Each year, whenever it’s time for marketers to plan their annual budgets, the question of B2B trade shows inevitably comes up.

“We already reach everyone we need to with content marketing, nurture campaigns, inbound tactics and marketing automation,” the argument goes. Can’t the roughly 14% of our marketing budget dedicated to events go to <insert previously underfunded activity, new experiment, or CEO’s pet expense here>?

Trade Show Tug-of-War

The death knell rang loudly for events for a while after the 2008 recession, but even today this remains a budget tug-of-war. As an example, check out the breakdown of six companies we’ve worked with on trade show strategies:

  • Two considerably scaled back their presence, but strategically maintained their attendance.
  • One surprised its industry by pulling its large footprint out of several major events altogether.
  • And impressively, the remaining three actually doubled down on events. They added and upgraded their exhibit spaces, created branded partner pavilions (which added expense but was offset by partner fees). Or they started live streaming to grow their audience beyond the show floor.
  • Of those, one has launched its own user event as a profit center inside the greater convention, more than paying for its lavish exhibit space.

Now the reality is that a high price tag makes B2B trade shows an easy target for cost-cutters. Whichever side of the argument these stakeholders fell on, they all had legitimate (more or less) reasons for their perspectives.

So let’s assume you’ve done your due diligence. You’ve gathered enough financial and results-oriented evidence, and gotten agreement that hiring booth babes to speed-scan every passerby’s badge does not a qualified lead make.

With your argument nearly won, there’s one more good reason to keep trade show strategies as a solid slice of your marketing pie: They’re a giant step toward sales and marketing alignment.

Alignment on Display

By itself, it’s encouraging to note that rarely is trade show attendance a Sales vs Marketing argument. On the contrary, a trade show can, by its nature, be a microcosm of Sales and Marketing alignment at its finest.

Here are a few of the ways to look at these events as opportunities to align with your partners in revenue.

1. B2B trade shows break down silos

Right from the start, the joint planning process (er, you are making it a joint planning process, right?) is a familiar, collaborative platform for representatives of all parties to share a voice in event goals, targets and strategies, rather than one department dictating and the other one merely showing up to execute.

And that’s just the beginning. Sure, starting out with everyone on the same page gives the nice, shiny appearance of alignment. But when the planning is over and the show begins? That’s when it’s time to take the relationship to the next level: from agreeing on alignment to acting on it.

2. B2B trade shows “live-action role-play” the funnel

Talk at a sales rep in pedantic detail about the marketing funnel, and that glaze you see shimmering over her eyes won’t be breathless curiosity. It will be the search for an escape route before you can recite Eugene Schwartz’s Third Stage of Awareness.

But at a trade show, explanations go out the window, and you both live the funnel in real time. Best of all, from the perspective of the customer.

In the time it takes a casual website guest to receive the first opt-in email after a lead magnet download, a trade show attendee could:

  • chance upon your stand
  • be intrigued by your display
  • watch the main presentation
  • attend a 1:1 demo
  • call his manager over to grill your sales engineer
  • ask you for a price list
  • and arrange a meeting with the territory rep for the next day before he flies out.

Only at in-person events can both sales and marketing both get the shared experience of what worked and what didn’t for that customer. What’s more, they can maneuver to respond in the moment – then apply it to others in the same scenario. In this parallel universe of real life, entire marketing life cycles take place in a day.

3. B2B trade shows take martech speak out of the discussion

With the exception of sharing the universally reviled “low-hanging fruit,” sales and marketing often parallel George Bernard Shaw’s observation of the US and England. We’re two departments separated by a common language.

Sales-speak wants to be all business, while the language of marketing is fluffy. Storytelling. Journey. Brand promise. Touch point. #amiright?

But Sales will change their minds (hint: not for the better) when we shear off the fluff and dazzle them with hard analytics.

CPA. Bounce rate. CRO. Organic acquisition. Lead to close ratio.

Talk about wielding sharp instruments in the quest to prove our relevance. We “digital marketers” know how to take jargon to a whole new plateau, don’t we?

But out here in the relative real life of trade shows, none of that exists. Attendees walk down the aisle and approach your stand, or they keep going. Details of the booth appearance capture their gaze, or they don’t; the messaging stops them in their tracks, or it leaves them looking puzzled. You ask them why, or you don’t. (Do.) A sales or marketing rep greets the guest, or doesn’t. (Ditto.)

Each interaction takes place in a language that both teams can understand and speak fluently. And after each day, everyone gathers for a quick briefing to discuss those patterns, and tweak your plan for the next day. By speaking with each other.

4. B2B trade shows mix marketing with customers (but not in the wild)

If there’s anything marketers from nearly every discipline can agree on, it’s the need to have conversations with actual customers. But in organizations whose alignment genes haven’t quite evolved yet, Sales reps don’t always think this is a good idea.

Look, we get it – account managers are protective of a relationship that may be years long, or brand new. Or there are already four other people from your company in contact with the client, and your approach may give the appearance of a barrage. Any number of (generally old-fashioned and often misguided) excuses keep you out of regular contact with customers during normal workdays.

But trade shows give Sales a controlled (ish) environment to change this dynamic. Reps can make introductions and invite marketers to sit in on client meetings. They can give the nod for marketers to attend a private demo, observe the questions customers ask and note the capabilities that interest buyers. Marketers get the chance to see each customer not as a lead or a target but as a human and a buyer. And back at the office, the messages they develop with their newfound insights will resonate more closely with those humans in real life.

What happens here, aligns here

It may take a few events to see the fruits of real-life partnering. But for teams whose leaders haven’t made alignment a priority, B2B trade shows can both signal and strengthen a collaborative relationship between sales and marketing.

And who knows? The camaraderie and shared time away from the office – and the inevitable dishing on competitors – may pave the way for the real dialog to come.


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