Why Demo At Tradeshows?

By Ethan Henry

TradeShowSo I have to go with Saeed here in response to Steve’s posting on tradeshows. Just because a lot of companies handle trade shows badly doesn’t mean they’re worthless. Most companies can’t do email marketing right either; I would not suggest that you stop emailing customers and prospects.

But before we think about what to do at the trade show, let’s review what a Product Manager can get out of a trade show. Two things: one, leads and two, conversations.

Acquiring Leads

Now, leads may not be your direct responsibility, but everyone needs leads. Are trade shows the cheapest way to get leads? Nope. Are they the best way to get leads? Nope. But unless you generate more leads than your salespeople can handle, you need more leads. Even if you have too many leads, how many highly qualified leads are coming in through your other lead generation channels? (The answer is never enough!) Web- and email-based marketing is the #1 source of leads for many B2B companies and I can come up with plenty of ways that companies do web and email marketing wrong. That doesn’t mean they should stop doing it.

You need to have an ecosystem of leads, just like you need to have customers in more than one region or vertical market. And trade shows remain a good way to get new leads. I hate scanning badges as much as anyone, but it works.

Also, if you can’t prove that trade shows are generating quality leads for you, then that’s not the trade show’s fault. Implement close-loop leads tracking! You have a CRM system right? Creating a campaign in Salesfore.com and seeing how many opportunities result from it isn’t rocket science.

Great Conversations

A trade show lets you have longer, more fully engaged conversations with both customers and prospects. Prospects are key here – when was the last time you talked to someone who was actively looking to buy a product like yours but wasn’t yet in your company’s sales funnel? Talking to prospects is so important because if you only ever talk to customers you’ll never find out about what the people who decided not to buy your product think. Prospects can decide not to even consider your product or service based on your positioning, without ever talking to a salesperson. I have yet to find a better venue than a trade show to meet these people and talk to them.

The demo isn’t the goal – it’s just the tool to get people’s attention

Conversations at trade shows are also more casual and relaxed because of the whole circus-like atmosphere of the show floor. (Being at a circus is great, as long as you’re not one of the clowns). Customers have come up to me and said “I love your product! I use it every day!” I rarely get that sort of enthusaism over the phone during customer calls. Customers have also come up to me and said “I like your product very much. There are twelve things wrong with it. They are…” – I heartily recommend doing a few trade shows in Germany because you will get this kind of feedback from more than one person. It’s great. When you work in enterprise software (my experience has been in development tools and IT management tools) you rarely get to have an animated conversation about the strengths and weaknesses of your product. The development team has never actually used the product and my wife and friends don’t really understand what I’m talking about when I try to explain what I do. Trade show conversations have provided me with months’ worth of stories and user feedback that I trot out during requirements planning sessions.

Getting it right

So, can you do trade shows wrong? Sure. Any marketing activity can become a mindless exercise if you lose track of what your real goals are. But we need to do trade shows.

So, why demo at trade shows? Come on – people need something to look at. Imagine going to an auto show where there was nothing but booths and flyers about all the hot new cars. (Let’s ignore the booth babes for a second. Besides, I haven’t seen a booth babe in years at the Toronto Auto show. I think they may be extinct north of the 49th parallel)

Hone your messaging

The demo isn’t the goal – it’s just a tool to get people’s attention. Entrepreneurs talk constantly about honing their elevator pitch. There better be more to your business plan than your elevator pitch, but that’s what the demo is at a trade show. It’s the shiny, animated prop that backs up your elevator pitch. Actual software that’s more than just canned Powerpoint slides says that you have a real product that goes with the pitch. Right or wrong, this is the bar that trade show attendees want to see before they’re going to stop and pay attention to you. And once you have their attention, you get to do the two really important things: scan their badge and have a conversation.

As a side note, one product I demoed at trade shows was a web-based marketing automation system. It was next to un-demoable. It worked great, but it was challenging to develop, deploy and track an integrated email marketing campaign in five minutes. (I probably could have done it in ten minutes 🙂 ). But as I went through the pitch, everyone wanted to see something. One person wanted to see reports, one person wanted to see how to compose email, someone else wanted to see how the automation system worked. This was really a polite way of saying that I was full of sh*t and that there was no such product. My “demo” didn’t really show all that much but it proved that I had a real product, which made my message a lot easier to accept and remember.


