to show you the difference by talking about me and my company:


Sample Pitch

Art of the Message brings value to customers all over the world as the premier creator of strategic messaging, creative content, and social engagement. Our strength is discovering core messages and aligning them with the needs of your customers across all channels to maximize your message and deliver it effectively to your audience.


Sample Message

I am compulsive. I take complex ideas about things like technology, marketing, and economics and distill them down to their core elements. And I am ruthless about it because I know that it doesn’t matter what we think we want to say or how we want to say it. And I don’t care if we use words, pictures, sound, or chocolate-chip cookies. The only things that matter are what the audience needs to get from us to understand and "feel" the message, and that the message is true.


Both the pitch and message above are absolutely valid and correct. The “pitch” might be text to put on a website, print on collateral materials, or post on a social media bio to describe our business, products, services, and objectives. The message is who I am in relation to the business, products, services, and objectives, and it governs everything that I do.


Because I had a message, it was very common over my career for people to think that I was an owner of the company I worked for, even when I was an entry-level employee. 


Your message can change or be refined over time, but the message HAS TO BE TRUE. It has to really be something you believe and that is authentic to you. People can smell a fake. If you try to “fake it ‘til you make it” you will only fool the newbies (for a while). The experienced and successful will not believe you (even if they do not say anything to you at the time).


Trust is the most important part of a relationship and the easiest to destroy. People WANT to trust you … never give them a reason not to. Take your time. Creating a message is a lot harder than it seems. And it takes a lot of honesty with yourself.


#2 — This is Your Career … Plan for a Lifetime

The famous business and social media titan Gary Vaynerchuk is constantly preaching about patience. And I think that he is right. Salespeople are always trying to rush the sale, marketers are always trying to take branding shortcuts, and new entrepreneurs get frustrated and disenchanted when success doesn’t blow-up overnight.


The truth is, real “overnight successes” are extremely rare and most of those do not endure. Hard work that is performed professionally and consistently for years through the ups and downs of life and business is one of the best indicators of real success.


(BTW — If you are trying to run or market a start-up, I strongly recommend Gary’s YouTube Channel.)


#3 — Treat Everyone Like a Fortune 500 CEO

Have you ever been at a conference and gone into an exhibitor’s booth to find yourself being instantly pre-qualified and measured up as a prospect? How does that feel? Not good, right? Don’t be that person.


I get it. One of the KPIs is to make sure that your employer wins, so you can’t afford to spend too much time with people who are not going to be customers RIGHT NOW. And my advice seems to fly in the face of every other piece of advice about “maximizing the ROI” of your trade show exhibit.


Franky … all those other people are wrong and I’m right.


Every single person you talk to is worth all your courtesy and a few minutes of your time. That’s just the way it is, and it’s the world I want to live in. But the surprising thing is that some of my biggest and most profitable clients, sales, and partnerships have come from people that did not fit the metrics of a “qualified prospect” at the time.


Ask me to tell you a story or two the next time I see you and I can prove it.


#4 — Always Know Who You’re Talking To

Most of the people I meet working at events simply read or scan your badge. Maybe they get your business card and glance at the title to gauge how they should talk to you. If you think that this helps you know and understand the person in front of you at the conference, you are seriously mistaken.


Each person you meet is a walking, talking individual with so many dimensions and attributes that you cannot count them all. Be curious and engaged. Don’t “fake” being curious and engaged … actually BE curious and engaged. 


Conferences and events are all about the people. That’s it … period. If you do not like people, I’m telling you that you are doing the wrong task — do yourself and your employer a favor and have yourself assigned to something else. There is no shame in recognizing when a task is not for you. In fact, it is a pinch-point of self-discovery that will bring you much happiness in the long term.


#5 — Remember … This Is Work

Yes, it’s OK to relax a little and have fun at the event. Yes, you need to be true to yourself and socialize. Yes, you need to make sure that you win along with everyone else. No, it’s not your chance to get drunk and swim in the hotel fountain or to hook up with the hot chick from the booth next door.


#6 — Share the Love … Then Share Again … Then Share Some More

This secret may be the most powerful secret to conference show success in this list. The best way to explain it is to give examples.


Example 1: When you’re talking to someone and discover that they don’t need your product or service, but REALLY need something else, don’t politely excuse your way out of the conversation and don’t JUST refer them. Walk them over to the rep that can actually help them and introduce them. Say, “Hey, this is Joe Smith and he might be a really good fit for you. Do you have a few minutes to talk to him?”


Example 2: You are watching a keynote or session that’s completely unrelated to your product or service and the speaker is doing a good job. You Tweet out, “Wow, @JoeSmith from @ABCNetworks is totally nailing the #keynote @SuperTechShow right now. Great job!”


Example 3: After the event, in addition to all your marketing and follow-up efforts, you write a short blog post or send an email to all the people you met that just talks about what a good time you had and what a great job the team from Super Tech Show did in putting such a wonderful event together.


No BS, no “fake news,” no marketing spin … this is just you giving a little bit of credit where credit is due, being grateful for the opportunities you have, being a caring part of the community, and giving a little bit back. You are sharing the love and casting the proverbial bread upon the water.


Once you establish this thinking as a habit, "sharing the love" becomes easy and takes very little real effort. Sharing and caring is an unselfish act that by divine providence or mysterious law of the universe can yield fruit for a lifetime. 


Get it? Then do it. Don’t over-think it. Don't "strategize." Just do it.


What Does This All Mean?

Don’t misunderstand me here. All the basic mechanics of proper sales and marketing are important: lead generation, follow-up, closing skills, etc. You also have to have a solid product and compelling offer. But we all know all that stuff already and there are ten thousand PDFs and blog posts with those kinds of tips. Those are all just best-practices stuff that everyone in business should already know how to do.


And there is great value in just showing up at the event. In this case you actually do get points for simple attendance. I have long said, “There is no substitute for being there.”


You should sponsor these events too — your customers and prospects like it when you support the events and community with sponsorships and by giving great presentations. Again, this is all stuff that companies absolutely should do. But they are also the basic "must-do" rules of the road.


All I am saying is that the difference between “going” to technology conferences and trade shows and “winning” at them is YOU.


Thanks for reading. Good luck out there! 


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