Trade Show Leads Are Not Valuable

Post authored by Mike Godsey

“Trade show leads are not valuable.”  This statement has hurt my head for many years.  I’ve read in countless trade publications that upwards of 80% of exhibitors do not follow-up on their trade show leads.  This “fact” has been commonly referenced in various presentations, meetings, and sessions that I’ve attended in the past few years.  I see it everywhere in print but can’t identify exactly where it came from.  I would prefer to think that it was simply based on a single survey and that the statistic was grossly exaggerated.  My world would feel better.

I’ve been to hundreds of trade shows in the past 20 years.  In my mind, the show producers that lead each of their respective industry markets (medical, technology, education, manufacturing, etc) have one thing in common:  they do an amazing job at bringing the right buyers to the trade show floor.  If they didn’t then why would exhibitors choose to exhibit?  Yes, I know the value of brand recognition, strengthening existing customer relationships, launching new products, and the various other reasons companies choose to exhibit.  But always, meeting quality new buyers and capturing leads are at the top of the list of every exhibitor survey.

So the vast majority of companies surveyed feel that meeting new buyers and capturing leads is the most important activity they do at trade shows.  And 80% of exhibitors don’t follow-up on trade show leads?  Huh?!?  That would be like Amazon saying, “We did a survey and the majority of people that come to Amazon buy books.  Yet, surprisingly, over 80% of these buyers don’t read the books.”  What are these exhibitors doing with these leads?  Are they just collectors?  Like baseball cards?

“How did you do at the show, Fred?”

“Awesome – I got a Bill Wilson, SVP of Purchasing for Wal-Mart lead…I’m going to sell it on eBay.”

And now my rant is over.

I’m not sure any of the research is factual.  In my experience, you can draw conclusions that match what you’re trying to prove in most any situation.  And survey results can be easily skewed through no fault of the organization executing the survey.  But one fact remains:  huge numbers of exhibitors rent lead retrieval units.  So, outside of any survey, we know that lead collection is important to them.  And for years, that’s where I’ve focused my efforts.  We’ve worked to deliver easier access to lead data at the show and online.  We’ve developed mobile solutions, custom software, multiple readers, and the list goes on and on.  Maybe we all need to focus somewhere else for the good of the industry.

Lead retrieval of the future may need to transition from collection to conversion.  And maybe that’s where vendors and trade show producers can focus their efforts.  Let’s say, for example, that every exhibitor at a show had a great lead collection event.  Their table top / mobile / online / (insert any functionality here) reader functioned flawlessly and they got their lead database.  Now they are home.  Now what?

I’ve often felt that the reason many exhibitors don’t follow-up on their leads isn’t related to how valuable they are.  It’s simply that people come home from the event and are immediately submerged into the real world – their JOB.  And they might not have the tools or the staff for effective lead follow-up.  On top of that, many of the people collecting leads in the booth may not even be sales people and wouldn’t follow-up individually if they could.   I know that some exhibitors have this covered.  But if you believe the research, it’s only 20%.  Maybe the other 80% need help in qualifying the leads, segmenting them for follow-up, and actually doing email campaigns or other marketing.  And that is where we all can help.

We need to make sure that we have tools available to exhibitors that make follow-up quick and easy.  Today’s model:  they leave the show and we have no idea if they follow-up on any leads or, better yet, if they turn into sales.  Yet that is the most important thing that we could do to PROVE the value of the event.

In the future, we need to aggressively communicate with exhibitors after our events and not simply trust that they have means for effective lead conversion.  Today, we can make all of their leads available in an online portal – visible to them both during and after the event.  But do we remind them that they are there and create a sense of urgency?  Probably not, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt.  Do we give them tools to easily qualify, sort, and follow-up on these leads?  Some do and some don’t, but all should.

Most importantly, we all need to work hard to close the loop.  Let’s not have exhibitors walk away with a list of leads and hope that they were happy.  We need to develop reports that will let a show organizer look at the leads being collected during their event, at a cumulative level and also at an exhibitor-specific level.  Show organizers need to engage exhibitors right after the event to discuss these reports and assist in their follow-up of these leads.  We all need to listen to exhibitors carefully and identify the technologies that will help them follow-up on leads and turn them into sales.  When we can effectively do that, exhibiting companies will equate specific events with specific sales.  And that would be the best thing possible for satisfaction and, ultimately, retention.

I don’t pretend to have the answers, but I am trying to stimulate thought.  I hope we can all open our minds to this subject.  I’m tired of stating that “80% of exhibitors don’t follow-up on their trade show leads.”  (Yes, I’ve said it too.)  Maybe we all have just gotten to a point that we accept it.  Or maybe the data is wrong.  Who knows?  But one thing is certain – if we can work to insert ourselves into an exhibiting company’s post show sales process and assist their follow-up and conversion, it will help all of us that work in this industry.

Mike Godsey is Experient’s SVP of Market Development.  To learn more about him, click here.

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9 Responses to Trade Show Leads Are Not Valuable

  1. John Toner says:

    Very well said Mike – very often I find myself doing more follow up with suppliers after a trade show as the buyer than suppliers do with me. The same could be said about me when I exhibit as well – I tend to pick the 3 or 4 leads that I have a really good shot at closing and focus on those. So how to we break this mindset is a very good question and I hope you get some great feedback, because I certainly don’t have any of the answers.

