Adventures into Trade Show Exhibiting

It’s been a busy year for Netlink IT – we’ve moved into new offices, taken on staff, achieved Microsoft Certified Partner Status and undertaken two successful PR runs, but all this growth has a down side – it means increased costs – and increased costs means that that as a business you need to find greater income to pay for those costs! This is where, I’m reliably informed, Sales and Marketing comes in.

Now, as a geek business owner I find Sales difficult, and as a geek with no creativity whatsoever, I find Marketing even harder still!

I’ve taken steps to address my lack of confidence in the Sales area with ongoing training, but in all the years I’ve been running Netlink IT, Marketing is something I’ve always shied away from. Techy Geeks like me aren’t good at promoting themselves you see! But needs must, and so after giving myself the proverbial kick up the bum, we as a company determined our goals for increased business in the next few months and then worked backwards to put together a Marketing plan which involved a spruced up web-site, e-mail and Direct Marketing, increased business networking, new Marketing collateral, actively seeking business referrals and eeek… being an exhibitor at Trade Shows!

That new marketing plan is literally only weeks old, and many of the goals (for instance, go and laugh at our web-site – it’s still pretty shabby and very outdated) are still some way from being completed, but at fairly short notice we were offered an opportunity to exhibit at the "Winning Business" exhibition at Drayton Manor this past Wednesday gone, and so we took that opportunity, prepared or not!

On the plus-side, we shared a stall with one of our Telecomms Partners, Blue Sky Connections, who we’ve done a good chunk of business with this year as one of many new Strategic Alliances we’ve formed with like-minded companies. Now never one to pass up the opportunity to learn from others – Geoff Seymour, one of the owners of Blue Sky, is a seasoned Trade Show exhibitor and so I had the benefit of being able to follow his lead.

On the down-side, we realised our stand needed to look smart and be covered with promotional material. Ahh yes, promotional material… You see, Netlink IT don’t have any promotional material… whatsoever… at all… it’s always been on the "to do" list, but never happened because, well… pick your reason…

Visions of being plonked in front of an empty stand on the day plagued my nightmares, and so I picked up the ‘phone and called someone who I knew knows a lot more about Marketing than I ever would, Simon Washbrook of Alkaline Solutions, and cried down the ‘phone that we needed his urgent help!

With just days to go before the exhibit, Simon helped us brand each of the services we offered, find a consistent brand identity and then put together some collateral that really looked the part. Designs were rushed off to the printers and with a day to go before the exhibition, we had everything covered. Phew. Thank-you Simon!

If you’re interested, here you can view the new PDF brochures for Netlink Care, Netlink Defender and Netlink Safe.

On the day of the show itself, we had to arrive early as things "officially" kicked off at 0800. We put our new roll-up banner in place, arranged the new marketing collateral neatly, put retro sweets into bowls to tempt sweet-toothed visitors across, and then breathed a sigh of relief and headed off for our complimentary breakfast.

Breakfast. You must start the day with a good breakfast! That is unless you’re at the Winning Business show – where all the other exhibitors had eaten everything on offer before we had a chance to eat. Grrr…

Back to the stall and visitors now started to trickle in. I’d asked advice from a couple of clients and friends who were experienced Trade Show exhibitors and the general consensus was that visitors at such shows have given you permission to talk to them by their attendance, so make sure to get out there and talk to as many people as possible!

Now, I’m no experienced business networker, but at the networking events I have attended I’ve noticed many business owners trying to sell to me their service right there and then. Personally I wouldn’t buy any business service from somebody I’ve literally just met, and my hunch is most other people wouldn’t either, so my goal at such business networking events is to chat to people, learn more about them and visa versa, and if we get on – stay in touch and see if a relationship develops that may lead to business.

I took this same attitude of "not selling" to meeting visitors at this trade show, and so my day consisted of not hovering by our stall, but instead getting myself into the aisle where visitors were walking by, chatting to people about how they’d found the event, what they were looking to get out of the day, discussing familiar business challenges and then, when they requested it, exchanging business cards.

Following Geoff’s lead, I also took the opportunity to go and visit many of other stall holders – including fellow IT providers – introduce myself and generally have a chat. There were at least three or four fellow businesses we’ll be having a follow-up chat with about possible strategic alliances.

It was a long long day on our feet, and by 1500 I’d snuck out to the car park to get involved in my latest HTG11 Conference Call (a laptop in a car park, a 3G Modem and Skype to call Internationally really works!) and by 1600 most exhibitors were packing up. To be honest, the last part of the day did drag as there were definitely diminishing returns – most visitors had been and gone by 1300 and the afternoon saw much fewer people wander by.

The end result? Well the stand cost us £250 split two ways (so £125 each) and I think we had around 60 conversations with visitors and another dozen or so with fellow exhibitors, all of which we’ll be following up next week. I’m not sure whether this is good or bad, but having spoken to a few peers who have done similar events before I think it’s a decent day. I guess the proof will be how many of those 70+ conversations end up with us chatting some more, and then possibly doing business. We shall see!

I then dashed straight from the show to the Microsoft SBS/EBS 2008 Launch Show hosted by AMITPRO and Microsoft at the Arden Hotel in Solihull. Andy has a write up of the event at Bristol, which followed a similar format to ours, except our moaning suggestions to UK SBSC Manager Emily Lambert that Microsoft do some non-technical presentations around topics such as, you guessed it… Marketing… were taken on board and we got to hear Julie Simpson of Marketing gurus ResourceIT talk about how we, as Microsoft Small Business Partners, should be looking to create a Marketing Plan.

It was a fantastic session and as someone who has been most vocal about seeing Microsoft offer this type of assistance to their partners, I was really pleased to see Emily Lambert make it happen for us. Of course as punishment for being a nuisance to Microsoft and generally taking the mickey out of my fellow SBSC partners at every event I ever attend, Julie used me as a scapegoat and thus grabbing Netlink IT’s sparkling new promotional literature, Julie pointed out to the 30 or so attendees all the things we’d done wrong or could have done better. I went home and quietly sobbed into my pillow that night… Sob Sob… Only kidding, I put myself out there for that sort of public ridicule every day by writing this blog <grin> and Julie gave me a ton of good ideas and was a lovely lady, so by the time I got home that night around 11pm I was totally knackered, but pleased with a day well spent and a ton of ideas buzzing around in my head.

It’s easy to beat yourself up about not having done any marketing for your company, especially if you’re a techy geek like myself and it doesn’t come naturally, and the knee-jerk reaction is to think you can do one marketing related activity such as a Trade Show or a Direct Mail campaign and think that "marketing" is now done – but the reality is that Marketing has to be an ongoing activity that is part of your every-day business life. We’ve just started out with our marketing and so have no evidence to support this, but our approach is to do a mixture of marketing related activities so we’re not reliant upon any one method for keeping our business pipeline full.

Any Marketing stories, hints or tips you’d like to share? Please leave a comment or get in touch – I’m a absolutely "newbie" at all this Marketing stuff so would appreciate the feedback!


1 Response to “Adventures into Trade Show Exhibiting”

  1. 1 Nick November 16, 2008 at 10:36 am

    Interesting post Ric, can really empathise about marketing and sales being difficult for a techy.  I have been relying on the excuse that my business partner is the salesman, but I\’m starting to learn that I need to play an active role in that side of the business too.

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