Ready to engage? Six ways you are losing your exhibition attendees

January 23, 2018

Magic show

Exhibition magicians can make competitors disappear. They can transform attendees into red-hot leads in minutes. They can conjure up unbelievable ROI. All with one magic phrase: attendee engagement.

Attendee engagement makes the difference between brand awareness and brand momentum. It makes the difference between leads and sales, between one-time customers and high-impact customer lifetime value. But most brands aren’t exhibition magicians. Most brands make fundamental slip-ups which trigger disengagement – and with it, all hope of fairy-tale ROI.

The big six – what not to do

Here are six ways you might be disengaging with attendees at your exhibitions, and how to turn things around.

1. You’re being inauthentic to your brand: Inauthenticity is a difficult trait to pin down, but one that people instantly recognise and dislike. You can invest in the latest tools, gizmos and gadgets but still miss the mark if you show signs of being inauthentic.

Consider the growing tendency to use the latest tech, as outlined in Klaus Solberg Søilen’s book Exhibit Marketing and Trade Show Intelligence: ‘We scan new technology on roll-ups and floor designs, and glance through trendy designer magazines. The result of this is that too many exhibitors end up with similar plans. … In an environment where everyone is trendy, no one is special, so no one stands out. Thus everything risks looking flat, or even foolish.’

Many companies don’t pick the strategies that work best for the brand, and instead just pick the latest cool strategies regardless.

Many companies don’t pick the strategies that work best for the brand, and instead just pick the latest cool strategies regardless. Achieving authenticity is all about being consistent with your identity. This means knowing exactly what it is. Responsibility for this extends well beyond the exhibition team: it’s an issue for the whole business. If you suspect you have a problem with authenticity, you’ll struggle to remedy it without stepping back and taking a good look at your overall strategic direction, across the whole enterprise.

You need to be asking the big existential brand questions. Who are we? How are we different? Who do we serve? What are our core beliefs? Only once you’ve pinned those down can you hope to bring them to life in your exhibition, and start to generate real emotional engagement.

2. You’re not matching your staff to your attendees: We’ve written before about the importance of taking the right people to an exhibition, and this is especially significant when you consider emotional engagement. In its 2017 report Part One: Exhibitor In-booth Tactics: People, Product, Learning, Emotion, and Other Tactics, the Center for Exhibition Industry and Research (CEIR) identifies people-to-people engagement as one of two critical engagement needs for exhibition attendees. This report finds that attendees particularly value the opportunity to talk face-to-face to exhibiting staff, especially those in sales and marketing; which means your exhibition people play a hugely important role in the overall engagement equation. The right people help you build an emotional link to your audience – the secret to maximising your ROI. The wrong people mean exhibition attendance can be a damp squib.

But who are these ‘right people’? Essentially it’s the people your attendees will like. Likeability – the ‘liking rule’ – is one of Dr Robert Cialdini’s famous principles of influence: ‘We most prefer to say yes to the requests of someone we know and like’. For Cialdini one of the most important principles influencing likeability is similarity: we like people who are similar to us.

You might never have considered this but it can have a real impact. For example, you might be planning to send your very best salespeople to your exhibition; but your best salespeople might not be similar to people in your target audience.

3. You’re not meeting attendee product engagement needs: That same CEIR study notes that the other critical engagement need for exhibition attendees is people-to-product engagement. This isn’t surprising given findings in a 2016 white paper The Value of Trade Shows: around 88% of attendees believe exhibitions and shows are an important part of their product sourcing and buying process, and 91% say such events are essential for comparing products and suppliers.

Understanding, comparing and assessing products are fundamental reasons why attendees come to exhibitions in the first place – if you’re not meeting these needs effectively, they’re likely to disengage with you.

Think about showing off your products in the best light. This is easier for some brands than others but always look for opportunities to elevate. If you sell food and drink, offering tasters is one obvious tactic. But could you go further, and use your exhibition stand to recreate the whole experience of fine dining? If you’re a real estate brand, including a replica property might be easy enough. But maybe you could create a virtual reality tour instead, to help really bring your brand to life?

