Trade shows: five things not to do at SXSW

Trade show FEATUREI recently attended the annual South by South West Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas. It’s a meeting place for startups, bloggers, geeks, and anyone interested in smart ways to use technology. This year, 25,000 people registered for the event, which comprises a full program of interesting sessions and an accompanying trade show. This is where new startups show off their wares in the hopes they will become the next Twitter or Foursquare, both of which gained traction when they debuted at the event in previous years.

However, when scoping out the startups at the trade show, it became apparent to me that there were many businesses that were simply wasting their time and money being there – there wasn’t a chance in hell they were going to make it big any time soon.

They might have had the best product in the world. But that’s totally irrelevant if they can’t communicate what they are actually about. So what did they do wrong – what mistakes can you avoid if you find yourself in a similar situation?

1. Unhelpful signage
These days, whacking up a big sign of your groovy logo isn’t going to cut it. This might work if you have a self-explanatory name like Byron Bay Cookie Company. But if you’re a startup that has adopted Google-type names like Moovr, Kleenr or Mophie, it’s vital that you have a tagline that explains to consumers what this linguistic invention actually represents.

I wandered past several businesses and searched for clues on what they were offering but I was none the wiser even after studying the posters and signs on display. So I decided on a different approach…

2. Choose knowledgeable representatives
I figured that some businesses adopted the minimalist approach to communication because they wanted to encourage consumers to talk to their representatives. Fair enough. If that’s the case, ensure that those manning your booth are knowledgeable about your product and happy to engage with customers. Don’t let an exchange like this happen:

Me: “Can you tell me about your product?”
Them: “Ummm … We’re still in beta.”
Me: “Okay, what does it do?”
Them: “It’s like an app.”
Me: “What does the app do?”
Them: “We have almost 10,000 subscribers.”
Me: (trying a different tack) “Maybe you can show me what your app does.”
Them: “Sure … Oh, actually this screen just shows some screenshots we slapped together yesterday. We don’t have a live demo.”

I’ll spare you the whole conversation, but you get the idea. It confounds me that a business would fork over much needed cash to secure a booth with exposure to nearly 25,000 people in their target market and then basically squander the opportunity.

3. Craft a script and FAQs
If you are roping in helpers who may not be clued up about your product or service then create a script and list of frequently asked questions and answers so it doesn’t look like your team is made up of a pack of dummies. Role-play some likely scenarios and potential enquiries so that your representatives get some practice in answering questions about your product.

4. Use gimmicks that make sense
I’m not a big fan of gimmicks at trade shows. But I know that some businesses think it’s important to draw in a crowd with a competition to win a free iPad or the promise of a free beer in exchange for a business card.

At this trade show, a keyboard manufacturer encouraged people to play a typing game to win a free keyboard. That made sense. A business that sold tough iPhone covers to withstand dropping and other extreme treatment enticed people into a game where they could drop a cover down a vertical obstacle course. Participants won a variety of prizes depending on where the cover landed. This also made sense.

Then there was the booth which got customers to spin a computer generated Wheel-of-Fortune. When you pressed the space bar, it stopped and you won prizes ranging from a drum stick or skateboards to USB sticks. When the computer indicated which prize you had won, a surly girl wearing the company t-shirt handed you the prize and moved you along. I still have no idea what that business was about.

5. Ensure you have printed marketing material on hand
Just in case you are unlucky enough to hit the trifecta of unhelpful signage, unknowledgeable representatives and inane gimmicks, make sure you at least have some printed marketing materials available for customers who might be genuinely interested in what you have to offer. You might think it’s cool just to go with a cool graphic and groovy logo. I heard one entrepreneur say: “If people are interested, they can find out everything at our website.”

Oh dear. I wanted to take him by the shoulders and shake him. If you’re a fledgling company that no one knows about, you need to do everything you can to actually get people interested in what you do. Craft an enticing message, identify the problem your product/service is likely to solve and give people a reason to visit your site to find out more.

Trade shows can be extremely valuable events to meet new customers and prospects. You get the opportunity to chat one-on-one, you can demo your product and get instant feedback without having to make a single cold call. But you can’t just front up and hope for the best. This is one situation where you can’t rely on: “Build it and they will come.”

If you want to make the most of this opportunity, ensure you’ve created a well thought out communications strategy so that you can present your business in the best light in order to gain a new legion of fans.

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About Valerie Khoo

Valerie Khoo is founder and national director of the Australian Writers' Centre, the country's leading centre for writing courses. She is a journalist, blogger and author. Her latest book is "Power Stories: The 8 stories you MUST tell to build an epic business" (Wiley). Valerie is a keynote speaker, small business commentator, and investor and mentor to startups and businesses in Australia.