Trade show marketing guide

Trade shows and conferences provide an important opportunity to network, build relationships and ultimately generate sales and revenue. Unfortunately, the tidal wave of COVID-19 lockdowns across the world means trade shows are being called off, stripping companies who normally market through these events of much-needed business.

Don’t bury your head in the sand and lose out on potential revenue. Instead, pivot your marketing in a new and successful direction during this turbulent time.

This guide is your trade show cancellation contingency plan.

Table of Contents

What You Will Learn

This guide will show you how digital marketing can help your business fill the gap that the COVID-19 crisis has left behind.

You will learn how to use paid online advertising, such as Google, Microsoft, Facebook and more, to effectively reach your audience from anywhere. You will also learn about leveraging unpaid mediums such as social media, content marketing, email marketing, and other valuable and effective tools.

Most importantly, this guide will reassure you that the health of your business is not dependent on trade shows or conferences, but rather on your willingness to adapt and stay dynamic during times of uncertainty.

What’s the Problem?

For some companies, trade shows and conferences are a key contributor to overall business growth. Long-term business relationships are forged at these events and many contracts are sealed with a simple handshake. The sudden cancellation of these opportunities has thrust many companies into unchartered waters.

With many events banned in an attempt to stop the spread of COVID-19, it’s unlikely that trade shows will be back any time soon, particularly those that attract hundreds and thousands of people. It’s also likely that once the pandemic becomes less critical and restrictions are lifted, many trade shows won’t bounce back from financial hardship, meaning fewer events in the future. Likewise, there’s a high probability that post-COVID-19, people may still avoid mass gatherings. Trade shows will not attract as many attendees and there will be fewer opportunities to generate revenue.

COVID-19 has changed the nature of trade shows as a business development channel forever.

If you don’t act swiftly in embracing alternative business development and marketing strategies to adapt to this change, you risk losing your market share to those who do.  In the medium to long term, this may severely impact business performance.

“During an economic downturn, a strong marketing effort enables a firm to solidify its customer base, take business away from less aggressive competitors, and position itself for future growth during the recovery”

— Cooper & Lybrand

Why Does this Matter?

Trade shows bring industry communities together. They present valuable opportunities for your business to develop genuine relationships and speak directly with potential customers and partners. But they aren’t the only way to achieve this.

If you’re highly exposed to the loss of the trade show marketing channel, try to see COVID-19 as a warning shot across the bow. Being solely reliant on one form of generating leads and revenue does not lead to long-term sustainable competitive advantage.

Let’s look at other ways you can generate leads, drive revenue, and ensure that you can build a robust and thoroughly diversified business development funnel.

What’s the Solution?

The largest payoff will come via digital marketing. Here you can not only virtualise many of the face-to-face interactions you had at trade shows, but the advanced advertising technology gives you a more targeted approach. You can reach hot prospects who would have been unable to attend your shows.

Optimising and maximising your online presence during these uncertain times will not only help you navigate the immediate future, it will also ensure your business is poised to conquer once things start to return to normal.

Here is just one step-by-step strategy to enable B2B sellers like you to replicate the success you achieved at trade shows through a sophisticated, highly effective, and ROI-driven digital marketing campaign.

Clarify What You Want to Achieve

Before you start, it’s important to clarify your objectives – what do you want to achieve? Be clear about objectives such as:

  • number of leads
  • number of customers
  • amount of revenue and profit
  • acceptable cost per lead
  • acceptable cost per customer
  • ideal return on investment (ROI)
  • timeframes and budgets.

Then undertake the necessary campaign planning to determine the strategies needed to successfully achieve these objectives.

Confirm Your Target Customer

Confirm exactly who your target audience is by looking at the types of people you would typically engage with at trade shows. What are their demographics, interests, and behaviours. Also consider who else may be interested in your offering but would not normally attend a trade show. With digital marketing, you aren’t limited in who you can attract.

Taking the time to develop a series of buyer personas will help drive your marketing strategy. It will ensure everyone in your business is tailoring messaging and choosing marketing mediums to appeal to this fictionalised, generalised persona.