  2. Matt Burkhardt says:

    That’s why a CRM system is invaluable to any company that rents a space at any exhibition. How can you know if your expenses are worth it?

  3. Marian Calvin says:

    Matt, excellent insights. What do you think would happen if the show organizer sent the CMO or CEO a letter post-event thanking the company for participating and letting her know that your firm’s booth generated X-tillion leads, so best of success in following up? You know, creating a little top-down ROI pressure?

  4. Dave Lutz says:

    Godsey, great post…I love this topic! I think the 80% stat is right. No question that we need better and faster follow up. Leads decay quite a bit after 2 weeks and get ice cold within 30 days of a show. So following up on the highly qualified leads, fast is the main key to success.

    What most companies do a crappy job of is sending the leads that are not “sales ready” back to marketing for nurturing. Probably 60 – 70% of the leads collected, shouldn’t be followed up on by sales. Marketing should put them in the nurturing pipe until such time that they are qualified as sales ready. Just an opinion!

  5. James Obermayer says:

    You should not feel so isolated when you think 80% of the trade show leads are not followed-up. Research has shown that 80-90% of all inquiries, regardless of source are not followed-up. Reference: Managing Sales Leads: How to Turn Every Prospect Into A Customer, Author is Donath. Cahners Research reports showed the same figures as does early research by the Advertising (research?) Council.

    And yet trade show leads are shown to require fewer ‘touches” to make a sale. About half the touches. The issue starts with sales management that doesn’t insist on follow-up and marketing management that doesn’t know how or want to prove the ROI for their programs.

    No CRM system in the world will solve this until management gets its act together. Inquiry nurturing programs via manual mailings and emails and phone calls have always shown marked increases in sales. Marketing automation programs do this now and show a 200% + increase in sales (Marketo and Eloque come to mind). This happens because follow-up happens.

    Gil Cargil says 48% of the salespeople give up after the first phone call. Yet research has shown that 45% of all inquirers buy. Some articles on this are on the Sales Lead Management Association web site in the resources section (have to join but it is free).

  6. Matt Burkhardt says:

    In my experience, the sales people (okay, rainmakers) are busy with their best customers and the booth is usually manned by admin assistants, junior marketing people, product development folks and others who are just there to help out.

    If the rainmakers (okay major salespeople) could get some resources from their IT guys, things would be better.

    I’m loving this blog!

  7. Michael Nolan says:

    Great post Mike! And thanks Dave for directing it to me from the discussion on linkedIN:
    Jim: Thanks for directing me to your book (it looks like you are a co-author) as the background reference for the ‘80% of all leads are not followed up’. The date of publication was 1994 so I am assuming the research was done in 1992 or 1993? Personal computers and the internet and cell phones have come a long way since 1993 and I wonder if you have any more recent data on this topic? Is there a newer revision of your book with more recent numbers?

    I could not agree more with the proposition that ‘maybe we need to focus somewhere else for the good of the industry’. I especially like the idea of adding a loop in our lead collection process offering to help exhibitors with the post show ‘touch’. I know that we, as a vendor community, are offering a wider assortment of these post show fulfillment processes every year. I tend to be an optimist about where this market is heading and for my part I would rather focus attention on the new products and services we are all offering than on a statistic about the poor post show performance of our customers.

  8. Fred Tremblay says:

    When the topic includes lead retrieval I assume the audience is the trade show manager, but are trade show managers really missioned with lead follow-up? In most organizations the answer is–probably not. Marketing and sales usually have this responsibility and there are a number of reasons why it does not get done in a timely manner including the following:
    • trade shows don’t happen every day so the required systems and procedures are not always in place or get “rusty”
    • sales reps don’t want to leave their pipeline of qualified leads to cold call into a bunch of unqualified contacts

    To get the most out of your trade show investment you must get to the “hot” prospects before your competitors, who all emerge from the event with the same list of leads. Being first requires an exhibitor to collect consistent qualification data to use with a prioritization methodology or rating system that points their follow-up efforts to the high priority leads. Without a prioritization approach every lead looks the same.

    Trade show follow-up probably should include an email, a personal validation call, and a direct mail piece to the high priority leads before ever sending them to sales. Contacting your leads with more than one method can increase the effectiveness of your trade show follow up and help insure that when the sales force is engaged they are focused on converting prospects to customers rather than cold calling into another list of names.

  9. Marvin McTaw says:

    Great post Mike! Trade shows are a great for bringing people with mutual interest (i.e. buyers and sellers) together. The big issue that’s been raised above is timing.

    In my experience, trade show attendees are not looking to buy at that moment. They are usually looking to learn…and pick up some swag. Since attendees are not purchase ready, and exhibitors already have existing relationships/pipelines, it doesn’t really make sense for them to spend extra time and energy on pursuing new leads. It’s better for them to enjoy the trip, pursue the handful of most exciting leads and let the rest come to them if they want.

    Dave, Frank and James are right about nurturing leads. James really hit the nail on the head when he suggested putting trade show leads in automated marketing systems (e.g. an email marketing program, is good for this).

    Lead generation vendors should make a solution for this and/or exhibitors should encourage people who stop by their booths to sign up for their regular marketing programs like e-newsletters right at the booth so that no extra “effort” is required.

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