The exhibition cyborg – merging physical and digital worlds to boost your event ROI

March 26, 2018

Exhibitions are effective because they’re a face-to-face medium – but that doesn’t mean we should ignore digital. Merging physical and digital can create the best of both worlds – elevating the immediacy of the physical experience with the speed, ease and excitement of digital.

And when you do that, it’s not just visitors who have a better experience. Get it right, and you’ll be shocked at the ROI you achieve.

The best techniques to merge physical and digital at your next exhibition

These five techniques deliver big potential returns that can transform exhibitions into your most profitable marketing channel.

1. Virtual reality: Virtual reality is the first thing most people think when you talk about merging physical and digital. Robert Thierauf talks about the benefit of VR for trade shows in Virtual Reality Systems for Business, noting that ‘millions of dollars are spent on trade shows for the purpose of putting a company’s products in the best possible light, emphasizing whatever advantages [you] may have over competitors. Virtual reality is ideal for this use.’

He goes on to say that, ‘a company that uses VR in the trade show environment can ride the wave of enthusiasm for VR and benefit from the resulting free publicity. Virtual reality offers a proven means of attracting attendees to a booth as well as providing a unique educational experience. Typically attendees will wait a long time to try VR versus video walls or traditional interactive computer programs’.

Thierauf highlights the multiple advantages of VR: to better show off your products; create competitive difference; generate publicity; attract more visitors; and boost engagement.

All those things increase your exhibition ROI. The better you show off your products and differentiate from competitors, the more visitors you’ll convert. Likewise, the more visitors you attract and engage, the better your conversion. The more publicity, the bigger your reach and brand awareness. Extend visitors’ attention spans, and you get longer to engage them – without the cost implications of taking more staff.

VR might represent a cost – but it ensures your exhibition represents a return. That’s the name of the game.

VR might represent a cost – but it ensures your exhibition represents a return. That’s the name of the game.

2. Live streaming: Live streaming is different from technologies that enhance the on-the-day experience for attendees because it focuses on people who can’t attend, by recreating the physical experience of your exhibition, digitally.

Live streaming boosts exhibition ROI because it amplifies the number of people your exhibition can impact – without dramatically increasing cost. So you extend reach in real-time, with greater conversion opportunity.

Look at the figures from Baselworld. As the world’s leading watch and jewellery exhibition, it attracts 2,000 exhibitors and nearly 100,000 attendees. But impressive as that number is, it nearly doubles when you add the 86,000 global live stream viewers who tuned into the real-time Baselworld 2017 press conference.

For Baselworld, live streaming has been central to the exhibition’s reputation as ‘an institution, rather than just a show’ and the organisers note how live streaming globally boosts worldwide reach and long-term impact.

Imagine if you apply that same principle to your brand and products. It’s a chance to dramatically increase your reach – and therefore your results– but also to solidify your reputation as a globally significant, internationally-minded business.

3. Digital gaming: Digital games are another fantastic way to merge the digital and physical, bringing your brand and your products to life, attracting visitors and driving engagement – all leading to more leads and sales.

There is a potential pitfall though: fun for the sake of fun; games for the sake of games. A giant Tetris wall would definitely get your visitor and engagement numbers up – but they’re engaged with Tetris, not with you. There’s no link to your brand.

Kerry Smith and Dan Hanover list some questions to ask when planning any campaign of this kind in their book Experiential Marketing: Secrets, Strategies and Success Stories. These are those most pertinent:

  • How will the experience connect with my target audience?
  • How will the experience inspire my target audience to take action?
  • How will the experience allow my target audience to explore, discover and learn about my product or service, and how will using it improve their lives?
  • How will the experience deliver on my brand promise?

Those questions show the importance of brand alignment; giving participants the chance to learn about your products, discover your brand promise and ultimately connect with your authentic identity and offering. With of course the ultimate goal being participants turning into customers and taking action – that’s your ROI.