From here you can build a series of lists of people and businesses that fit these personas. Existing data or resources, like previous trade show attendees, can help with this process. You can also outsource list building strategies that identify new prospects and get information such as names, job positions, and contact details.

Set Up Your Digital Display Stand

Your website and your social profiles are the virtual equivalents of your display stand. They need to portray your brand, your offering, and your benefits in a way that will appeal to your target market.

Audit your brand presence online, by checking off the following items:

  • Do you need to update your website, or completely redesign it, to ensure it is optimised for user experience, high conversion rates, and stands apart from your competitors?
  • Is there consistency across your website and social media profiles?
  • Do you have the appropriate profiles and listings in places, such as LinkedIn, where your target market would be looking? Are they detailed and up to date with content that appeals to your target market?
  • Do you have website analytics and conversion tracking set up and correctly reporting on the relevant high-value goals?
  • Have you tested the conversion points such as form submissions, downloads, subscriptions, free trials, and eCommerce transactions on your website, to make sure they are working and integrated with other systems such as CRMs?
  • Have you used session recording software to identify conversion blocks on your site, as well as opportunities to increase conversion rates?
  • Is there a positive perception of your company online from third-party review sites?

If you fall short on any of these items, you need to take the time to review your current offering and implement the appropriate measures to ensure you’re best equipped to attract new clients and proceed with the next solutions.

Get Quick Wins from Hot Prospects

Once you’ve updated your website and social profiles to accurately reflect your business, you can then work on some fast wins from solid prospects.

One of the best ways to generate these rapid sales while you undertake the rest of your strategy is through search engine marketing (SEM) campaigns, such as Google Ads and Microsoft Advertising.

Through strategic keyword research, you can create a highly effective campaign targeting bottom-of-the-funnel searchers who are looking for your exact product or service and who are ready to buy now. SEM ads in particular have high conversion rates for B2B companies simply due to the ability to target people at specific phases of the sales funnel through keyword search intent.

Over time, as you collect data about your SEM performance, you can make strategic optimisation decisions focused on lowering your cost per conversion and increasing your ROI.

Like at trade shows, your prospects are searching for a company to fulfil their need. Now they will be doing it digitally, and you need to be there.

Hook in your target audience with a “bribe to subscribe”

Creating a “bribe to subscribe” can help your business target those higher in your sales funnel.

Also referred to as a lead magnet, a “bribe to subscribe” is a valuable resource that you provide to a prospect in exchange for receiving information such as their name and email address. Examples of these might typically include downloadable resources like whitepapers, industry research papers, checklists, templates, and infographics. It can be anything that your target market will find valuable enough to provide their personal contact details for.

Follow these steps to get your first “bribe to subscribe” up and running:

  1. Develop a resource. This process can take some time as it’s ultimately a reflection of your business and your expertise. Whatever you choose to develop needs to speak to your company or your product’s capability.
  2. Create a landing page on your website with a form to be filled out before the user can access the resource.
  3. Create an automated email sequence to promote the resource, as well as nurture those on your database into becoming a customer.
  4. Implement a tailored digital marketing strategy promoting your lead magnet, targeting your buyer personas and utilising existing audience lists.
  5. Stay top of mind for those who downloaded your resource through remarketing. Structured time-delay remarketing across Google and Facebook works well to prevent ad fatigue and promote various benefits and messaging. For example, those who downloaded your resource in the last 3 days might get shown ads featuring company testimonials, while 5-8 days later, they might see ads promoting various benefits or additional offers designed to lead them through the sales funnel. This can include free trials or consultations, and even extra resources or discount codes. The idea is to nurture them into becoming a paying customer.

Bring Your Trade Show Presentation To (Virtual) Life

You can’t be there to present in person, but you can use the same content to engage with people online.

You can set up virtual events, webinars, and workshops to help your target market solve a key problem. You might find this can work in conjunction with, or to replace, the “bribe to subscribe”. Alternatively, you can implement both, with the “bribe to subscribe” to attract those at the top of your sales funnel and the webinar for those closer to the bottom.