Think about showing off your products in the best light. This is easier for some brands than others but always look for opportunities to elevate.

Think about small details, like takeaway factsheets, FAQs, and links to a special product microsite to help visitors learn more. Wowing audiences with your product is one thing, and of course emotional connection is a huge part of sales, but encouraging rational understanding on the part of your potential client is also important.

Think of your product demos as a one-two punch – first an emotional connection, then a rational one. You can maximise engagement and your engagement-to-sale conversion rate as well.

4. You’re all style and little substance: Most brands want an impressive exhibition stand, to create that all-important initial impact. That’s understandable. You can’t get any engagement unless you first get visitors’ attention; and according to the research you have just three seconds to do this.

That’s why you need something impressive, that turns heads. Still, attention and engagement are different things. You can attract eyeballs to your stand with a stylish display, but keeping people long enough to engage, ask questions, register their details and really remember your brand is much more difficult. 

Solberg Søilen notes that once people are inside the booth, they have no time to waste. More than half of visitors wait one minute or less for help before they leave. That is the hard reality of trade show conditions.

In view of these stats, two things are particularly important to ensure engagement. One is having enough exhibition staff to help visitors instantly; the other is incorporating devices and attractions such as games, interactive screens, exciting technology, fantastic lighting, even a coffee booth, to hold attendees’ attention until your staff are available to help. You need your stand to have substance as well as style.

5. You’re unoriginal: There’s flashy for the sake of flashy, and then there’s same-old, watching-paint-dry dull; which are actually the same problem. The issue with trendy is that we’re all doing it, mostly in an inauthentic way; at which point, original stops being original. We’re all dull when we’re all the same.

Uniqueness is one of the three golden rules of exhibition booth design, the other two being uniformity and simplicity. Of the three, uniqueness is the most important. Unoriginal means dull, and being dull is a problem because it means you won’t attract attention. No attention means no engagement and no ROI either.

Uniqueness is one of the three golden rules of exhibition booth design, the other two being uniformity and simplicity.

The issue is that you’re competing with hundreds or thousands of other exhibitors, and budget and time constraints are limiting factors. According to Solberg Søilen, ‘when we plan our booth, we typically approach the task as if we were going to be the only exhibitors, without considering what other exhibitors will be doing with their booths’.

Which is where the remedy lies: authenticity comes from understanding your brand; uniqueness comes from understanding other brands. So a competitor review is an absolutely essential phase of the exhibition planning process, because it helps you choose the creative ideas that will set you apart.

6. You’re data-first not people-first: We often talk about maximising ROI, measuring results, collecting data, and generating leads. But we shouldn’t let these terms or processes obscure the customer from always being at the heart of our efforts. An exhibition is a customer service event – and according to the CEIR, the three most valued aspects of trade show attendance all involve human-to-human, face-to-face connection.

People like attending an exhibition or trade show because it’s not the phone. It’s not email. It’s not social media. It’s not a webinar, or podcast, or blog. It’s real, human interaction.

If you treat people like numbers, they’ll eventually cotton on. To you they’re just another lead, another footfall, another engagement, another follower. That’s an instant turn-off because it’s so antithetical to the whole purpose of exhibition attendance.

Collecting data is crucial, and often needs improvement. But it’s also not the most important part of the day. If it were, all those marketers who freely admit they struggle to allocate event ROI (nearly 60%, according to HBAA’s Practical Guide to Measuring Event Success) would stop going to events.

Focus on connecting with more people, building relationships, asking questions and genuinely engaging attendees, and data becomes a useful by-product, not the end-game.

Conjure better returns from your next exhibition

There’s a fine line between exhibition so-so and exhibition success. Sprinkle a little more magic for attendees by avoiding these six mistakes, and you’ll be well on your way to extraordinary returns.

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.