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Pre-Trade Show Marketing: Get Them Before They Get There

by Alyson Hendrickson Wentz, CAS

Some tradeshow exhibitors seem to think that if they have the biggest booth, the wackiest events and piles of promotional giveaways that they'll draw crowds of buyers to their exhibit. Well, they might draw crowds, but they won't necessarily be qualified buyers. "I'm not interested in a crowded booth," says Steve Miller, president of The Adventure of Trade Shows, in his book Over 66 Tips & Tricks To Supercharge Your Trade Show Promotions. "I don't want everybody in my booth … I want the right people in my booth." And, so should you.

To make sure that you draw the right people to your booth, you need to start promoting long before the show even opens. The most effective tradeshow promotion, according to studies done by the Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR) and the Promotional Products Association International (PPAI), are two-part promotions -- one part before the show and one part at the show.

"What you want to do is have a target audience," says Margit Weisgal, president of Sextant Communications, and author of the trade show promotion book Show & Sell. "It can be culled from the pre-registration list, your existing client or customer list. You want to target those people." Once you've chosen the target audience to reach before the show, send them a mailing that will draw them to your booth. Remember, though, the product needs to tie in with the theme of the mailing, which should be consistent with the theme of your at-show promotion.

One pre-trade show promotion that carried a consistent message through to the trade show floor was created by GTE Telephone Operations -- "Innovations Alexander (Graham Bell) Never Dreamed Of." The theme pointed out the new technical developments in products and services at GTE. All of the ad copy, pre-show mailings and at-show displays was stressed the "multifaceted" nature of GTE communication products and services. This concept was driven home through the unique gift that GTE prospects and clients received when they visited the booth -- a GTE-logoed Dragonfly, a kaleidoscope-type device that used a multifaceted lens to multiply whatever image the viewer was looking at.

"Promise them a gift, and draw those people into the booth," Weisgal says. "You can only see a certain number of people at a show. Rather than assume that the right people are going to come down the aisle, stop in your booth and say 'Hi, I want to buy from you,' give them a business reason to come by the booth. That way you reach the people that you're targeting, that you're interested in speaking with and qualifying." The objective of any pre-show mailing should be to get the prospect into your booth for a qualifying dialogue. Just getting them there, without getting the opportunity to talk to them, doesn't accomplish your goal.

An effective pre-show promotional mailing technique that Weisgal referred to was to send the targeted audience part of a gift, and then promise them the other part if they stop by your booth at the show. One company sent an imprinted calculator case to its target audience prior to a major tradeshow, and then gave the recipients the actual calculator when they came to the company's booth. Another idea might be to send out an egg timer to a select group of show attendees along with a card asking for a few minutes of their time at the show. On the card you could also indicate that if they give you some time during the show, you'll be happy to present them with a elegant timepiece (clock or watch) after they meet with you. Again, it's important to make sure that the idea of time and the related products fit the consistent marketing message your company is imparting.

Another idea for a pre-show mailing came from Miller's 66 Tips & Tricks. He suggested sending your targeted audience a pocket planner that they can use to schedule appointments while at the show. Send the planner out four to six weeks before the show. "Be sneaky and fill in one of the time slots for a visit to your booth; they'll get a kick out of it and be there at the appointed time. If they can't make the appointment, they'll usually call to arrange another time," Miller says. Although Miller didn't mention it in his book, to get the most brand awareness from the recipient you should have the planner imprinted with your company name and logo. If you want it to be a subtle reminder you can have the logo printed inside the cover of the planner.

Miller had another good idea for reaching your customers and prospects prior to the show -- offer to handle their pre-registration. It's a nice service to offer as it saves them the hassle of filling out forms and making phone calls. You can arrange for all the badges and materials to be sent to your company, and then send them out to your customers and prospects with an invitation to visit your booth while at the show. Include a neck tote imprinted with your company logo in the package, and your targets will be sure to stop by your booth to thank you for the helpful service, and the useful gift.

You might also want to consider presenting your targeted prospects with a personalized gift when they stop by your booth. One PPAI case study showed a 63 percent response from a pre-show mailing where recipients received a portfolio, imprinted with a message inviting the recipient to stop by the sender's booth to receive a personalized nameplate for the portfolio. By showing up to get their nameplate, the recipients could cover up the sender's promotional copy with the plate and have a presentable, functional portfolio to use.

Besides sending traditional promotional items in pre-show mailings, Weisgal suggests sending something that will add even more spark and excitement to your promotion. Use creative packaging for your pre-show mailings, such as tubes that look like sticks of dynamite, plastic wine bottles, Chinese food containers and more. Inside of these unusual mailing containers put something fun that the recipients can use in an interactive way once they reach your booth. Weisgal's personal favorite is pieces to a jigsaw puzzle that the recipient brings to the booth to fit into a puzzle that is set up there. If the recipient's piece fits he or she wins a prize. Make sure the prize is a promotional item imprinted with your company name, and make sure that it fits the theme of your promotion.

Other interactive ways to draw qualified attendees to your booth include contests, drawings and games, such as basket shooting, golf ball putting, etc. Invite targeted attendees to take part in these activities before the show by sending them appropriately themed products -- logoed golf accessories, mini basketball keytags, tickets for the drawing attached to an imprinted magnet they can keep. You could also put together your own game based on the products or services that you have to offer. Invite prospects and clients to participate in a Jeopardy-style game where they answer questions about your products/services to win imprinted merchandise. Limit booth overcrowding by pre-qualifying attendees before inviting them to join in the games. By making the activities more exclusive you cut out unqualified buyers and make the qualified ones more likely to participate next year.

Whether you choose interactive booth activities, unusual mailing packages or halves of gifts, pre-show promotions are the most effective way to draw the right attendees to your booth. Plan a pre-show promotion that's right for your company and its show objectives, and carry that same promotion through your entire trade show marketing campaign. Just make sure that you reach your target audience with your message before they reach the trade show floor.

Alyson Hendrickson Wentz (, independent promotional consultant with Geiger, and freelance writer/editor. Location -Hatfield, PA, USA