A lot of the principles of successful face-to-face exhibitions still stand, but there are things that need fine tuning to achieve a successful virtual show.  

 
 

Lessons from our first virtual exhibition

While many B2B events and trade shows this year have been cancelled or pushed back, the Made In Group took a different approach, combining their annual Made in Yorkshire and Made in the Midlands manufacturing industry exhibitions into a single, virtual event.

Always keen to try something new, and interested to see how an online only trade show would work, we rolled up our sleeves and got stuck in. Here’s what we learned… 
 
Be prepared to fine tune: Billed as ‘the biggest expo of its kind for UK industry’, Backing Britain Live brought together 200+ virtual exhibitors across three virtual exhibition halls, featured 26 live events combining keynote speakers, round table discussions and online networking, and saw over 7,000 delegates visit the show over two weeks. One thing we noticed was that, when it comes to going digital, a lot of the principles of successful face-to-face exhibitions still stand but there are things that need fine tuning to achieve a successful virtual show.  
 
Make it worth their while: Virtual or not, people need a reason to visit your stand. Take time to be clear about your message, and your offer, then communicate it. The approach we took was to target Made In network members who were exhibiting at the show with a PRINTED mailer (gasp), which we POSTED (double gasp) out ahead of the show, inviting them to join us on our stand for a brew. And because we wouldn’t be on our stand to physically make them a cuppa, obvs, we supplied the tea. Simple. We had some great responses, plus the added bonus of social shares and mentions. Our advice would be don’t dismiss the post box; it can give you opportunities to stand out from the crowd.
 
Take a multi-channel approach: Use the communication channels you have available - web, social, email, media…heck, why not go retro and pick up the phone? - to let the people who matter know why they should visit you, and the event. Will they hear valuable insights from high profile industry leaders? Have opportunities to network with exactly the right kind of people for their business? It’s not about you having a stand at a show and selling to people. It’s about showing the right people that you understand their world and can add value. 

Don’t just sit there: 
Whatever you do, don’t be the person hiding away at the back of their virtual exhibition stand, working away in another browser window, missing conversation opportunities. A virtual show and exhibition stand makes it easy to hide, but remember why you’re there in the first place. It’s not just about people coming to see you – get out and see them! The beauty of a virtual show is that you can be manning your stand in one browser window, while visiting other stands in another. So don’t sit waiting for people to come to you; get out there and start some conversations. 
 
It’s manning a stand, Jim, but not as we know it: Whereas a traditional trade show generally lasts a few days, running a stand at two-week virtual exhibition requires a different approach. Manning your stand (i.e. staring at a browser window waiting for someone to drop by) all day, every day for two weeks just isn’t practical. Instead, display on your stand and be clear in your publicity when there will (and won’t) be someone on your stand and available to chat. Every Backing Britain Live stand had a live chat function, which alerted you to new chats in real time and also meant that visitors could start a conversation exhibitors could pick up and respond to when they were next at their stand. While it’s a far cry from having an actual conversation in real life, the fact that most of us are very familiar with instant messaging meant that it actually felt pretty natural. 
 
Talk about it: It’s a digital event, so you should definitely be talking about it on your digital channels. Before the show, flag up the benefits of attending. During the show, share useful information or best practice tips that you pick up from the speakers. Hunt down the event hashtags, as well as relevant wider industry hashtags, and use them. Engage with others who are talking about the show. Be visible, and be part of the conversation. After the show, think about the industry insights you’ve picked up there and can share that will add value to your customers and prospects.  
 
Digital insights are ace! You know those people who sneak past stands at trade shows, grab a free mint at lightning speed or throw a business card into the champagne draw bowl, then vanish into thin air? With digital visitor tracking, they don’t get away that easily. You know exactly who’s visited your stand, which gives you opportunities to follow up, and you don’t even have to do the dance of scanning delegate badges during the show. Result. This is one area of virtual exhibiting that we’d like to see evolve to offer more in-depth insights: when did people visit, how long did they spend on the stand, what did they view, what did they download? But, as virtual exhibition software 1.0 goes, we love, love, LOVED the digital insights. Make sure you download them from your virtual stand when the show ends, and use them well. 
 
‘Happy hour’ is a great idea: Every day throughout Backing Britain Live, the organisers ran a ‘virtual happy hour’, bringing together exhibitors and delegates to meet and network. At its height, there were 90+ people on those video calls, raising a glass (or a brew), introducing themselves to the group, followed by smaller breakout sessions. And it’s a formula that really worked. Of course, seeing 90 faces on screen isn’t the same as being in a room together, but that didn’t stop conversations flowing, connections being made and relationships being built. And yes, there were conference call bingo-worthy moments, but isn’t that all part of the fun these days? 
 
So as the world evolves, and we explore new ways of building the relationships on which many successful businesses are founded, don’t dismiss virtual exhibitions. Done well, our take is that they can deliver huge value, with the added bonus of being able to run your stand and hear the wisdom of industry leaders while you’re still in your PJs. We’re in.  
 
If you’re preparing to exhibit at a virtual trade show, get in touch. We’ll be happy to help you make sure you get the most out of the event. 
 
    
 
The Partners Group

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