04002 Trade Shows: Measuring ROI

It seems that the necessity to exhibit your product at trade shows is one of those trying truisms in the software industry. Like press releases and advertising, manning a company booth at trade shows is considered de rigueur for a marketing plan.

Product Managers are often called upon to man the booth at shows as well as actively attend speeches and presentations. Because a trade show can easily eat up a week of your time between travel, setup, and the show itself, it’s vital that you attend only those trade shows that net you a positive return on investment (ROI).

Read on for tips on measuring the expected ROI of a trade show.


Today’s topic focuses on the potential return you can get from your trade show activities, while a later issue will cover useful tactics for maximizing that return.

Beware Received Opinion

One thing is certain: trade shows are expensive. Booth space, attendee registration, booth design and setup, signage, and collateral, not to mention the time and attention required from a whole team of people. What’s not so certain is whether trade shows pay off.

The very first trade show decision you need to make is whether you’re going to do a trade show at all. And for that you need to estimate the likely return to weigh against the total cost.

What’s It Gonna Get You?

Foremost in your mind should be what you want to get from a specific trade show. Depending on your company and product’s situation – as well as the nature of the show – you may mix and match from a number of potential benefits, described below.

Marketing and Sales Leads

You can use a trade show to pull in leads for your sales pipeline. This would be your main goal if your pipeline is sparse. If your software is a consumer product or inexpensive shrinkwrapped package for individual business users, there’s the potential to generate lots of leads using a sweepstakes or other tactics to bring traffic to your booth.

If your product is relatively expensive software for businesses, your lead gathering will be more labor intensive if you want to gather good quality leads. That’s because much of the traffic that comes to your booth will be individuals who, although they’re from the right company, may not be the right contact for your product. Your efforts need to focus on engaging in structured conversations that get you to the name of the right contact: the Manager/Director/VP of X, or the appropriate executive above them.

Trade show leads are harder to pull in these days, and should not be the main focus of your efforts to build a pipeline if other activities such as white papers and webinars are bringing results for you.

Established companies with big booths and lots of existing customers and prospects stand to get more return in terms of leads – often a trade show is an opportunity for a sales rep to familiarize an additional member of the buying team with his company.

Industry Exposure

If you’re a smaller company rather than a big, established player in your market, trade shows can get you exposure. A booth with a stand-out design will cause passers-by to notice your company name. Like advertising, this exposure may not cause buyers to pick up the phone and call you, but when your sales reps call, the reaction will be: “Oh yes, Company X. I’ve seen your name around. Now what exactly do you do?” This is a much better reaction to get than: “Who?”

The other exposure is not to potential buyers but to the industry press and professional association members. With them, the goal is to get out information about your product and to schedule meetings with journalists.

Partnerships and Alliances

Your presence at a trade show sponsored by a technology or business partner can be a way to solidify and extend that relationship. It’s an opportunity to have more people on your marketing team meet up with several people on the partner’s marketing and business development teams.

It’s also a chance for your sales reps to meet your partner’s sales reps and get started on joint sales efforts.

At a more generalized industry show, a Product Manager can scout out complementary products and companies and set up meetings to investigate further. It can be an efficient way to make lots of contacts.

If your main goal is to talk with partners, you’re better served buying a pass to the exhibit hall rather than spending the time and money for a booth.

Speaking Engagements

Speaking engagements, ideally in collaboration with a customer, are a way to generate the most qualified leads. If you speak at a conference and identify even one or two people who heard your message and were impressed enough to investigate further, you may have turned up a one-in-a-hundred sales lead.

While your ideal arrangement would be to present at a trade show without paying for a booth, you may find that your company garners a lot more attention from the show organizers – the ones who control speaking engagements and sponsorships – when you’re a paying exhibitor or attendee.


Sponsorships are definitely a way to spend money. I’m not sure what you get from them, though. Large companies can benefit from reinforcing their image as an established player.

You can sponsor receptions, meals, or show-wide giveaways or useful materials such as the strap that holds each attendee’s badge. For a smaller company or product, sponsorships usually only provide a specific return if you coordinate them with driving traffic to your booth. So plan on exhibiting with a booth if you want a sponsorship to pay off.

Quantify Your Return

Now that you have a clear idea what kind of return you want, you need to quantify it. Yes, this will never be more than a scientific guess, but it’s necessary If you want to avoid wasting marketing dollars.

And here’s where most estimates go wrong. You start with the money outcome you want, figure out how many leads and sales that entails, then declare that you have to get x sales out of the trade show. But the show is not endless; the exhibit hall will be open only so many hours. So start with that, plus attendance, plus realistic traffic to your booth. Add up the leads and determine how qualified they will be. If they’re just names gathered for a sweepstakes, you may only get one sale for a hundred names gathered. More qualified leads have better odds.

Or is your goal to get one article out of the show? If the article results in 1,000 visits to your web site, perhaps 50 might become prospects, with 5 sales.

So Is It Positive or Negative?

Add up the estimated return against total costs: booth space, materials, shipping and setup, travel and expenses for all attendees. Is the return more or less than the cost?

That’s one measurement. Next, if you spent the same money on something else – seminars, telemarketing, advertising – could you get a better result?

The answer to these two questions should tell you pretty clearly whether the trade show is worth it.

Next topic: Maximizing your ROI for a tradeshow.

— Jacques Murphy, Product Management Challenges


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