While perhaps hard to see at first, the gradually fading Great Recession and the slowly recovering global marketplace are boosting the trade show and events space into the marketing spotlight, fueled by brand marketers' scrutiny of their activities with an eye toward value creation.
This trend is a logical one: Our segment of the marketing spectrum has always had a laserlike focus on sales and ROI. Trade shows create direct interaction with concentrated, high-value audiences and enable engagement in a deeper manner than other channels do. We measure everything, and brand storytelling is in our DNA.
So while brands work to rebalance the marketing mix in response to demand for better results, there's mounting evidence that trade show budgets are starting to return to prerecession levels.
Here are five essential components we think define the way that trade shows, conferences and other forms of strategic event-based marketing should be created and produced going forward:
Simply “translating” messaging from a brand campaign into a 2-D, graphical format isn't enough anymore; it's our responsibility to work from that baseline to create new stories and engagements, “dimensionalize” them across media and connect audiences to that experience before, during and after an event.
This places a greater demand on creative teams to think in terms of theater, media and audience participation—all aimed at facilitating a conversation between a brand and its buyers. The dynamic must be about solving problems mutually, through dialog and collaboration rather than merely focusing on selling features and benefits.
Having great original content is one thing; now, we must build out communication campaigns at the portfolio, event and individual-attendee levels through ongoing “releases” of content in a consistent, episodic manner and in ways that feel natural to our audiences. This is how you create a community and build brand trust today. Marketers and agencies must add this “publishing” mentality to their traditional exhibit-execution roles.
From onsite interactions such as gesture recognition and mobile device lead capture to social media measurement and online response platforms, a sustained, “bake-it-in” approach to technology means marketers need to think of themselves as technologists and to write job descriptions and develop organizational charts that meet the demands of these new skill sets. And rather than betting on technology for its own sake, success is all about arriving at the right technology solution through thoughtful analysis of buyers' technology behaviors, habits and needs.
We're seeing brands increasingly adopt an insights-driven portfolio view of how different event formats, such as trade shows and conferences, interlock with one another over time to deliver specific experiences to specific audiences and generate specific results. The rudimentary engagement models of the past are giving way to much more sophisticated approaches based in strategy, research, measurement and real-time adjustments through a listening “feedback loop.” Getting the portfolio management model right should be a key, ongoing mission for marketers.
Stories abound about the lengths that hands-on managers of trade shows have gone to to tactically execute well; but what we mean by “delivery” is the collection of financial compensation models, agency transparency, change order management, Web-based intelligence and all the higher-order activities that work together to produce flawless results in less time for less money.
By embracing this more sophisticated understanding of how to deliver the best value, marketers can ensure that they offer powerful brand experiences consistently and profitably—even as their marketplaces become ever more complex and globalized.
Taken together, these five elements represent the opportunity for marketers to move trade shows and similar event-based integrated marketing programs firmly to the center of strategic brand campaigns—an opportunity we should not waste. This should be our primary goal.