Gifting at exhibitions: The golden rules for success

December 5, 2017

Every exhibition attendee knows that moment at the end of the day when you get back to your hotel and take a look through the carrier bags full of freebies you’ve accumulated to see if there’s anything in there of any use. There will be booklets and brochures, a pen or two for sure, maybe a key ring, a stress ball, some confectionery, a memory stick. Most of it will go in the bin. But occasionally you will find something you value and keep.

The gifter has hit the mark.

Gifting is such an established part of exhibitions that there is a sense of obligation to save a portion of your budget for a bunch of things you can give away to anyone who happens to pass by your stand. It’s become the business world’s answer to trick or treating. The incentive, of course, is that promotional products are a proven medium for customer engagement, eclipsing direct mail, online, print and even TV in their power to engender a feeling of being appreciated, a sense of loyalty and a call to action.

According to a survey by the British Promotional Marketing Association (BPMA), more than 70% of business marketers use promotional gifts among their tactics. It’s big business. According to the BPMA’s research, 10% of respondents spent between GBP 50,001 and GBP 100,000 per year on promotional materials. The largest cohort, 22%, spent between GBP 501 and GBP 2,000.

According to a survey by the British Promotional Marketing Association (BPMA), more than 70% of business marketers use promotional gifts among their tactics.

So if you’re unsure whether to assign any budget to gifting at your next exhibition, consider the benefits.

The benefits of the free gift for exhibitors

Gifting is a powerful marketing tactic when it works. Here are some of the benefits:

1. Attract visitors to your stand: The number one challenge for any exhibitor is standing out from the crowd. You’re vying for attention with potentially thousands of other exhibitors. One unshakeable truth is that people are attracted by the sight of things being given away. It fires their curiosity and they will move in to investigate. If you’re giving away something truly worthwhile, word will spread too.

2. Increase engagement: You don’t just want visitors looking at your stand, you want to engage them in conversation. Giving them something facilitates conversation and makes them more inclined to give back. As persuasion and influence guru Robert Cialdini puts it, “the old give and take and take.” An engaged exhibition visitor can be the start of a mutually rewarding customer relationship.

3. Establish influence: According to Cialdini, one of the six principles of influence is reciprocation. In other words, prospects are more likely to respond positively to your pitch if they are given something first, thanks to an in-built sense of obligation with which we have evolved.

4. Prolong your influence: The measure of your success at any exhibition is the sales that come in as a result of your presence there. Exhibitions are particularly effective for generating sales – the Event Marketing Institute’s EventTrack 2015 report found that 96% of men and 78% of women bought a product or service following an exhibition – but how many sales you achieve depends largely on the lasting impression you create at the event. Gifting is a powerful way to stay front of mind for your prospects, extending your reach into the home where customers’ barriers are lower and they’re more likely to buy.

When gifting goes wrong

The arguments in favour of gifting are strong, but not all promotional campaigns achieve this sort of success. As I mentioned, most of the items in your carrier bag of freebies will go straight in the bin. Worse still, they can create a negative impression of your brand.

Gifts that have nothing to do with your products, services or target market will confuse your brand identity. Cheap, tacky gifts will leave people with the impression of a cheap, tacky company. Expensive gifts could create the impression of profligacy, as could anything that uses lots of packaging or is environmentally unfriendly in any other way.

An unplanned gifting methodology can backfire too. You could find yourself with dozens of untargeted leads that all need processing but will never lead to sales. You could find that you’ve blown your budget on gifts and stand no chance of seeing a positive ROI. Or, worse still, you might find that your “gifts” actually constitute a bribe in the eyes of the authorities and the only return on your investment is a costly court case.

So it’s important to plan the gift element of your exhibition strategy very carefully and make sure you observe the golden rules.

It’s important to plan the gift element of your exhibition strategy very carefully and make sure you observe the golden rules.

6 golden rules for successful gifting

These are the key pieces of advice I offer to clients who want help with their promotional gift plan.

1. Choose gifts that reinforce your brand message: Having your logo sitting on someone’s desk in stationery form doesn’t reinforce your brand, unless you happen to be a stationery provider. For maximum effect, choose something that is a true reflection of your brand. Think about the message your gift sends; that’s your guiding principle. If you’re an airline with an emphasis on luxury travel, for example, you could give away high-end travel packs or a series of quality pre-stamped postcards for some common destinations. If there’s not a solid link to your brand, you risk coming across as insincere, cheap or unnoteworthy.

2. Focus on the right individuals: Part of the value of gifting comes from the psychology that you’re making someone feel special. You’re giving them something to show you value them, as individuals and as potential customers. If you hand the same gift to everyone who shows a vague interest in your stand, you devalue the gift. Which means you devalue the psychology and don’t stand to gain the same benefits. You also run the risk of gathering too many worthless leads. The most effective type of gift is one that feels exclusive. Focusing on quality gifts for quality leads – and making sure your stand staff are trained to focus on the right people – helps reinforce that principle.

3. Put emphasis on quality, even at the cost of quantity: The assumption is that exhibiting is a numbers game. The more gifts you give away, the more engaged visitors you’ll get, and the more sales. But only considered, thoughtful, unique and brand-aligned gifts are going to have the desired effect – and such gifts tend to be expensive. Don’t let cost force you to sacrifice on quality. If you need to cut anything, cut quantity and, as I mentioned in the last point, be careful about how you hand them out. If you feel really strongly about giving something to every visitor, create a tiered gifting system, so that every visitor gets, say, a pamphlet giving more information and a product discount code, while the high value gifts are reserved for the higher-value prospects.

4. Stick to a budget: Poor cost management is one of the biggest mistakes exhibitors make. Hidden costs are the rule, not the exception, so pay really close attention to where you’re spending. An extra percentage point on gifts might not seem like much, but it can cause more harm than good to overall ROI. So work out a careful budget for gifts up front, based on your cost-per-acquisition targets, which in turn should be based on realistic data from past events, or at least industry benchmarks.

5. Remember your existing customers: Research shows that the principal goals for exhibitors are brand awareness, lead generation and relationship building, all of which are heavily focussed on new business. Brands often see exhibition marketing through this lens and forget their existing customers. As Pando Papantoniou states in Marketing: The Complete Awakening, “Exhibitions also serve for existing loyalties to be affirmed and a much-expected thank you to be warmly expressed.” It’s a point well worth remembering. Arguably, if budget is tight, you would do better to hand out a few really thoughtful gifts to existing customers than scattergun gifts for every visitor.

6. Don’t rely solely on gifts: Good gifting is powerful but it is only one ingredient of the exhibition formula. Resist the temptation to funnel investment into gifts as a shortcut, without investing in the other important things like an arresting stand or a prominent position. Gifts are unlikely to make as much of an impression at the event itself as the combined value of elements like impressive audio-visual, a well-designed stand, and exciting product demos.

Resist the temptation to funnel investment into gifts as a shortcut, without investing in the other important things like an arresting stand or a prominent position.

Exhibition gifting – do it right, or don’t do it at all

Gifting can be an incredibly powerful addition to your next exhibition stand. It can be a key component in elevating your success throughout the exhibition cycle, helping you generate better ROI. It’s for exactly these reasons that gifting remains a fundamental part of the exhibition process.

The golden rule is, if you’re going to do it, do it well. Make it a central to your plans, calculate your budget carefully and stick to it, choose your gifts thoughtfully and train your stand staff to be thoughtful in how they hand them out. Follow these principles and your giving will repay you again and again.