by Melanie Lindner
Want to save a bundle generating leads? Follow these steps.
Trade shows are an expensive but necessary part of doing business for David Appelbaum, senior vice president of marketing for BigFix, an Emeryville, Calif.-based information-technology security software maker.
“In the tech industry, you have to participate in trade shows to generate new leads,” says Appelbaum. “The problem is the uneven playing field for small and medium businesses. Bigger firms with a lot of money can get premium booth space, podium presentation time and top advertising on event programs and lanyard name tags. With the cost of your booth rental and all of that extra promotion you could easily spend up to $100,000 per show.”
Traditional trade shows have long been a convention-center-sized hassle. “At a physical show, you have hundreds of vendors in a crowded, noisy exhibit hall with competing messages,” says Appelbaum. “It’s really hard to know who’s worth talking to.” Throw in a recession and it’s little wonder that overall trade show revenue ($12 billion at last count in the U.S.) is expected to contract nearly 7% this year.
Hence the rise of virtual trade shows, designed to look and function like the real thing but that play out in real time in cyberspace. Entry fee: just $3,000 to $8,000. Better yet, you don’t need to be a computer wizard to participate. Revenue generated by North American web events hit $156 million last year, according to Frost & Sullivan’s 2009 World Web Events Services Market Report.
These virtual events can be designed to look like a convention center (complete with lobby, exhibit hall and networking lounge), a college campus, the top of a skyscraper in Paris, or anywhere else in the world. The savvier the crowd, the more realistic and compelling the show. “I’ve been doing this for seven years, and one of the biggest changes I’ve seen is the improvement in computer skills of the sponsors and attendees,” says the founder of an Illinois-based virtual events design firm. “More businesspeople are comfortable navigating through virtual space.”
Show hosts (event producers) pay an event firm $20,000 to $50,000 to create the custom virtual environment; they make the money back by charging exhibitors fees to set up their booths, make presentations and even buy additional, premium advertising.
Before you invest a dime in showcasing at a virtual trade show, get a feel for the environment. (Most shows are free for attendees.) You can also contact the show host (producer) to arrange a demo walk-through. “Browse” the booths and listen to a few seminars to get a feel for the style and length of presentations.
Unlike in the physical world, setting up a booth eats all of 30 minutes and takes no sweat. Some virtual design companies will construct a booth free of charge; all you have to do is set up a brief phone call to lay out the general design, and send them your materials (white papers, logos and audio and video clips) for formatting. If you’d rather do it yourself, you can log onto the web design firm Web site and work within a template wizard that walks you through the process.
As for placement, “It absolutely helps drive attendees if you pay for prime real estate in the virtual exhibit hall,” says the founder of a virtual design firm. Generally, attendees “enter” the exhibit hall from one main doorway, so getting near that portal is important. Prime placement could run a few thousand dollars more, but it’s still significantly cheaper than a bad spot at a physical show for $25,000.
During designated show days (some events run a single day, others go on for months), have a representative from your company logged in and prepared to engage booth visitors. When an attendee visits your booth, their name appears in a sidebar list of all the people present, and you can greet them in the form of an instant message. When you IM visitors, they immediately see your name, business affiliation and title; for more information, they can click on your name to view your profile.
“Last month I worked my booth while on a flight from Atlanta to Portland,” says Jeff Pedowitz, chief executive of Alpharetta, Ga.-based marketing firm the Pedowitz Group. Pedowitz recently set up a virtual booth at the B-to-B Magazine show, where he says he ginned up some 50 leads for his marketing services. Not a bad return for a $5,000 investment.