How small business owners can make the most out of trade shows

How small business owners can make the most out of trade shows

Posted: Wed 25th Sep 2019

Trade shows are a fantastic opportunity to get in front of buyers and build your network.

We look at how to get the most bang for your buck.

The benefits of trade shows for small businesses

The main benefit of attending a trade show is the chance to get your product or service in front of customers. However, there are plenty of opportunities small businesses can make the most of:

  • Raise your profile and build brand awareness

  • Use face-to-face conversations to establish trust with customers and other businesses in your industry

  • Get feedback on new products or services

  • Start building your database, whether it's an email list or sales leads

  • Learn more about your competitors

Many trade shows are targeted at a specific industry and attended by people interested in that sector. Others are more general and targeted at businesses in a particular region. It's important to do your research beforehand and consider which trade show will have the biggest impact on your business.

Choosing which trade show to attend

Enterprise Nation member Katie Morhen founded 52eight3, a marketing and PR agency that specialises in the events space. When it comes to picking a trade show, she recommends following your target audience.

"There's a billion trade shows out there. I'd go super niche, rather than trying to go to the biggest one. Look at where your target audience is. Ask your customers where they go. Ask your PR company for recommendations too," she said.

Morhen adds that small business owners can often feel pressured or rush into doing a trade show. To make sure you're prepared and know what to expect, go and walk the show you are thinking of attending before booking.

For Enterprise Nation member and The Little Black and White Book Project founder Ruth Bradford, it was important to get a trade show under her belt early on. Though the show was successful in the end, she regrets rushing into it so quickly.

"Not having visited one - let alone the one I wanted to do - was a bad idea, but I didn't want to wait. Waiting would have been more sensible, but I'm never that sensible!" she said.

How to prepare your trade show stand

Preparing your trade show stand can be as simple or as complicated as you want it to be. Some businesses rely on their branding to draw people in, while others prefer to take a more minimal approach. Before you start investing in added extras, make sure you understand the basic costs of the stand and what is or isn't included.

In addition to your stand, you might have to pay for power points, Wi-Fi or extra lighting. Then there's transport, parking and accommodation to consider. When Bradford attended lifestyle trade show Top Drawer, she estimates that additional expenses were probably double the cost of her £1,508 stand.

"It's all those tiny details: can you paint the walls? What kind of displays can you make? It's not a small expense for a small business, so watch out for the added extras. Talk to people who've done it all before - hearing about their experiences is gold dust," she said.

If it's your first trade show or you aren't sure what to expect, Bradford recommends using a flexible set up. Her stand was in a position that made it look empty from a distance, so being able to pull the tables outside the stand and rearrange the display made a big difference.

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Generating excitement about your business

To give yourself the best chance of success on the day, it's worth spending some time building interest in the lead up to the trade show.

"The important thing to note is that you've already made a significant investment," 52eight3's Morhen explained. "Rather than buying a lot of additional advertising, look at what you can do with social media and PR."

Morhen recommends posting regularly on Twitter in the weeks before the trade show. Tag the organiser and use the event hashtag, so other people know you will be there.

A lot of trade shows have a list of media partners. They will already be invested and actively looking for stories to tell, so it's worth getting in touch. Don't just tell them you're attending - think about something that could be newsworthy. Perhaps you're launching a new product or running a competition at your stand.

"One of the biggest things you can do is invite your customers to come and see you. A lot of people don't want to do it because they know their competitors are going to be there, but if it's the number one trade show then your customers will probably be there anyway," Morhen added.

Planning your goals in advance

Whether you want to generate leads or build brand awareness, having a particular goal can help to shape your activity on the day.

Morhen advises having a list of 20 leads that you want to target. If you're selling to big supermarkets and want to talk to buyers, find them on LinkedIn before the event and send them a personal invite.

If you are targeting quantity of leads instead, consider an incentive that will help you encourage people to share their data. Some businesses will invite people to enter a prize draw, but you don't have to spend a lot of money. For example, if you are doing a B2B trade show, put together a whitepaper that will offer attendees value.

The Little Black and White Book Project's Bradford found that her visual stand designs were enough to draw people in. People who walked past would backtrack because they were interested. To keep track of everyone she spoke to, she would manually add them to a list - one for orders and one for contact details.

"I had a really good amount of orders. It wasn't just businesses that were looking to buy either, it was suppliers. I found a family-owned printing company in the Midlands, a fulfillment company and a scout from the US," she remembered.

"Ultimately, you're never going to meet that many people with that much power in your day-to-day running of a business."

More resources to help you get ready for trade shows

Enterprise Nation members can access this content and get extra advice. Find out more about signing up as a member here.

Chris has over a decade of experience writing about small businesses and startups. He runs Inkwell, a content agency that helps companies that sell to small business owners grow their audiences through content marketing. You can find him on Twitter at @CPGoodfellow.

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