10 trade show engagement techniques to maximize your limited time

Every now and then I run into an expert who has something to say that is truly valuable. In this case, its David Spark who will tell you how to actually spend your money and use your time wisely at trade shows. He's good. Real good.
Written by Paul Greenberg, Contributor
C Murphy

A lot of you just came back from CES -- and were glad you went -- or are really glad you're back. Each year, a huge number of us attend trade shows -- either just attend or exhibit or find another way to participate, in the hope that we will get some serious business benefit from it. Most of the time, we get little business benefit and a big hangover.

Imagine my delight when I got David Spark,(@dspark), CEO and founder of Spark Media Solutions, to offer up some advice on how to actually get something out of those trade shows. While David's company focuses around content marketing, David himself is actually a ninja master on making something out of tradeshows -- lemonade out of lemons. He authored a book called Three Feet from Seven Figures: One-on-One Engagement Techniques to Qualify More Leads at Trade Shows (available at ThreeFeetBook.com). He knows his stuff so well, that Spark Media now offers trade show training -- something that you might want to avail yourselves of.

The other thing that you need to know about David is -- well the two things -- he's an immensely talented videographer and a hugely likable person.

So with that, I'm going to shut up and let David give you some truly useful ideas on how to handle your participation at trade shows.

It's your show floor, David.


Every year millions of people spend a fortune in time and money attending trade shows and conferences. For participating companies, these expenses continue to grow when you tack on sponsorship fees, booth construction, and travel costs. With all the work and money spent attending and sponsoring conferences, I'm always surprised how little effort is spent preparing the nuts and bolts of how we will engage one-on-one with our industry peers.

At one trade show we asked attendees if they had an opening line to stop attendees. A few did, but many could only come up with "Hello" or admitted they didn't even think of one.

Companies can spend $30K to $250K and up to attend and sponsor a conference. That money is usually spent coordinating things such as flights, hotel, booth equipment, and giveaways. Ironically, in what is usually a people-to-people selling business, little-to-zero time and money is spent on how your staff will behave and engage with attendees.

If you're surrounded by your most ideal audience with a limited time to speak to them in an environment that's costing a fortune, wouldn't you want to be prepared with a bevy of one-on-one communication techniques?

Trade shows are corporate Burning Man

At a trade show you're operating in an environment of compressed time and space in a miniature city decorated with corporate art. As fantastic and wonderful as that may be for your business, it's all going to evaporate at a predetermined time. If you want to succeed, you have to make the most of that precious little time.

More positive engagements, not more scans

If we assume you're operating in a person-to-person selling business, wouldn't you be more successful with more positive qualified engagements than just badge scans? And wouldn't you have more of these interactions if you knew how to stop a person, engage, and qualify that person quickly?

Here are ten tested recommendations. Read on.

1: Ask an opinion question

People love to be asked for and give their opinion. Add on top of that an opportunity to show their smarts and you've got someone hooked. One way to learn if someone is right for your business is to ask an opinion question.

Here's the technique:

Open by asking, "Can you answer a question for me?"

For improved success read their name and company off their badge, with something specific to their business (e.g., "John, you work at Oracle, could you answer a question about databases for me?").

Then ask a true opinion question (e.g., "What do you think is the most significant way companies are falling short with Big Data?").

Why it works:

People love to to share their opinion.

The answer will quickly give you an idea how much they know about the subject and/or if it concerns them. You can also gauge who in your company they should speak to next.

The responses become great market research fodder. Keep a record of all the answers.

2: Use a camera as a prop

Most of the work my firm does involves interviewing people on camera at trade shows. I have found that the mere fact I have the prop of a video camera allows me to cut through common small talk and get in and out of a conversation very quickly.

Here's the technique:

With video camera in hand, introduce yourself to an attendee and tell them you're shooting a video for a certain outlet (it can be your blog) and you'd like to ask them a question on camera.

Afterwards, ask for their card so you can follow up and share the video when it's finished.

Why it works:

There is no need for small talk at all. The camera (or you can use a clipboard) acts as a prop making it clear that you have a very specific objective.

When you're done, or if they say no, you have an excuse to walk away as it's clear that you have an objective.

Even if they say no because they're shy or PR won't let them be on camera, it's still possible they may still be interested in the topic and therefore a qualified subject.

You have an excuse to collect a business card, plus you have an asset from the event to share with them afterwards that they'll be eager to see because they might be in it.

For more, read "How to Be Really Successful Producing a Crappy Video."

3: Set up one-on-one interviews beforehand

Traditionally, weeks before a big trade show or conference, a company's PR will hammer attending press and analysts with emails asking if they'd like to meet with their CEO to talk about their latest announcement. These emails are the equivalent of saying, "Hello, you don't know me and I don't know you, but I thought you would like to pay attention to me." While off-putting when put in that context, press and analysts have come to expect them. If anyone else but a PR person did this you'd be completely taken aback. It's just not how we normally form relationships.

We've found a far more successful technique is to literally flip the format, or as I like to call it, do a PR 180 and ask influencers if you can interview them for a publication.

Here's the technique:

Send an email a few weeks before the event and ask if you can interview them. You're essentially saying I'd like to pay attention to you rather than asking you to pay attention to me.

Keep the topic somewhat loose as you'll want them to speak on their expertise.

Why it works:

It's an amazing relationship making move. It's far easier to get people to care about you if you care about them first.

You have a personalized follow up asset to share.

