Bank robber Willie Sutton is famous for responding to the question, “Why do you rob banks?” by saying, “Because that’s where the money is.” While Snopes.com disputes the truth of the story, the lesson is certainly true for legal marketing. Focus your time and money on reaching people who are most likely to deliver you business.
With that in mind, it’s not surprising that exhibiting at industry trade shows and association meetings rests near the top of my firm’s list of most effective forms of marketing. Done correctly, such exhibiting allows you to have quality encounters with past and current clients and to make a good first impression with prospective clients, all while they are removed from the distractions and stresses of their daily work routines. And in the “that’s where the money is” spirit, you can interact with more of these people in a day than at a year’s worth of cocktail parties.
Trade shows also present fruitful opportunities to research your market. Aside from talking to attendees, I frequently sit in on sessions to learn about the issues confronting my clients. I similarly talk to other exhibitors (who are sometimes also clients or referral sources) to find out about the industry. Exhibit halls are good places to educate booth visitors about important legal issues. And I’ve also found that if you exhibit repeatedly at association events, you can become the organization’s go-to firm for speaking invitations, requests for newsletter and magazine articles, and the destination for referrals from association leaders and executives.
But I’ve also learned that effective trade show marketing involves trial and error, and a willingness to commit to a long-term strategy. Poor planning and execution can make trade show marketing a huge waste of time and dollars.
A large number of expenses are involved in exhibiting at trade shows, and most novices underestimate the costs. The most important ones to consider include these:
- Booth space is always a major issue. Aside from the signage and display, you may have to pay for lots of extras à la carte, including carpeting, furniture, electricity, Internet access, plants and other decorative items, and more.
- Shipping costs
- Travel expenses
- Client entertainment costs
- Marketing items such as giveaways, firm literature, purchasing attendee lists from the show, sponsoring specific show events, and advertising in the show’s literature and on its website. Regarding the sponsorships and ads, it’s easy to buy the hype that you need to spend the money. But you may want to exhibit at a show several times and learn more about the return on investment before spending big bucks on these items.
- And, of course, the cost of the time spent away from the office for the people attending the show.
The most critical planning decision is deciding which shows to attend. This means carefully considering who comprises your target audience. Consider these questions:
- In which industries and professions are your best clients? Most of them—from the obscure to the obvious—have events with exhibit halls.
- What geographic areas do you serve? Are you a small firm in a local market? A national firm with clients in several regions? Pick an event where most of the attendees are from markets you serve.
- Who are the decision makers in your clients’ companies? In-house counsel? Human resource managers? CEOs? Compliance managers? Research who attends the shows to make sure you will have an opportunity to talk to people who can hire your firm.
- Who else is exhibiting? If your competitors are there, that indicates you likely should be, too. However, if too many other firms exhibit, you may have a problem standing out. Talk to noncompeting exhibitors to see whether they plan on returning—and why.
- What do past attendees and exhibitors think about the event? Did attendees spend a lot of time in the exhibit hall?
Identifying the best events isn’t easy. But you can start by talking to clients to find out the organizations they have joined and which events they attend. Read the trade publications your clients read or in which you advertise, and look for events being advertised. Ask other exhibitors what events they regularly attend. Visit websites like those for the Trade Shows News Network or the Federation of International Trade Associations for lists of events. Or join an industry association (if you’re allowed) and consider attending its meeting to get a feel for whether you should exhibit at it the following year. And it’s always smart to phone the show organizers and ask specific questions, such as how they encourage attendees to visit the exhibit hall. Do they have bingo contests for those who stop at every booth, serve food near the vendors or keep the exhibit hall open for long hours to ensure attendees have time to see the wares? Finally, ask the show organizer for a description of the attendee demographics.
PLANNING YOUR BOOTH
Planning a trade show booth is complicated enough to be the subject of an entire article. Remember, however, that this is an area where price doesn’t always equate with results. Firms can spend from a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands on booths that range from a basic tabletop display or pull-up screen to complicated configurations that can take considerable time to set up and tear down. Here are the major questions you should consider:
- Does the display look professional, reflect your firm’s image and quickly convey what you do?
- Do you have seating for both your booth workers and anyone who wishes to speak with you at length? Consider standing when attendees are in the hall, or use bar-stool-height chairs so you can make easy eye contact with people walking by.
- Is your booth easy to set up?
- Have you planned your tables carefully? Candy, promotional giveaways, literature about your firm, a fish bowl to collect cards, and educational material are all typically provided. At some shows, a prize drawing is common for each exhibitor.
- Have you determined the best way to get your booth to the show? Shows often require you to follow strict rules on shipping, and you’ll also want to give yourself plenty of time to make sure your booth and materials arrive on time.
- Have you chosen a good booth location (assuming you’re given a choice)? For example, you may wish to be far from a competitor or close to a client. You may want to be in a location near the front, the food or the restrooms. If you can, get a corner so you can get traffic flow in two directions.
WORKING THE BOOTH
Deciding whom to send to the show is important. Some law firms simply send marketing staff, and while they often have positive personalities and the right attitude, there is no substitute for having legal professionals available to engage in meaningful discussions. In either case, first impressions are important, and you need to make sure that those staffing the booth are personable and knowledgeable about your practice. Ideally, ensure that at least one person has previous experience working a show in order to more easily interact with the show managers and to show the ropes to any novices. Train workers to ask the right questions to qualify attendees as people who might have an interest in the firm’s services. They likewise need to make the rounds of other vendors when the hall isn’t busy rather than just catching up on Facebook. Finally, instruct attendees on booth etiquette, such as not talking on cell phones or leaving plates and glasses on booth tables, dressing appropriately, not abandoning the booth and acknowledging people waiting to talk to them while they are chatting with a person who arrived ahead of them.
Failing to follow up with people you’ve met at the show is a major mistake that is easy to make. After all, you’ve fallen behind on your work because of your absence from the office and are in catch-up mode upon return. But be sure to scan in all the business cards you’ve received and write follow-up emails and letters to each person you met. It’s always a bonus if you have taken notes on an individual’s interests and can send follow-up information, such as an article written by you or a colleague.
If show attendees are interested, add them to your mailing list, which can be used for sending email alerts and newsletters to attendees, inviting them to webinars, and letting them know about firm events.
Finally, lawyers should always be careful to comply with marketing ethics rules applicable in their jurisdictions. Trade show exhibiting is generally considered ethical, and various opinions support that position. For example, in Arizona Ethics Opinion 02-08, the state bar held that
[a] lawyer may ethically sponsor a booth at a business exposition and engage in face-to-face contacts with visitors to the exposition, so long as the contact is initiated by the visitor, not the lawyer, in an atmosphere free of coercion and deception, and so long as there is no reason to believe that visitors to the exposition will be characterized by any particular vulnerability.
Whether it is paying attention to ethical rulings or event planning and logistics, I urge law firms to take care. But the benefits of trade show marketing generally outweigh the potential problems.