What’s the deal with tradeshow demos? (abridged and full versions)

In a blog posting, Steve Johnson of Pragmatic Marketing asks “Why Demo at Trade Shows?” Good question.

Abridged version

Why demo?

Steve writes:

Do we think that the product will sell itself? … Instead I fear that we’re showing too much too soon in the sales cycle and turning off our potential buyers.

I have to ask the question: Steve, what evidence is there that trade show demos turn OFF potential buyers?

Steve, you bought an iPhone right? Steve Jobs demo’d it at an Apple Conference a few months before they went on sale. What was the sales cycle that ensued that convinced you (and 100,000+ others) to get it as soon as it was available? I’m pretty sure it sold itself. 🙂

Full version

Why demo?

Why even attend trade shows at all for that matter? All those airline tickets and hotel rooms, not to mention trade show booth rentals, cost serious $$$. And then there are all those people who just come to your booth to get the nifty pen or other cool swag you have on hand.

What a bother!

But let’s get back to to the original post. Steve writes:

Back in its heyday, Comdex estimated that they threw away two tons of product literature every day. If they don’t keep the collateral, will they remember the demo?

Steve, a bit of logical fallacy here don’t you think? Sure, people throw away literature at trade shows. That doesn’t mean they throw away ALL of their literature, and it doesn’t at all imply they suffer from memory loss. 🙂

comdex.jpgAt it’s peak, Comdex attracted about 200,000 attendees. A bit of math (the numbers work out quite conveniently), and we see that (2 tons) 4000 lbs / 200,000 people = .02 lbs per person of wasted literature each day.

That’s about 9 grams per person. Not really a lot when you think about it. So, if people aren’t actually throwing that much away, maybe they are remembering the demo?

Later Steve writes:

Do we think that the product will sell itself? … Instead I fear that we’re showing too much too soon in the sales cycle and turning off our potential buyers.

I have to ask the question: Steve, what evidence is there that trade show demos turn OFF potential buyers?

Steve, you bought an iPhone right? Steve Jobs demo’d it at an Apple Conference a few months before they went on sale. What was the sales cycle that ensued that convinced you to buy it? I’m pretty sure it sold itself. Or at the very least, the Steve Jobs reality distortion field helped convince you to buy it.

BTW, if the product can’t sell itself, whose fault is that? Sure not all technology products are right for trade show demos, but that doesn’t mean none of them are. I had a wonderful experience a while back demoing a software product at a show. Could have sold lots of licenses on the floor if it were possible.

Many people attend technology trade shows explicitly for the opportunity to see a live demo of a product and speak directly to savvy personnel from the company that makes the product.

rotisserie.jpgEver watch a late night infomercial? They are nothing but extended demos of the products — kitchen devices, exercise machines, you name it. And boy do they sell product. One of most popular products sold by infomercial is the Showtime Rotisserie, pictured here. It is claimed that over 7 million units have been sold, generating revenues of over $1,000,000,000 dollars.

Steve continues:

Do the sales people demand it? Demo-selling is the laziest kind of selling. It says, “I don’t want to know you or learn your business. I just want to get you to buy as quickly as possible.”

I have to respectfully disagree here. First of all, as mentioned earlier, many people go to shows with the expressed intent to see the product and get a demo. Demo-selling is only lazy IF the vendor explicitly doesn’t want to listen to the prospect. In fact, if that is the case, it is not only lazy, but incredibly foolish as well. And yes, some companies do behave that way, but many companies don’t.

The great thing about trade shows is that in exchange for a short (not necessarily canned) demo of the product, I get to have face to face conversations with potential buyers. What’s my response to someone who comes to the booth and says:

Hi, can I get a demo of your product?

I say,

Yes, absolutely. But first can you tell me a bit about yourself and what you are looking to do with a product like ours?

If the person bites and responds to the question, then I have them. I can ask them a few more qualifying questions and if they fit the profile I’m looking for, I can get into a demo with them and continue the conversation, asking questions, probing for information etc. If they don’t fit the profile I can still give them the demo I promised, but I can decide how deep or not to take it. In the end, I get what I want, and they get want they want. Seems reasonable to me.

