Showing the right attributes

Many companies participate in exhibitions for the wrong reasons and without an effective strategy, often wasting the opportunities that this underrated medium can offer. Martin Croft reports

Exhibitions can be one of the most effective places for marketers to communicate with the people who actually buy and use the products they sell – yet too many companies are still taking stands at the wrong exhibitions for the wrong reasons.

And even when they are at the right shows, they are all too often failing to make the best use of their time and money.

The reason is a lack of proper research, combined with a cavalier attitude toward exhibitions, which sees many companies determining where they pitch their tents more according to tradition than to business objectives.

Steve Hill, marketing manager of exhibition design company Academy Expo – which has worked for clients such as British Airways, IBM and Spar – has discovered that many client companies have no real idea about why they are attending particular shows.

Hill says: “It’s surprising how many people we talk to don’t have specific objectives. We come across some very large companies that have no exhibition strategy beyond ’we’ve gone every year’.”

A decade ago, the failure to have constructed a forward strategy to prioritise exhibition attendance might have been excusable, given the difficulty in extracting accurate data from exhibition organisers about who actually attended.

Excusable too would have been the inability to conduct an in-depth evaluation of who came to a company’s stand at a particular show, what their concerns were, what information they were provided with and what future action should be taken.

The staff on duty on exhibition stands ten years ago would have had enough to do keeping track of the big name customers.

However, neither excuse holds water any longer. The Audit Bureau of Circulations launched audits for exhibitions in May 1993, while the introduction of simple-to use, hi-tech data capture systems allow easy collection, collation and transmission of large amounts of information.

Trevor Foley, director of marketing and communications, business-to-business, at the Bureau explains that the organisation’s decision to launch a certification scheme for exhibitions was a natural progression of its work with magazines and newspapers. He says: “There was a lack of credibility among exhibition companies. It was a great opportunity for us to help the industry.”

The Bureau’s exhibition certificate provides an audited attendance at a show, both those who register in advance and those who arrive on the day. It also provides a breakdown according to such things as geographical region, job title and company size and type. Foley does not claim that the certificates are that much use for post-event validation but believes they should be used in advance for “pre-planning” – assessing whether companies should be attending exhibitions.

But even now, when they could lay their hands easily on all the relevant information, some clients are still failing to conduct either pre-planning research, to find out whether they should or shouldn’t be at particular exhibitions, or post-evaluation to find out what they actually achieved by their presence. Some clients are not even demanding to see audit certificates.

Yet only the worst educated client – in marketing terms – would buy television time or newspaper space without first demanding all the relevant research. Marketers are used to examining in detail the effectiveness of their above-the-line advertising, but they seem to be inexplicably cavalier when it comes to evaluating their spend on below-the-line media.

Reg Best has been involved with research into the exhibition industry for years, and is currently putting together the annual survey of the industry for the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers, (ISBA) the organisation which represents the interests of clients. Best argues that it is “essential to have an objective in mind, and to measure whether you’ve achieved it. But you have to remember that you don’t go to an exhibition necessarily just to sell – you might be there to keep an eye on the competition”.

Jacki Hulbert, business development manager of Reed Exhibitions Companies (UK), says: “There is a huge diversity of attitudes to exhibitions. Some client companies are good and some are not, relying too much on ’gut feel’. The good ones follow up leads, track how they develop over time and identify sales that originally came from an exhibition even two years or more later.”

Hulbert does not understand why clients do not give exhibitions the respect they deserve. She says: “Exhibitions are one of the most effective media available to businesses.”

REC (UK) places a high priority on properly researching the perceptions and requirements of exhibitors and visitors at the more than 300 shows it organises every year. Hulbert runs a dedicated research department. Much of the work it conducts is for REC’s own purposes, but information about what visitors think is also passed onto exhibitors.

Academy Expo’s Hill believes that far from being more difficult to assess the effectiveness of exhibitions than, for instance, the impact of above-the-line advertising, it should in fact be easier. Exhibitors have to record how many sales leads attendance has generated, how many of those leads have converted into sales and the value of those sales so should have at their finger tips a swift means of assessing effectiveness.

Sebastian Paul, account director at exhibition designer Imagination, agrees that there are still clients who go to exhibitions “because they have always gone. People need to look at what they’re trying to achieve”.

Imagination has recently been involved in a major project for Swedish telecoms company Ericsson Mobile Communications. The brief was to create a stand for Ericsson to use at CeBIT 96, and Imagination was able to convince the company to conduct extensive research through German research agency Forsa of Dortmund.

Paul says: “We discussed with the client whether evaluation should be part of the brief when we were planning the stand. And the research we conducted was in fact very useful.” Imagination, he adds, is a fervent believer in evaluation: “It is a very important part of the overall brief. We would advise some form of evaluation related to the objectives which are set out when the brief is created.”

Another major client company with a coherent exhibition strategy is electronics giant Toshiba. In fact, Sara Herschel Shorland, marketing communications manager for Toshiba, explains that the company is so concerned about making the best use of its exhibition budget that it prefers to organise its own.

“We don’t tend to do exhibitions – our distributors and resellers will attend the big regional shows, so we get coverage that way, and we do support them,” says Herschel Sharland. “We tend to organise big seminars of our own, although this year we are doing something we’ve never done before – a user forum at Alexandra Palace.”

Herschel Shorland says all the seminars the company organises and the events it goes to are rigorously evaluated, with attendees asked to give a critique on all aspects “so that we can work out if we are getting value for money – and also so that we can make sure the right message is being communicated. What we think our audience wants to hear may not in fact be what they do want to hear”.

Interactive Market Link (IML) makes group response systems and data collection handsets which can be used with multimedia presentations. Peter Knowles, sales and marketing director of IML, says that the company has supplied its systems to a number of clients for use on exhibition stands. One was German pharmaceutical company Boehringer Ingleheim, which set up a five-seater “coffee area” on its stand at a recent exhibition.

Knowles says: “People could sit down and watch a presentation about how people used their drugs on a big screen, giving responses to various questions with their handsets.”

And because visitors to the stand had been logged in, and a record kept of who had been given which handset, individual responses could be tracked.

IML created a similar system for perfume ingredients company Quest International. That system actually allowed visitors to smell ingredients, then record their observations about them.

Of course, it is not absolutely necessary to use the latest cutting-edge, hi-tech equipment to collect information about who visits a stand – but it does help, because it takes a burden off the shoulders of the staff on site, who can then concentrate on meeting, greeting and marketing.

Interactive systems can also offer a “softer” alternative to the hard sell of a sales person walking up to a visitor.

But the one golden rule, exhibition industry experts agree, is that research to allow companies to construct an exhibition strategy, or to analyse and evaluate the impact and success of a show after the event, is an absolute must.

As Imagination’s Sebastian Paul says: “You’ve got to do research – and we’re finding increasingly that it’s not about numbers, it’s about the experience that people feel they have been exposed to on the stand, and the ’take-out’ of ideas they go away with.”

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