Trade Show Startup Marketing 101

December 16, 2015

5:00 pm

So you’ve bootstrapped your startup launch. Your website is live, your social media profiles are pushing content, you’ve contacted the press and set up as many interviews as you can, and you have branded collateral. Your launch is going well, and then you realize conference season is approaching. You start to wonder if you should market at the conferences or trade shows, you analyze the benefits and whether you can afford to produce a high-class trade show booth. You think “how will my small startup compete with the big guys at the year’s most influential events?”

To help you answer this question and learn the marketing tricks of the trade(show), Tech.Co spoke with David Spark, a conference marketing veteran and author of the recently published Three Feet from Seven Figures: One-on-One Engagement Techniques to Qualify More Leads at Trade Shows.

Here’s what David Spark shared with Tech.Co:

You’ve worked with many startups, how do you recommend they approach trade shows?

Spark: Startups often have the CEO or a founder of the company working the booth, so it’s their money on the line and they know they need to make every moment count. It’s truly a situation of survival.  Given that most people have probably never heard of you, you’re going to have one great catchy line that gets people really intrigued in what you’re offering. That is truly going to be your core means to rope people in. Spend time crafting that line, and then come up with a few other lines that would work with different audiences.

What was the objective in writing Three Feet from Seven Figures: One-on-One Engagement Techniques to Qualify More Leads at Trade Shows?

Spark: My objective for this book is to make people realize that at a trade show they’re so close to so much. Every trade show I go, to I witness an enormous amount of time and money wasted as potential customers, whose lifetime value would inevitably reach seven figures, walk right past a sponsor’s booth. Most businesses, especially in a B2B environment, rely on people-to-people selling. The irony is with all the money that’s spent to sponsor and attend a trade show, training the booth staffers to engage and qualify attendees is the last consideration or not even a consideration at all. In a trade show environment, there’s a need for people to learn how to quickly engage, qualify, and repeat with complete strangers.

Three Feet from Seven Figures is abundantly filled with trade show marketing tips – are there three key insights you hope readers will take away?

Spark: Sure, here are my three tips:

  1. Your booth is like a stage that’s hot all day: Anything you do in that booth is projected to the people in the aisle who are your audience. It’s tough because the booth workers are not “actors” nor are they accustomed to being on stage for eight hours straight.
  2. Truly understand the costs of being at a trade show: The cost of being at the trade show is not just the sponsorship. It also includes the months of preparation, the flights, hotels, cabs, meals, lost productivity of people at the show. Add up all those costs and divide by the number of hours the floor is open and that’s your per hour cost to be on the show floor.
  3. You’re fighting time: A trade show is this amazing opportunity to meet face-to-face with existing and potential customers, but it only lasts for a limited time. Take advantage of it and don’t waste time answering office emails or doing something else that doesn’t involve the people who are there at the show.

How might startups with limited funding take advantage of trade shows/conferences?

Spark: If you don’t have money there are a variety of recommendations. You could volunteer for the trade show in exchange for a free pass. If you’re not already with an established media outlet, get one or create one. Many trade shows provide “in kind” sponsorships where they’ll give free paths or even booths to established media outlets.

How do you have companies assess whether a booth is the right approach?

Spark: It all depends on whether this audience is your audience, and often it’s a situation of survival. Many times companies get a booth not to win, but to avoid losing. For example, if you’re an established company in an industry and you choose not to sponsor an industry trade show where everyone is, that will bring up a lot of suspicion. People will question why you’re not there and that leaves the door wide open for your competition to define your narrative. If that happens, it could truly be devastating. They could simply just say, “Well, we heard things weren’t going so well for them.” To avoid that inevitable scenario companies will sponsor booths just to avoid the potential conflict.

What would you say is the biggest trade show mistake marketers make?

Spark: Behaviors that are appropriate and expected in the office, are off putting to attendees walking by your booth. For example, in the office it’s normal to work on your computer, stare at your phone, eat, or huddle with your coworkers. But unlike the office, on a trade show floor you’re on display. People see that behavior and it says you’re simply not interested or you’re not to be bothered. What happens is you’re rejected without an initial engagement. People end up passing judgment on you and your business without ever talking to you.

Can you share with our readers an example of the most innovative trade show marketing approach you’ve come across?

Spark: Not connected to my book in any way, one of my favorite trade show gimmicks was the use of something called an Airzooka. It’s a big round plastic device with a plastic elastic bag on one side. You pull the bag and it shoots a targeted puff of air more than 20 feet away. At one trade show I saw guys dressed as superheroes “shooting” people with the Airzooka. People would be startled, see the superheroes who would be laughing, and then they’d come back to the booth. A very fun silly way to get people physically involved, without getting “physically” involved. For this and more, read my article, “Our Five Favorite Trade Show Gimmicks.”

Three Feet from Seven Figures: One-on-One Engagement Techniques to Qualify More Leads at Trade Shows is available at

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Samantha has been a long time contributor to Tech Cocktail, and runs SLS Consulting, a marketing and partnerships practice in the San Francisco Bay Area. Follow Samantha at @sfsam22.

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