It's the best way to have one-on-one engagements with the top influencers at the conference.

For more, read "Insider Tricks to Landing Interviews with Industry Rock Stars."

4: Don't eat lunch with people you know

If you don't have a scheduled lunch with clients or potential clients, proactively look for people you don't know and join them for lunch. Avoid what will be comfortable (eating with your coworkers) and force yourself to break out of your shell and eat with people you don't know.

Here's the techniques:

When you enter the room for meals, scan the room for a table that's almost full and already engaged in conversation. If people are acting lively, that's a good sign. Join that table.

Avoid tables where everyone is ignoring each other and staring at their phones or computers.

Why it works:

Lunchtime is when people are a captive audience.

You can spend time learning what others have learned at the show.

You need to maximize your time to meet new qualified people, and you can do that during a meal, which some traditionally see as "down" time.

5: Attach yourself to connectors

A qualified person doesn't necessarily have to be a person who will purchase your product. They can be "qualified" in that they can be a good relation and connect you to other key people in the industry. Think about the connectors you know in your industry and how powerful they've been for your business.

Here's the technique:

If the event is attached to an association, call beforehand and make it clear that you're going to come to the event and you're interested in joining the association. Ask them for the names of the key members who could introduce you around.

Use this opportunity to also reach out to these people and ask for a one-on-one interview.

Why it works:

By expressing interest in the organization they'll want to make sure you have the best experience possible. That means they'll introduce you to key people.

Walking into a room where you know no one can be intimidating. Get the upper hand by having names beforehand of the most influential people in the room.

6: Read the person -- Will they be helpful?

For some people it's in their nature to be helpful. Expand your definition of "qualified" to include people who are simply eager to help. Eight years ago I met a cameraman at a show who is just one of these truly helpful people. He has become a phenomenal asset to my business by connecting me to key people and I've even hired his company for a few projects.

Here's the technique:

There's not too much to it beyond just reading the person as being friendly and helpful. Once you sense that element, drop all pretenses for "qualification."

Reciprocate. If they're showing an eagerness to be helpful find a way to return the favor.

Why it works:

Helpful people are almost always more valuable than a "qualified" person that's non-responsive.

You'll have a lot more fun with business colleagues who are helpful.

7: Ask a "yes" sequence

More great project ideas

This common sales technique of getting early agreement improves the success rate of your sales pitch. It can also be used to qualify a person.

Here's the technique:

Ask a series of questions for which you'd expect a qualified person would answer "yes." For example:

  • "Do you have customers you love?"
  • "Do you believe you could do more for your customers?"
  • "Would you like a solution that wouldn't add more pressure on you, but could deliver more for your customers?"

Start broad and get more specific until you hit that ultimate qualified question.

Why it works:

Asking a broad question for which you'll know you get agreement facilitates that initial point of "engagement."

It's far more effective to walk a subject through the problem and solution with them answering "yes" to a series of questions than for you to just come out right and tell them.

8: Ask why they're there

Everyone has an objective at a conference even if it's not well formed. It's your job to draw that "why are you here?" purpose out of them.

Here's the technique:

Ask a friendly opening line that immediately determines whether they're qualified or not (e.g., "What are you looking for?" or "What brings you to the event today?").

If they're disqualified, but you know a company or partner who can help them, point them in the right direction.

Why it works:

Even if not explicitly stated, finding solutions to their problems is usually why people attend conferences. This line of questioning cuts to the core.

The answer will usually qualify or disqualify the subject immediately.

9: What have they seen?

This is the most powerful opening line that can be used at any conference or trade show.

Here's the technique:

Ask, "What's the coolest thing you've seen at the show?"

The response alone may indicate that the person is qualified.

Why it works:

Your opening line is asking for an opinion that's both relevant and timely.

You're not going into sales mode but rather putting the subject in the driver's seat to lead the discussion.

If they respond in a way that shows they're not qualified, it's still valuable because you're learning more about what's happening at the show.

10: Compliment

An industry friend of mine Chris Yeh (@chrisyeh) once said to me, "You can never go wrong complimenting someone." Keep that in mind if you want people to actually stop and talk with you.

Here's the technique:

Notice something physical about them and compliment (e.g., "I love those shoes." "Where did you get that cool piece of schwag?").

While that technique will get the person to stop, you need to get to qualifying quickly. Ideally, look at their badge and if you know the company mention what you like about them. Go over the top with the compliment (e.g., "You work for XYZ? You guys are doing so well. What would you need here?").

Why it works:

People rarely ignore a compliment.

If you can quickly get into what you like about their company, you can quickly get into a discussion as to why they're at the show.

CONCLUSION: Whether qualified or disqualified, learn how to end a conversation quickly

Once you know the person is qualified or disqualified, either way, you still need to end the conversation.

If the person is qualified, make it clear how you're going to follow up and/or hand them off to a colleague.

If the person is not qualified, you still have to end the conversation positively. Non-qualified people will talk to qualified people later at the show, and it's important that you're polite, positive, and clearly explain your business. Follow these steps:

Look them in the eye.

Say their name.

Tell your story (e.g., "We're the company that does ABC.")

Say, "We're probably not the right company for you."

Thank them for stopping and shake their hand.

Say, "Enjoy the rest of the show."

Remember, at a trade show you're always fighting time. This corporate Burning Man will eventually shut down. That's why all conversations need to eventually end, quickly, because your goal is to score more qualified engagements. You can't do that if you spend all your time talking to one qualified person.

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