Done right, the results can be dramatic. Like when British Airways installed an immersive flight simulator game in London’s Victoria Station a couple of years ago. The harried, time-poor commuter audience is a good likeness for the overwhelmed, frantic exhibition audience – and they still had more than 11,000 players over the week along with extensive PR coverage.

4. Event apps: Apps are one of the simplest, most accessible ways we can cross the digital-physical divide at exhibitions. Very few exhibitors won’t have an internet-enabled phone in their pocket, after all.

As Klaus Solberg Söilen writes in Exhibit Marketing and Trade Show Intelligence, ‘mobile apps are now rapidly changing the opportunities for information exchange in society, including at trade shows. Many shows already have their own apps developed by the organizers, and the functionality of these apps will be increasing significantly in the years to come’.

That was written in 2013, and Söilen’s prediction has definitely come true. New apps aren’t just vehicles to exchange information, instead offering features like advanced networking; interactive floor plans and GPS; live Q&A and visitor feedback; simple lead submission and social integration.

When you use these apps, you amplify the best bits of exhibition attendance for visitors – making it easier for them to connect, network and explore. That’s win/win.

When you use these apps, you amplify the best bits of exhibition attendance for visitors – making it easier for them to connect, network and explore. That’s win/win.

Plus, you increase your capacity to answer questions, so you can make more sales – it’s much more time and cost effective to live stream in-app than repeat yourself constantly face-to-face.

And you’ll get more, and better, qualitative feedback to inform future spending, because you’re not asking in-person or through hassle-intensive forms. And you’re making it easy for visitors to connect with you on social media.

And when you make sharing visitor details easy, you’ll get more leads – and you’ll put them to better use. Research suggests that some 70% of exhibitors don’t follow-up effectively post-exhibition, which has a major impact on ROI. With event apps, you can sort, categorise and prioritise those leads, then send them straight to your CRM. They can’t get lost, and everyone can share them easily.

5. Social media: Social media might seem old hat compared to the likes of VR but it’s the most prolific way we already merge digital with physical. There’s much to be said for innovation, but there’s also plenty of mileage in getting the basics right.

And mostly we don’t. The Viral Impact of Events finds only 9% of B2B respondents believe they’re very effective at generating viral impact from an event or exhibition, even though 65% say event social is very important.

If you needed a reminder how important, consider this. That same report finds brands can experience an average 1.4 million touches and impressions per business, per event – but that leaps to 7.8 million amongst brands with 100% confidence in their social strategy. That’s a considerable opportunity to amplify your reach and build brand awareness if you build your social skills.

Plus, growing your social audience pays dividends for future marketing because organic social is massively cost-effective. Your marketing mix no doubt includes paid social, search, content, email, offline and more, but organic social is an easy way to reach – and engage – people who’ve already shown interest in your brand.

Growing your social audience pays dividends for future marketing because organic social is massively cost-effective.

So what should you do to more effectively harness social for your next exhibition? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Run a hashtag campaign before, during and after the exhibition
  • Create a social calendar with posts promoting your attendance
  • Share pictures and videos during the exhibition
  • Create content or host an event to promote and follow up the exhibition
  • Connect with people who are already talking about the exhibition
  • Make it easy for visitors to connect to you on social
  • Ask visitors to share their social handles with you so you can follow them
  • Run a social media competition to encourage engagement
  • Fill your space with clear visual prompts towards social

Try interactive social kiosks that offer rewards for social engagement

The best of both worlds

Exhibitions can be an incredibly valuable marketing channel, but many brands don’t see the results they want. Astute use of digital can cross that gap, streamlining and improving the physical exhibition experience – so both visitors and exhibitors get more from the event.

TGP is one of the Middle East’s leading design and production companies, focusing on exhibitions, events, interiors, graphics, and audio-visuals for various industries. For more information or to meet the team, please call +971 50 636 7774, send an email to, or click here.