Ten common mistakes businesses make at exhibitions

Exhibition stand selling cameras

Getting your exhibition strategy right calls for careful planning and a lot of hard work. Fiona Humberstone, author of Exhibit! How to use exhibitions to grow your small business, reveals some common mistakes exhibitors make - so you can avoid them

I feel a bit guilty listing the things businesses do wrong when they exhibit. After all, being in business is all about making your mistakes and learning from them.

But I hope you'll find that as you read some of the examples below, you might recognise one or two things you're getting wrong - and realise that making a few simple changes can make your next exhibition more successful.

1. Going to the wrong exhibition

It's easy to commit yourself to an exhibition because you've overestimated how much business you might do there, or simply because your competitors will be there and you don't want to miss out.

Instead, it's important to look carefully at whether your target audience is likely to attend, and what sort of return you're likely to make on your investment of time and effort.

I learnt that lesson myself after my first successful exhibition - where I gained 100 leads and converted 70 of those into paying clients. I thought I'd cracked it! And so when another exhibition came up shortly afterwards, I jumped at the chance to attend.

I was disappointed, to say the least, at the few leads we gained that time around, and even more so at the quality of those leads - we converted less than 25% into paying clients. And I learned a valuable lesson: to look carefully at the opportunity on offer.

2. Not having clear event objectives

As a small business owner, I need to make sure that every piece of marketing I do generates a return on investment, and exhibitions are no exception. I go in with a clear goal to generate a specific number of sales leads, and always make sure we exceed them.

Recently, I worked with an IT company on their exhibition stand. We set a goal of picking up more than 100 leads for this particular event, and the marketing manager offered a prize for the person who generated the most leads.

The result? They picked up more than 140 leads.

3. Having a boring, unattractive or generic stand

You cannot underestimate the importance of making sure your stand looks fabulous. Your stand is your shop window for the day. It's how your potential clients will judge you.

If your stand looks like you've thrown it together cheaply or at the last minute, what does that say about how you run your business, or how you treat your customers?

The vast majority of visitors haven't come to the exhibition to see your stand. They probably don't even know who you are or what your business does. Which means that there is absolutely no point in presenting a mysterious image, expecting everyone to come and find out more.

You need to refine your offering, make it eye-catching and - crucially - relevant to the visitors at this specific exhibition.

4. Poor marketing literature at your stand

I once visited an exhibition where a courier was sharing a stand with an electrician. The stand was a curious mix of day-glo A4 posters from the courier, and plugs and wires on the electrician's half.

It was hard to see the link between the two businesses, and not only did the stand lack polish, the marketing literature this courier was handing out did not do justice to his professionalism and passion for customer service.

Sadly he is no longer in business. Your marketing literature is all people have to remember you by. Get it wrong at your peril!

5. Not looking welcoming or friendly

How many exhibitions have you been to where the staff on some of the stands are huddled together chatting? Or eating? Or on the phone? I could go on, but you get the picture.

As a visitor, exhibition stands can be intimidating. Do we dare cross that threshold? Are the staff going to bully me into buying something I don't want?

If you want to encourage people onto your stand, don't do anything that will put them off.

6. Not capturing enough leads

There are many reasons to exhibit, and the main one for most exhibitors is to capture leads and build a database. You can do the selling later. At the exhibition itself, it's a frantic mission to capture as many leads as possible.

Be proactive - make sure to get details from your visitors, and don't spend too long speaking with any one prospect. You can follow up later when time isn't at such a premium.

7. Not having enough take-away literature

I recently caught up with a client of ours who had just had a particularly successful exhibition. She runs a jewellery company, and had arranged for a hairdresser to come to the stand to demonstrate how jewellery and hair could work well together.

This was a fantastic approach that generated crowds of people, and doubled their sales from their last event. However, there were so many customers on the stand that there was no way the team could talk to them all, and so potential clients were walking away empty-handed.

If you can't talk to everyone, it's vital that you have enough take-away literature so you can maximise the exposure you get on the day.

8. Not promoting your attendance at the event

When an event doesn't quite go to plan, it's all too easy to blame the organisers. They didn't promote the exhibition well enough, or ask the right people, or put on an enticing enough seminar programme. And this may be true to a certain extent.

But, as an exhibitor, you need to get involved with marketing the event too. You need to let people know that you're going to be there - because for some visitors, your attendance alone will be a big pull!

9. Not following up your leads

I recently worked one-to-one with a web development company, helping them plan their exhibition strategy for a new product they were launching. We started talking about the firm's previous experience of exhibitions, and I asked how many leads they'd generated in the past. "Not many," was the response.

And so I asked how much business they had generated from those leads. "Erm… I'm not sure," came the reply. They're still in the shoebox from last year."

Failure to follow up leads is an absolutely heinous crime! No wonder they didn't win any business. Meanwhile, their competitors were busy contacting all the show visitors, and potential clients went for the easy option: the company that kept in touch.

10. Not being persistent enough in your follow-up

Following up on every single lead after an exhibition is hard work, believe me. When you have more than 100 leads, making a commitment to speak to every single one takes weeks, if not months of dedication.

Often you won't get through straight away, and when you do your contact won't have time to talk and you'll need to call them back another time. But you've got to do it if you want to maximise the opportunity. It will pay off.

With most companies, the average buying cycle is weeks or months; so sending out one email and a letter after the event just isn't going to cut it when it comes to winning business from your new contacts.

Plan to keep in touch for more than a year, and you'll get a much, much more profitable outcome from your new contacts.

Written with input from Fiona Humberstone.

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