Beyond the Booth: Standing Out at Trade Shows

Over and over again, small and medium-sized businesses make the mistake of cutting back on their marketing activation budget, in favor of more 'strategic' digital ads and clickbait. Sure, we do spend an absurd amount of time online, but the real way to win the hearts of your customers and create true Brand Love is with experiential marketing.

Mistake #1: Taking from your events and partnership budget to give to ad spend

We've all heard this phrase: "I'd love to do that event, but we don't have the budget. Meanwhile, you see the brand's digital and out of home ads popping up, and hear a 15-second blurb about them on your Spotify account. What gives?

I've seen this time and time again from brands that I've worked with on a partnership level - denying the sponsorship or activation onsite at an event due to budget constraints, but running free with the traditional ad spending, only to throw up their arms when they don't seem to get the same brand love or consumer loyalty that they'd expected.

The truth is, we all know how to click through the ad. We count down the seconds until the "Skip Ad" button appears on YouTube, sometimes straight-up turning off what we were watching when a 30 second commercial comes on. Our eyes and minds have had it with the pop-ups, the voiceovers, the accidentally-clicked-on-an-ad-and-now-I-can't-get-back-to-the-first-page ads. As humans, we crave connection.

Mistake #2: Creating an experience only for social media sharing

If you're one of the few who made the decision to spend more on experiences, you're halfway there. Now, you build an innovative and infinitely-shareable activation, and receive thousands of likes, reposts, and impressions. Pat yourselves on the back, you're done. Right?


If you create an experience merely for social sharing, you're severely limiting the possibilities for your far-reaching, brilliant product or service. If guests are attending your event, taking photos, sharing, but barely speaking to one another or looking up from their phones, congratulations - you've created a photo opportunity.

A picture or post is not worth a thousand words; not anymore. In this fast-paced world, you want to create an experience that is unique to each guest, and leaves each guest emotionally attached not only to that experience and to your brand, but to those who experienced it with them.

Mistake #3: Activating only by giving away free product (especially food)

Food is everywhere. We are overwhelmed every day with decision fatigue. Think about how many options there are in a 5-mile radius from you, just for purchasing coffee.

Say you're a coffee shop, and you decide to have a booth at a trade show. Your budget is tight, so you decide to spend it on extra marketing collateral (business cards, brochures, trinkets with your logo on them) and make a gorgeous display of your brand new coffee.

There are 10,000 attendees at the conference and you wind up giving out all the samples. You made sure to have them sign a clause saying you're the only coffee purveyor available, so you had the market on lock down.

But, from a guest perspective, you were the only coffee option at an all-day conference. It didn't matter if you were Folger's or La Colombe, they were coming for you.

What are the odds that your coffee is so magnificent, so life-changing, so different that they'll remember your product specifically because you offered free samples? How much time did they spend at your booth? Did they get excited about your brand and make a purchase or sign a contract right then and there? 

Chances are, you would have had way more success if you had some sort of experience tied to it. Coffee-scented diffusers pumping in the smell of freshly-brewed coffee onto the exhibit floor. An interactive or virtual reality tour of the farms, interviews with the farmers. A photo booth that looked like it was in the middle of a coffee farm. Now that is an experience.

Bottom line? Your food or beverage is great, but unless it is knock-your-socks-off, I'll-never-want-anything-else different, you have to add a bit more to your booth. 

Mistake #4: Not tying back to an offer or an incentive to purchase again

I recently went to a restaurant in Philly, on Passyunk Ave, called Barcelona. It was a friend's birthday, and we were hopping from bar to bar, so we only each wound up having one drink. When we were leaving, the manager handed us a small, branded, wooden 'coin' that was good for one free cocktail the next time we came in. He even threw in a coin good for tapas for the birthday girl. Guess what? That was the most memorable marketing experience we had the entire day.

Mistake #5: Putting the work of the second purchase on your customer

Beyond Barcelona Wine Bar's literal token of appreciation for business and promise to come back again, we had to do no work to redeem this, besides keep it in our wallets. Smart enough, it fits into a coin purse. 

We didn't have to remember a coupon code, print out a coupon, email it to ourselves, pull up a bar code. There were no "terms and conditions," it was a straightforward offer.

We'll be back to that bar again - coins in hand.

The bottom line is, don't continue to waste all of your company's money on ads that will be clicked through or muted, billboards that you're purchasing just to fulfill a line on your P&L, or endless free samples. Should you strategically purchase ads that make sense for your brand? Absolutely. But not without a serious experiential marketing strategy to go with it.