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The art of generating demand at trade shows


No one goes from zero to hero after attending a trade show, but with the right preparation, US tradeshows can deliver Australian companies a slew of market opportunities. Phil Rogers explains.

For a company new to the United States market, a trade show can seem like a dream come true with thousands of prospective clients all in one place. The natural inclination is to try and sell to everyone within earshot. Here’s the bad news: attendees do not go to trade shows to buy products or services from vendors that they have never met or spoken with. Their goals are, in most cases, primarily professional development. However, trade shows can form an important part of a demand-generation system.

1. The Demand-Generation System

Demand generation focused on supporting an ideal prospect’s buying process looks like this.

Buying Process

Stage 1: Initial contact

This stage involves both inbound (e.g. SEO / Social Media / Email) and more outbound marketing (e.g. telephone / trade shows / advertising). A contact through inbound marketing means that you were found by a prospective customer through a web search or other means. With outbound, you have proactively contacted the customer. The goal of the initial outbound contact is not to sell anything but to do some brief research regarding the prospect to see if they could potentially fit your ideal customer profile and then gain permission to periodically check in with them when you have interesting content or events that they may be interested in reading or attending. For a new market entrant with little market awareness, 80-90 percent of the first contact will be achieved by telephone or in-person events like trade shows. This percentage will decrease over time as the inbound marketing program builds a web presence and market awareness.

Stage 2: Nurturing contact

Nurturing contact should always have the goal of adding value to the prospect. This can occur through email notification of relevant thought leadership articles (both third party and internally written), events (e.g. webinars) and direct telephone contact to better understand particular areas of interest.

Stage 3: In-person contact

At a certain stage in the relationship, it will make sense to meet in-person. This is not a sales call but an opportunity to find out more about ways that your company can help the prospective customer. This may trigger processes that lead to a purchasing decision or it could mean that the prospect remains in the nurturing program or exits the demand-generation program entirely.

Stage 4: Purchasing decision

This is the stage that is worthy of its own article (or book). The goal is to build a joint understanding of how the prospect’s environment could be improved after the introduction or implementation of your product or services and whether it makes business sense to make this kind of change.

2. The Role of Trade Shows

Andy Bounds in “The Jelly Effect” does a great job of explaining good networking practices. He emphasises that you need to focus on the “Big Fish”. Big Fish are the potential customers, potential suppliers and potential recommenders. Trade shows offer access to all these big fish, so a targeted process to meet them can be very valuable both in terms of developing customer relationship and the ecosystem to support them.

Defining the goal and metrics
To maximize your investment and effectively measure performance, defining one or two goals is important. Looking at the demand-generation process above, the primary goal of businesses new to the United States market should be initial contact with customers that may fit your ideal customer profile. Another goal might be to meet with people and organisations that could be useful as suppliers or recommenders. A third might be to assess competitors through “stealth” attendance in prior years and should have already been completed before exhibiting. The next step is to allocate the percentage of the budget for each goal so you can develop a metric like cost per contact for post-show evaluation.

Pick the right event
The goals that you decide on will determine the events you attend. Prioritisation of the “first contact” might mean that you attend a more targeted industry technology show rather than a more general industry show because you believe that there will be more relevant attendees. If building your ecosystem is a priority, attending the more general show might make sense with the wider set of attendees. Most shows provide previous attendee information as part of their marketing and this will allow you to make these evaluations.

Create your messaging
Think about what you are going to say the first 30 seconds that you meet someone and make sure your whole team has practiced the message. Your message should focus on how you help clients. For example, a food producer may say, “We help our clients improve the performance of the X category with product innovation and in-store support. One retailer recently doubled category sales and increased gross margin by 10 basis points” A technology firm might say, “We help our client automate process X so their clients get exactly what they want with 100 percent accuracy and no month-end rush. A recent client saw a 20 percent increase in client satisfaction 12 months after implementing our solution.” Talk to your best customers and get their feedback. Test it with everyone willing to listen.

Develop a strategy and timeline
To maximise the investment, putting a communications and logistics plan together can greatly improve the results from the event. Attendee lists are typically available one month out from the show. Attendees generally receive large numbers of emails from exhibitors. Email is an important tool, but telephone contact with the prospects that look like a good fit will enhance results. If the number is small, make the calls yourself. If there is a large number, outsourced business development firms can help reach a large percentage, resulting in higher in-person meeting percentages. Everyone involved should make sure that they stay on the message.

Be realistic about your budget
The cost of the booth is typically one-third to two-thirds of your total investment in attending an event, excluding international airfares. Reconsider doing the show if the cost of the booth is a stretch.

Post-event review
Make sure that you run a formal assessment of the effectiveness of the show, considering the results from both a qualitative and quantitative perspective. The most important part of the review is to develop an improvement plan for the next event.

3. Demand-Generation, Trade Shows and Timing

Trade shows on their own are unlikely to deliver the first United States-based customer for an Australian firm, but they form an important part of the first phase (Initial Contact) of the Demand-Generation program.

In terms of timing, establishing inbound marketing and telephone-based outbound marketing should happen prior to exhibiting at trade shows. Trade shows then become a way of saving travel time and costs by meeting with a number of prospects in the nurturing phase at one event. These savings can be enough to justify trade show participation without taking into account net new initial contacts.


Mentally accepting that you are unlikely to make a sale at a trade show is a vital first step. This allows you to change your objectives and make a much more attractive first impression. Sales will come but not until you prove yourself as a trusted resource and an expert in your field.

Phil Rogers is the founding Principal of Endeavour Advisory and has over seventeen years experience in North America, Europe and Australasia. He has an MBA from Boston University.

Photo: aussiegal