If you’re in the same boat we are, congratulations on your one-year anniversary of quarantine – or at least of social distancing and isolating.
And if you’re like us, you’re also super sick of hearing about these “unprecedented times.” We get it. The world is different.
From our perspective, the most seismic shift in our professional tree care world was prepping for a virtual conference and trade show, instead of pulling together our traditional in-person TCI EXPO.
And man, did we learn some lessons. The best part? Pajamas could be the outfit of choice. (And we could play Taylor Swift as loudly as we wanted.) The toughest part? Transitioning what you do so well as an in-person exhibitor to a virtual environment could be challenging.
So, from the perspective of the TCIA Corporate Engagement team, let’s look at the most important lesson for anyone considering participation in a virtual trade show: It’s a marketing initiative, not a sales initiative.
Why is that?
The key to sales is in the relationship, which is why an in-person trade show like TCI EXPO is so valuable. Online digital platforms cannot recreate the power of real conversation, the ability to touch and feel equipment or even grab a coffee while you discuss next steps.
But just like in-person sales is integral to a successful business, it is equally as important to have a strong marketing presence, such as a powerful website or advertising plan. Potential customers will peek at your marketing efforts online or in a magazine before they pop into your booth to close a sale – even if you don’t think they do.
Consider your virtual booth as another valuable marketing effort. Like your website, it is an opportunity to distinguish yourself from the competition. You have the luxury of time and resources to create exactly what you want.
Here are five tips to make the most of virtual trade shows.
Capturing and encouraging your customers to visit you at a virtual event is paramount to the success of your marketing efforts within that booth. Where this differs from an in-person event is that, at an in-person event like TCI EXPO, you already have a captive audience – the professionals in attendance have made the decision that they are going to take the time off work to travel to the location of the event and participate for the duration of the show. Work, and life in general, is put on pause for those days so attendees can take in everything the event has to offer.
A virtual event doesn’t afford that luxury, as life is sometimes literally knocking on the door of that attendee who is trying to dedicate a day or two to attend. That means as an exhibitor, part of the responsibility falls to you to show them why everything else in their life needs to be put on pause – you need to show them why attending the event and visiting you is the best use of their limited time.
Eric Peterson, president of ArboRisk, exhibited at the TCI Virtual Summit, hosted by TCIA this past January, and walked away from the event fairly pleased with his and his staff’s interactions. “We promoted our booth in every contact with clients and prospects three weeks prior to the event. We posted on our social-media accounts and emailed our database to draw interest,” he says.
“We held a few different strategy planning sessions to make sure we were planning for each possible way to interact with us and our booth. The plan was to make sure our booth had a short yet powerful video as the main feature and then load it up with plenty of documents and resources for people to explore on their own.”
If you are strapped for time or resources, connect with the show organizer and find out what they are doing to promote the event, then piggyback on their efforts. Make the success of the event a collaborative effort – capitalizing on the work of the organizer spreads the word much quicker than isolated efforts.
Play on the platform’s strengths
A virtual event uses a specially designed website, or platform, that puts (almost) every exhibitor on the same playing field. Square footage doesn’t matter, the height of your equipment isn’t a factor and the ability to create a “wow” factor with your physical booth design isn’t there. Instead, you need to tailor your presence to take advantage of the platform’s strengths (not just yours). For example:
• Is the platform built well for live chats? Invite your customers to visit your booth at a specific date/time to participate in a live chat focused on a new service you are providing.
• Is the platform heavy on aesthetics? Share your top photos or videos directly in your booth, to keep attendees present and spending time with you.
• Is the platform built to allow external links? Add a calendar tool for attendees to talk to you one-on-one via livestream, or to schedule a demo.
You have a recipe for success at in-person events – ways you make the location work for what you do – and a virtual event is no different. It requires innovation and brainstorming to connect the strengths of the platform to the strengths of your business.
Give attendees a reason
It’s difficult to “aimlessly wander” a virtual trade-show floor. Instead, you need to give the attendees a reason to visit (and stay in) your booth.
At the very beginning, think about the journey of the attendees – what methods is the show organizer using to communicate what is happening during the event? A marketing campaign is made up of multiple opportunities that build upon one another. For example, the event organizer is taking registrations on their website, and is using a variety of other websites, emails and social media to drive people to that website.
How can you supplement those efforts? Can you write a blog or news item about your new equipment that you are launching at the event for the event organizer to post on their website? Can you create a banner ad that the organizer can place in the platform, highlighting a giveaway or raffle happening in your booth? Can you share a post from the event organizer with your booth location and a teaser for what will be happening in it?
Hank Ortiz, president, CEO and co-founder of ArborNote, highlights what they did to ensure attendees knew to visit the ArborNote booth at the TCI Virtual Summit. “We focused more on branding than ever before. We did not hold back on the trade-show budget spend, but instead re-directed to video for the virtual show, and did more than normal direct marketing leading up to the show.”
And your marketing does not stop when the event starts, as it might for an in-person event – you need to give them a reason to visit you every day!
Follow up on the data
Here’s the sweet spot: undoubtedly, the biggest benefit of virtual trade shows is the data you receive from the platform. Unlike in-person events, most platforms will automatically collect the information for every attendee who navigates into your booth. Boom! – your lead generation is done without any effort from you.
Petersen confirms this assessment. “The follow-up information you get from a virtual conference is far superior to an in-person conference, and is the main reason exhibitors should continue to be present at virtual conferences,” he says.
Ortiz expresses a similar sentiment. “Nothing can replace the ‘event experience’ that an in-person trade show provides. That said, virtual events can be a cost-effective alternative. Do not underestimate the seriousness and quality of inquiries and leads that can be obtained at a virtual event.”
It can be draining to stare at a screen for multiple hours. We get it. And attendees get it. They want to be educated and entertained. How can you make it more interesting for them?
As always, swag is a winner. If you are doing a giveaway or providing a discount code or exclusive deal, that should be a key focus of your booth – as you know, arborists love to see all the new gadgets that are coming to the industry!
Ortiz adds that there are plenty of ways to inject fun into a virtual experience, including “virtual cocktails and wine tastings.” Think outside the box!
The attendees came for education and networking, but they also came to have fun and to see you, the exhibitor, and what you have to offer – don’t leave them wanting more.
As the exhibitor, it is important to set your expectations for virtual events differently than you would an in-person show experience – there are no face-to-face conversations, interactions on the show floor or the ability to hand your product to an attendee after a sale, but that doesn’t mean you can’t greatly benefit from these opportunities.
Virtual events are your chance to build brand recognition, convey the value of your product or service and show all attendees that you are a critical part of the industry. Show them you can evolve and adapt and will always be on the frontier of what the tree care industry has to offer. Then, when other changes – like a global pandemic – happen, you are the brand the tree care industry looks to for what’s next.
The TCIA Corporate Engagement team consists of Jonathan Gerstenberger, corporate marketing manager; Kyla Cunningham, corporate engagement manager; Sue Blanchette, corporate engagement coordinator; and Amy Tetreault, senior vice president of corporate engagement.