Later Steve writes:

Why do we demo at trade shows? Because everyone is doing it? My mother used to ask, “If everyone jumped off a cliff, would you?”

My mother used to say the same thing, but never in the context of tradeshows. 🙂

Just because everyone is doing it, it doesn’t mean it’s stupid.

I have a friend who was vacationing in Thailand a couple of years ago. He was sitting down to have breakfast with his wife and son. As they were eating breakfast on the restaurant patio, they started noticing people running up the road. As they watched, the number of people running up the road continued to increase. Many of the people were yelling in Thai as they ran by. My friend didn’t understand Thai. But, he figured that if so many people were running up the road, he and his family should do it as well. They abandoned their breakfast and ran along with the throngs of other people, not knowing why everyone was running.

The date was December 26, 2004. The people were all running up the road away from the beach and the massive tsunami that was bearing down on them. We don’t always have all the data to make well reasoned decisions on what to do, but many times, by observing crowds, we may get insight that delivers significant benefit.

There certainly are ways to have bad demos and to promote and sell products poorly. Some companies do it far too regularly, by focusing on their own features and functionality and not understanding the customer’s frame of reference. But that has nothing to do with a trade show. Alan blogged about this in one of his posts.

Steve concludes:

At your next event, try just asking people who come by the booth a few simple qualifying questions about their problem and its urgency to them. If they answer in the affirmative, scan their badge or take their card and invite them to enjoy the show. Meanwhile send a set of materials to them through the mail or better yet, have a sales person contact them the week after the show. Nobody retains information from a trade show–everyone is yelling to be heard. Perhaps you could be a little quieter and much more effective. Let’s use the demo where it belongs, much later in the sales cycle.

Steve, that’s an interesting idea. We have a big product launch coming up in September. We’re announcing the product at a big trade show at the Moscone Center in San Francisco. Now, I’m wondering, what would be the reaction of someone who took time off work, came down to the Moscone Center (maybe they are local, maybe they flew in for the show), and came to our booth and after a short interchange, I scanned their badge and sent them off to the next company of interest.

Hate to say it, but I doubt the impression would be a good one. What ROI are they getting from me, having spent time and money to come to my booth? A handshake, a short conversation and a “we’ll have a sales rep contact you next week“?

I’ll think about your idea. But to be honest, when I have the opportunity to have a high touch, high value direct conversation with a good prospect, I’m going to take it.


Fantasic Followups

Recently I got a fantastic followup email from a service I had signed up for online:

TimeBridge followup email

This is amazing. It’s short, it’s to the point and it’s dead easy for the user. It’s even personalized! For the product manager at TimeBridge (or whoever is filling that role – it’s a startup) you get great data.

What’s even more amazing is that this is the first time I’ve ever gotten an email like this. This technology is dead easy, though I may be biased by having worked at an email marketing company in the past. Personalization is trivial. And online surveys are not really cutting-edge any more. But very few people do it. While doing this kind of survey certainly isn’t free, the best data never is. Real data that leads to real insights costs money. That money may be spent as PM time, travel costs, phone costs, conference fees or whatever, but very little worth having comes for free. The smart thing to do is to try to maximize your return on investment by gathering very tactical pieces of data that will have maximum impact on your product development process.

As far as I can tell, TimeBridge is using RightNow to power this email, but any decent email service provider should be able to enable the same sort of functionality in conjunction with your web analytics tools. And if your email marketing software isn’t integrated with your web analytics tools, get with the program – are you running a real lead generation effort or just throwing money around and hoping leads show up? Even if it took a week and several thousand dollars to set up this kind of feedback mechanism for your product, what would it give back in terms of actionable insight and hard data for your product planning process?

Quick Links: Don’t ask for what you want when you negotiate

Alan wrote about negotiations before. Penelope Trunk, in her great Brazen Careerist blog, writes about negotiations: Don’t ask for what you want when you negotiate. Now, her examples focus mostly on dating but her point remains valid. Often if people can’t (or won’t) give you what you’re asking for they’ll give you something else in an effort to be kind or because they feel you won’t go away until you have something. You want to have five new features in the next release? Maybe you need to put six in the requirements document.