It’s that time of year — trade show season for many of our clients. The shows come up fast, and then they’re over; and we’re already thinking about what to do for those shows next year. What did we do right? What could we do better? Should we even be back at that show in years to come?

There are dozens of blogs and articles online about proper trade show planning and evaluation: how to generate leads; how to generate not just any leads, but “hot” leads; how to set yourself apart from the competition, and so on. It’s all pretty good stuff, but most of these perspectives assume that we all know what we’re trying to accomplish with trade shows in the first place.

Unfortunately, what trade show success looks like can be a complex question. As marketers and exhibitors, we’ve all been conditioned — even by trade show organizers — to believe trade shows can and should yield an immediate measurement point: number of attendees visiting the booth, for example, or better yet, sales leads. So, we often return from a trade show encouraged by show attendance and booth traffic, but discouraged by what we were actually counting on. Where are all the sales leads?

On the other hand, there are actual selling shows out there, too. Deals going down in the booth! For many of our clients, The Rental Show ― put on annually by the American Rental Association ― is indeed a selling show. There’s an immediate measure of success, which is now counted upon by many of our clients as the primary criterion for the show’s success.

For other trade shows that don’t draw attendees who come with their wallets expecting to deal, measurement can definitely be a challenge. Some shows generate leads, but others don’t. There may even be some variance in the same show each time it happens, generating leads during one show and coming up relatively blank the very next year. What was different? Location of the show? Booth staff? Economic conditions?

It’s hard to find the magic bullet of measurement that works for all shows, or even the same show every year. But, fully understanding the trade show, its attendees, and what type of shoppers and buyers the show draws can help you plan for it ― and help you develop your measurement criteria. Here are a few objectives to consider.

Sell Sell Sell!

Some trade shows (like The Rental Show) are actual buying shows for the attendees: If this is the case, generating leads, customer relationship-building, and establishing brand recognition or brand differentiation may all become secondary. It may be best to have your best closers staff the show, and your success can be based on actual deals made.

Explore new potential

Some trade shows attract a lot of buyers and prospects who are relatively new to the market. Or, maybe you are new to their market, exhibiting at the show to explore potential. The point is, you don’t yet have a relationship with the attendees. And if you have a dealer/distributor network representing you, they don’t have a relationship with the attendees either. This would be a good opportunity to build relationships and work to capture leads.

Build relationships and network

Some trade shows may attract those you already do business with; they already know you or your dealer/distributor, but they are at the show to see what’s new in the industry, network with others, and take advantage of educational sessions. This may not be a good opportunity to capture leads. It’s a great relationship-building opportunity, and you definitely want to have a brand presence so your customers don’t gravitate to competitors. But an attendee you already do business with may not see the need to provide personal information as a lead; however, they may indeed buy from you at some point, based on some influence from the show interaction.

If you have a good understanding of the types of attendees who will come through your trade show booth, you can then plan how to evaluate the show:

  • Immediate or on-site sales
  • Sales leads generated, and future sales tied to those leads (assuming you follow and nurture the lead from show through sale)
  • Future sales not tied to show leads, but maybe tied to show attendees (can you bounce the show attendee list up against your own sales records during the period of a known sales cycle?)
  • Brand awareness, brand preference, or brand loyalty; the intangibles that often require a deeper type of research to uncover the results

Yes, I know what you’re thinking: It’s naïve to think there is always a “type” of trade show that will enable us to use one measurement criterion for it. Most shows may have some of all of these: aggressive buyers, serious shoppers, conservative tire kickers, and those who are there for everything the trade show and city have to offer, from education to entertainment, with no intention to buy anytime soon. That is what keeps us on the hunt for the closer-to-perfect show evaluation criteria. And, of course, “perfect measurement” may always elude us. But we can get closer to perfect, as we understand the types of attendees who are at shows, and why they are visiting our booth in the first place.