06005 Creating a Great Trade Show Playbook

Exhibiting at trade shows is a staple of marketing a software product. As part of a mix of marketing activities to reach your target market, trade shows provide visibility for your product, build familiarity, and bring in sales leads.

Trade shows are also costly, not only in terms of sheer dollars but also in terms of time spent by skilled employees to plan for the show, prepare for it, and man the booth. Because of the cost, your company has to limit the number of shows where it exhibits, so it has to make the most of each show.

One tactic that I have used to get the biggest payout from a trade show is to create a Playbook. Like a playbook for a football team, this document succinctly provides all the information your trade show team needs to act effectively. While having a written guide seems like a no-brainer, I have only seen a small number of the most organized and focused trade show planners who took the trouble to create one, much to everyone’s benefit.

Read on below for advice on what to include when you create a Playbook for your trade show team in order to maximize your company’s return on a trade show.


Why You Need a Trade Show Playbook

The problem with trade shows, perhaps more so than other marketing tactics, is that they are a guaranteed expense, but with no guaranteed return. It is possible to get no tangible, measurable return on a trade show. And while there are several decisions to make which are critical to getting a better return on a trade show, such as targeting the right show, with the right product and message, having a clear Playbook to instruct your team will help you do the following:

  • Ensure that the booth is adequately manned.
  • Ensure that each team member knows how to talk with prospects and what to say.
  • Ensure that your product message is consistent.
  • Ensure that the team keeps focused on the important goals of the show: getting the word out and collecting qualified leads.

The Lesson From Business Continuity Plans

I am currently responsible for the product management of a software tool used for business continuity planning. This software helps organizations build better plans to recover their operations when they are disrupted for any number of reasons.

One of the lessons learned over many years of helping organizations build better plans is that it’s important to keep these plans as simple, standardized and action-oriented as possible. While it’s every business continuity planner’s tendency to develop thick binders of extensive detail, when the time comes to consult the plan in a hurry, the knowledgeable resources make use of quick checklists and basic step-by-step instructions.

So I took a page from that textbook and avoided my tendency to write down grand ideas with long-winded explanations. Instead, I focused on a one-page schedule and a list of team members. Next, I chunked the rest of the explanations so topics could be covered in a page or less, and were each on their own page.

Practice Makes Perfect

The good thing about the trade show Playbook is that you learn which information was most useful at each show. You have a good feedback loop that lets you further pare down the contents to the necessary minimum.

Even though I was pretty determined the first time to keep things simple and action-oriented, the writer in me couldn’t help but get carried away with text descriptions. But I learned that while some of those details were good for preparing during meetings ahead of time, it was just too hard to use during the show. So each generation of the Playbook is handier and more pared down.

Listen Up, Team!

Even though you have written a whole Playbook for the team, most people won’t read it on their own initiative. They prefer to be walked through it verbally, after which they use the Playbook for quick reference.

This applies for preparation meetings a week or two before the show, and also to the Chalk Talk you give right at the start of the exhibit. Have the entire team assemble at the booth an hour before the hall opens and go through the Playbook so everyone knows where to find information. Cover the basics that everyone needs to have fresh in their minds.

If you do not hold the Chalk Talk right before the start of the game, you find yourself repeating bits and pieces of it to lots of different team members throughout the entire show. Not that saying it once will guarantee you won’t have to repeat yourself …

Game Schedule

The very first section should be the schedule for the booth and all other activities your team will be engaged in as exhibitors. You want a table – just a page or two – where it’s easy to see day, time, and place.

There is no need to include anything about sessions at the show, unless your company is sponsoring them or presenting. All that information will be provided by the show organizers.

Strings and the Bench

The schedule in front should also include information about who from your team is on duty and who is off for each time slot. It’s important to rotate people so that they can take breaks from booth duty. Figuring out these shifts can be difficult, as you accommodate different people’s needs and provide people the opportunity to attend sessions on their breaks. That last requirement means you need to align your time slots with presentation times.


