Small Business Trade Show Success is All About the Follow Up


Exhibiting and speaking at trade shows can be a lucrative marketing strategy for small business owners. It is a way to get your message out to 1,000s of potential leads. Yet far too many people waste this investment by failing to prepare, participate and follow up effectively.

I know it can seem daunting to gather contact information and follow up, but there are tools that make this easier. More importantly, there’s a process you can put into place and repeat every time you exhibit. You no longer have to let any leads slip through your fingers and land with your competitor, just because they followed up and you didn’t!

Let’s look at the three phrases of successful trade show marketing: Before the show, at the show, and after the show.

Before the show

In a previous article, I revealed my seven tips for how small business owners can make the most out of participating in a trade show. The first four tips are all about how to prepare, specifically how you should:

  1. Gather your business cards, printed materials, and samples – be prepared.
  2. Polish and practice your elevator pitch – one that stimulates curiosity in the listener and opens up the conversation.
  3. Review the floor plan – see which other exhibitors you want to visit and network with.
  4. Set a goal – decide how many leads you want to collect at the trade show.

As a speaker, you can expect to get 3-4% of the show’s total attendees, while exhibitors can expect closer to 1%. For example, at the City of Toronto’s Small Business Forum in February 2016, where we exhibited and presented, there were 3,200 attendees and we gathered a combined total of about 100 business cards at our booth and after our presentation.

Collecting business cards from interested leads is the most important reason you’re at a trade show. The more business cards you collect, the more people you can follow up with, and the more likely chance you’ll get a response and build a relationship.

So don’t just stuff cards into a pocket or toss them on a corner of your table. Have a set place to store and keep track of them. We bought a small ballot box especially for this purpose. On the ballot box we placed a sign that told people what we would do with their contact details.

At the show

Another point I made in my City of Vaughan article was the importance of having at least two people staffing your booth. I saw this really make a difference at the City of Toronto show. If my colleague, Kristine, hadn’t been there to cover the booth while I was presenting, we would have collected far fewer leads.

Another bonus of having a second person in the booth is that they can direct people to the presentation (we also had a countdown timer letting people know my talk was coming up). So many people wander around trade shows without a clear plan and they get easily distracted. So tell them what to do – they’ll be glad to receive the benefits of your information.

You’re going to have a wide spectrum of potential leads, from people who are very likely to buy, to people who were simply passing through on their way to another booth. Make a special note of your most meaningful conversations, because these are the people to follow up with first. Have a pen handy to write details on the card before you put it into the box. Make sure all of your booth staff uses the same process.

Tip: Use a tool like CamCard to scan the business cards you collect (use your down times during the show, or do this after the show). CamCard is an app and website that runs online. You take a photo of the front and back of a business card and the app scans the info and creates a digital record of all the data on the business card.

A lot of small business owners get stuck on the work to hand-enter all that data. CamCard removes that obstacle, and I see people really perk up when I introduce them to this tool. You can export your Camcard data into a spreadsheet, then you can correct any errors. We find that photos with coloured backgrounds, funky designs, or eclectic fonts are most prone to error. In this digital age, keep that in mind when designing your own business cards!

After the show

For any cards you didn’t scan during the show, or if you weren’t using a scanner, go through your box of business cards and enter people’s contact details (at the very least their first name, last name, and email address) into a spreadsheet or your CRM.

Remember those meaningful conversations that you tracked by making a note on the cards? Follow up – immediately! I don’t use our email program for these contacts – I write them directly to see if they have any questions or need more help. This is my opportunity to have a deeper conversation. And that’s the main point of investing time and energy to attend a trade show.

I also tell them to watch for my email newsletter, which is another way to start a long-term conversation with the people we’ve met at trade shows. Everyone who leaves their card at our booth is automatically subscribed to our newsletter (and that is clearly stated on the sign on our business card box).

For the people you didn’t speak to directly, you’ll want to follow up with a copy of your presentation or other follow-up materials related to your trade show booth. After our City of Toronto show, we exported our 100 contacts from CamCard into our CRM (we use Highrise to manage our small business leads).

Then, we used the Broadcast feature in Highrise – this is an email marketing system that lets you send bulk emails and track your results, but is designed to look like a regular email from one person to another. In Highrise, you can also tag people with the name of the trade show so you have a segmented list for continuing follow up with those contacts.

What’s also cool about Highrise is that they have email templates, including merge fields (e.g., first name, last name). After our City of Toronto trade show, we sent an email that included a copy of our presentation and a call to action for a free consultation. We sent it three days after the show, to give people a chance to get caught up after being away from the office for the full day show.

What were the results? Fifty-five percent of the respondents opened our email, and 25% clicked on at least one link. The key is that email – and that trade show – wasn’t the end, it was the beginning. I know it will take six or seven conversations to move those relationships forward.

So once you’ve committed to exhibit and speak at a trade show, plan and prepare to follow through on your investment. Trade shows have been around for years for a reason. Yes, they’re old school. And yes, they work!

About the author

Alex is a pioneer in using the cloud to meet the needs of small and medium sized business (SMBs) and membership-based organizations. He has a BSc in computer science from the University of Michigan and has worked as a product manager at two Internet startups. Alex is a father of 2 and plays the trumpet for fun. He is the founder and the president of the University of Michigan Alumni Club of Toronto.