Attending trade shows might sound like something only large companies or multinational enterprises can pull off. But in fact, it can be a cost-effective way to build your small business quickly.

Attending the right trade show can help you raise brand awareness, cultivate business relationships, generate highly-targeted leads, learn about your competition and stay on top of the latest developments in your industry. 

Here’s how you can take advantage of these benefits – without blowing your entire marketing budget at once:

1. Raise Brand Awareness

Trade shows run the gamut from small events with a few dozen vendors to major events that fill hundreds of thousands of square feet of conference center space.

But no matter what size they are, most trade shows offer business participants opportunities to get their names in front of attendees beyond simply signing up for a booth. For example, you may be able to pay to participate in a tiered sponsorship program or to put your logo on event swag (such as badge lanyards or attendee gift bags).

The problem? Most of these perks come with price tags that aren’t exactly small business-friendly. A better solution for small companies is to look into opportunities to give presentations or take part in panel sessions. Not only are you likely to get free tickets for doing so, speaking at an event can help you build brand awareness and position your business as a leader in your space.

To understand what kinds of pitches might be accepted, ask your customers questions to determine which topics interest them most. For example, if you’re hoping to give a conference presentation, send customers survey questions like this, asking what they want to learn about. Use this information to inform not just your presentation pitch, but your event marketing materials as well. 

2. Cultivate Business Relationships

Once you’ve decided to participate in a trade show, put some effort into identifying exactly what you want to get out of the experience. Is your main goal to sign up actual customers? Are you trying to network with complementary businesses? Or maybe you want to learn more about the industry. Deciding what you want to get out of your investment will help you prepare better and determine what you can spend to produce a positive ROI.

For example, if you’re using trade show attendance as an opportunity to connect with your audience and build business relationships, there are several actions you can take ahead of time to improve your results.

Promote Your Attendance

Make sure your customers know you’ll be attending. Include the event’s hashtag in your social media posts to get the show on participants’ radar. Where appropriate, join conversations happening about the event on social media sites as well.

Some events will provide a list of attendees before the event. If you’re able to get a hold of this information, use it to improve your event outreach. Invite attendees to stop by your booth or schedule meetings to occur before or after the trade show to optimize your time. 

It’s also a good idea to browse LinkedIn to find other contacts who have liked the event. Regardless of how you identify contacts, make sure you clearly state the value you’re providing or the perk they’ll score from stopping by to visit you. 

Get Creative with Your Swag

Conference pens and other tried-and-true swag options are boring and unmemorable. Instead, look for items like these that are useful to your audience, relevant to your brand, and that have a quirky or humorous twist. Consider adding a witty on-brand tagline to help your small business cut through the noise at the event. 

Items to consider include Bluetooth speakers, reusable water bottles, or umbrellas. Look for items that are relevant to your brand or industry. For example, if your company serves the music industry, headphones will be much more appealing to attendees than a tote bag. 

Finally, consider creating an engaging experience or incentive for your attendees to get the swag— such as playing a game or solving a puzzle—rather than leaving everything out on a table. Attaching an item to an experience will create a lasting memory and also a better experience for the attendee. 
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3. Generate High-Quality Leads

You aren’t just attending a trade show for fun. If your purpose is to generate high-quality leads at the event, one of the best tools in your arsenal is your sales and marketing collateral. 

These items—including flyers, brochures, folders, business cards, and more – say a lot about your company. How you package the content makes an important first impression that could determine if prospects will read the materials. 

For example, use vivid imagery that makes your collateral stand out. As an example, consider this pocket folder handout used by a home remodeling company. The imagery portrays a young couple renovating their home and the renovation company’s tag line “You bring the dream. We’ll bring the home,” conveying an important sense of professionalism. 

As a bonus tip, if you’re looking to measure the success of an event, consider passing out a special coupon code that’s only used for the event. Later on, you weight your investment in the show against the number of times the code produces new customers.  

4. Learn About the Competition

“Walking the show” is a time-honored trade shows tradition. When you attend, take the time to walk through all of the displays in the exhibit hall to see what your competitors are doing and what trends are emerging. 

What kinds of promotions are your competitors’ advertising? Who are they targeting? What kinds of displays are they using, and which visual elements are most prominent? Not only can these kinds of observations inform your future booth experiences, but they can also provide valuable insight into what your customers need to hear from you.

For example, say your company sells a software program that facilitates online booking in several different industries. If you’ve been prioritizing your low costs in all of your marketing materials—but all of your competitors are advertising their ease of use—that could be a sign that you need to update your messaging or improve your features. 

One thing many small businesses don’t realize is that you don’t have to be an exhibitor at a trade show to attend. Conferences and events often sell passes that include access to the show floor only. Use these tickets, when available, to attend shows that on servicing specific market niches, such as this one targeting CPG brands, to get a better understanding of your broader industry and booth display trends.

5. Stay on Top of the Industry

One final benefit small businesses enjoy by attending tradeshows is the ability to stay on top of the industry. Walking the show, as described above, will reveal some new business trends and insights. But there are several other steps you can take to maximize the value of your attendance at the show.

If you’re presenting a session, you may need to sit out other panels and presentations to prepare for your own. But if you aren’t, be sure to check the event’s agenda for sessions that are relevant to your business or your audience; they’re often good opportunities to hear from new voices that are able to share practical, real-world insights. 

Make a special effort to attend sessions given by industry leaders you’d benefit from connecting with. After you get home from the show, sending a quick email with a note about how much you enjoyed their presentation can be a great way to jumpstart a new relationship.

There’s no getting around the fact that tradeshows can be costly. But if you’re savvy about which shows you attend and careful to maximize the results you expect from the show, these events can be a great way to help grow your small business quickly.

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AvatarMatt Shealy

Matt Shealy is the President of ChamberofCommerce.com. Chamber specializes in helping small businesses grow their business on the web while facilitating the connectivity between local businesses and more than 7,000 chambers of commerce worldwide.