Unlike in sports, the trade show uniform for each day is not intuitively obvious. In the most recent Playbook I did, this section came second, after the schedule. That’s because the second most common question I got was: “Which shirt do we wear on Sunday? How about Monday?”

Team Roster

The next most important piece of information for the Playbook is the list of team members and how to contact them. You want a compact and simple list of each team member and the mobile number where they can be reached in a pinch.

Don’t Forget the Water Boy

When you put together the list of team members, don’t forget the support staff that people may need to reach in an emergency. Include the booth coordinator, and possibly the people from the show who provide support to exhibitors.

Also include the critical numbers back at home for customer, technical and sales support. The team needs a handy list for all such numbers.

Driving Traffic

One way to maximize exposure to your company and the number of leads collected during the show is to have each team member make a continuous effort to drive traffic to your booth and to any and all presentations or demos. Make sure your Playbook provides instructions to drive traffic to every event, from the booth and the booth drawing, to the group demos, to one-on-one demos, to presentations, to receptions, customer dinners, and parties.

Play-By-Play Instructions

In the interest of simplicity, it helps to break instructions up into blocks that help teammates focus on only what lies directly ahead. For example, the instructions for the Sunday evening reception are to get prospects to attend the group demo at lunchtime on Monday, after the plenary sessions. Once that event has started, the team focuses on getting attendance to the mid-afternoon presentation. And so it continues.

Prospects and customers are usually not thinking very far ahead. Plus they can only remember so many pieces of information when they are being bombarded with new facts. If you can get them excited about something they don’t have to wait for, you’ll increase attendance.

While it’s helpful to have play-by-play information in the Playbook, don’t count on your busy team stopping to read it at the right moment. Every Playbook needs a coach to bring it to life. Be prepared to reiterate the upcoming play with the team after each play is completed and with each change in booth staff.

The Opposing Team

Include in the Playbook any information you have about your top competitors. This includes where they’re located relative to your booth, if that is significant, and what activities they are involved in at the show (sponsorships, receptions, etc.) This way the booth staff can sound knowledgeable about your competition and also work to steer prospects away from your competitors’ events.

At a recent show, our company booth was directly behind our competitor’s. To a typical attendee, trade show booths look like they have a solid wall behind them. But in reality there’s an open space between your booth and the booth in back of you. So I had to highlight in yellow, and emphasize in all prep meetings, that no materials or other important sources of competitive information were to be left behind the back wall of the booth, where they would be freely accessible to our competitor.

Booster Club

It’s also helpful to point out your business partners and allies. If you have any joint marketing activities at the show, highlight these clearly in a section, and provide instructions on how your team can back up the activities and messages of your partners.

The Fans

And let’s not forget the fans. The show attendees are the whole reason you’re there. It helps to provide information about who will be attending. This can be anything from typical demographics of past shows to lists of customers and prospects who will be at the show and should receive focused attention.

If hot prospects whom you are already talking with are attending, list them, provide a one- or two-sentence background about the potential sale, and mention the coworker who is their main contact. The goal with such a section is to have everyone on your team ready to have an informed discussion should they meet the prospect at the booth or other event, and to let the right person at your company know about it afterward.

Game Etiquette

No Playbook for a trade show is complete without a reminder to the team about the best behavior that you want from them. Sales people can be especially hard to keep on track when it comes to eating in the booth or piling up their coats and briefcases in plain sight. It never hurts to go over these rules. But don’t expect a printed list to do much good. You’ll definitely need to repeat these, as gently as you care to, throughout the show.

The Fight Song

At the end of the Playbook, I usually place the section that summarizes our product message. While the position all the way at the back might make it seem like it’s the least important, having it at the back makes it easy to turn to quickly to hand to a teammate so they can quickly prepare themselves.

No game is complete without the fight song, and your product’s fight song is what you want ringing in the ears of attendees long after the game is over and the crowds have gone home.

— Jacques Murphy, Product Management Challenges



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