How to use trade shows for social networking

Trade shows and conferences are often under-utilised by companies. Exhibitors try to capture as many leads as possible to follow up later; speakers hope that their presentations will resonate enough to create contacts; visitors aspire to gather as much information as possible and leave without having to be talked at by sales people.

If you study any trade show, as we did recently, you will discover that a lot of opportunities are missed. Let me tell you why.

Perhaps you would love to know what’s going on at a specific trade show, but can’t attend for whatever reason. With social media and Google, you should be able to find out. In our study, this was not the case. Knowing which trade show we wanted to monitor remotely and gather information from, we looked in specific places for information. Unfortunately, we were left under-informed, only picking up micro-bursts of news through Twitter and very little from any of the companies involved.

Trade show websites are brochures

Look at the website for almost any trade show. It’s a brochure; nicely designed with all the information you need for exhibiting and attending, including details about whom will be speaking. That’s all well and good for selling the event before it happens.

Once the event is running, nothing happens. There’s no news being published about talks, no press announcements from exhibitors at the event. Once a conference or trade show is up and running, the official website is usually useless except to help remind you of the address.

Recommended strategy

If I ran a trade show, I would make sure the website lives and breathes during the event by turning it into a resource for sharing news, data and video – anything that lets people stay informed.

Exhibitors pay a lot of money to be there, so why not help them reach a wider audience by publishing more current information throughout the event? The website can benefit from content provided by exhibitors – fantastic free stuff that helps boost your own brand awareness and generate a feelgood factor for future events.

Image of a trade show from above

Exhibitors forget to maximise the occasion

At the last trade show we studied, there were only two great examples we could find of exhibitors maximising the occasion. They didn’t just use the event to talk to people in the room, they used it to talk to the wider audience who were interested in the sector.

The first example was a company that had clearly invested in making the event a launch pad for a new service. It paid for an exhibition stand, hosted a discussion forum and produced a nicely designed ebook that was made available as a download following a widely promoted press release.

The second example was more simple. A company that was announcing something pertinent to the industry issued a press release to say that it would reveal more at the show. Later on, it issued a full news story.

We were tracking the event to look for news announcements, but aside from those two things there was precious little else during the days of the event.

Recommended strategy

There is a huge lack of information during an event. Even afterwards there is next to no news, so you can use this as an opportunity to fill the void.

  • Pre-plan some PR related to the industry.
  • Announce it at or during the show – make sure key influencers, who are likely to be attending, hear about it.
  • If any journalists are trying to find something interesting to write about at the event, you have a perfect opportunity to gain some PR coverage.

Related reading: How to get editors to read press releases

Social media is under-utilised

Social media tends to be under-utilised at trade shows (except for trade shows dedicated to social media). During our research, we found a small number of people communicated excessively during the trade show using official or popular hashtags.

The people who were communicating the most were commenting on speeches they were listening to – live micro-blogging – and conversing with others about the event.

Recommended strategy

  • Look for official hashtags for an event and make sure you use them.
  • Engage in conversation on Twitter before, during and after the event to build relationships with people in your industry – people who are influential on social media and who can therefore become advocates for you later on when you have something you need to promote.

Plan ahead and then follow up

A common practice at trade shows is to turn up, see who’s there, gather contacts and then communicate later. Advanced research can be helpful in scheduling meetings at the event, creating social networking relationships with industry peers.

Recommended strategy

  • Look through the list of exhibitors at an event, as well as speakers.
  • Look up their websites and find their social networking accounts.
  • Look up key personnel on LinkedIn.
  • You can build a relationship with people before an event starts and keep it going afterwards.
  • Monitor what other people say and join in with conversations. This is useful even if you aren’t attending.

Share your own tips

If you’ve had social media success around trade shows, tweet me – I’d love to hear your stories.

Steve Masters profile picture
Steve Masters

Steve (RIP) was Services Director for Vertical Leap. He started professional life as a magazine journalist, working on music magazines and women's titles before becoming a web editor in 1997, then joining MSN to work purely in online publishing. Since 1999 he has worked for and consulted to a broad range of businesses about their digital marketing.

More articles by Steve
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