Integrate your webinar software with an analytics tool such as Google Analytics, an email software provider like Mailchimp and your existing website. This will give you total oversight into attendee data so you can nurture them after your presentation finishes.

Set up a landing page and remarketing strategy similar to your lead magnet, but also include reminder emails and texts leading up to the event. This will help you remain top of mind and increase registrations and attendance. Email sequences after the event will help you nurture attendees into clients.

You might also want to team up with complementary businesses that have similar target audiences, but aren’t your competitors, to provide an extra value-packed webinar. They invite their customers and prospects, you invite yours, and both of you share benefits and costs.

Finally, make sure that every resource you are delivering, whether that be video consultation, webinar, or resource, has strong calls to action. You want to give value but ultimately generate business for your company.

Level Up Your Lead Generation

There are several advertising platforms that are highly effective tools for promoting your “bribe to subscribe”, events, webinars, and other marketing activities.

Don’t limit yourself to just one. Take advantage of the various targeting options each platform provides to create a highly sophisticated multi-channel marketing strategy.

LinkedIn Advertising

LinkedIn is a fantastic platform to demonstrate your business capabilities. It works exceptionally well for B2B companies depending on their industry, offering, and target market. Its advertising platform allows you to create highly targeted campaigns that speak to the people and companies you want to work with. Advanced targeting abilities even allow you to narrow down the audience based on position, experience, skills, and industry.

Additionally, LinkedIn InMails are a great way to target people with a personal approach. If done right, they have a very high conversion rate. Here you can leverage the list you’ve recently built of people you’d like to work with, or you can target people whose details you already have on hand.

Facebook Advertising

Facebook Advertising gives you an extensive range of targeting options to connect with your prospects. You can create custom audiences based on contact details you already have, while “lookalike” audiences allow you to expand your reach or create entirely new audiences that have similar traits to your current customers or prospects.

Tip: promote virtual consultations on your website and through your advertising messaging to connect and maintain that personable approach.

Other advertising options

  • Twitter advertising offers similar targeting options to Facebook and can be very successful for the right B2B company.
  • YouTube advertising allows you to embrace the visual element of a trade show through online video ads.
  • Google display advertising lets you use keyword targeting and managed placements, such as business news sites, to continue building brand awareness.
  • Email marketing can be used for more than your “bribe to subscribe” offers. Remain top of mind by emailing your database regularly, letting them know about new offerings or business updates.
  • Alternative social media platforms such as Reddit Ads and Quora Ads, can be highly effective at promoting your offering, with each having their own unique targeting abilities.
  • Depending on your B2B clientele, consider whether you can implement eCommerce on your website. This then comes with its own eCommerce marketing strategies such as:
    • Google Shopping, including Google Customer Match;
    • Amazon and Amazon Ads;
    • Facebook and Instagram Shopping; and
    • Pinterest Shopping.

Direct Sales Outreach

The same way you might approach somebody at a trade show and convince them to check out your booth, you can use list building to work out exactly who would be your perfect customer. You can then reach out to them via phone or email, using your “bribe to subscribe” to hook them in.

The show doesn’t stop there

With sales and marketing solutions in place, B2B companies should be constantly looking for new ways to evolve and enhance their existing marketing strategies.

  • Use analysis and reporting procedures to identify what’s working and what isn’t, and then use this data to drive decisions designed to decrease your cost per acquisition (CPA), and increase your ROI. With your data analysis, make sure to look at assisted conversions to understand the full picture.
  • As you obtain more data, utilise scenario planning to understand what CPAs you could be getting for each channel, then make strategic budgetary decisions from this to achieve your objectives.
  • Undertake ongoing campaign monitoring and optimisation. Use the insights to keep building these out and improving on them until you have incredible high performing campaigns. Digital marketing audits are a great way to ensure your campaigns are performing optimally.
  • Competitor analysis is the online equivalent to checking out the booth next to you. Use this to adapt strategies, messaging, and offerings if required to ensure that any prospects would choose your company over your competitors.
  • Continue building out your website with collateral you would’ve shared during a trade show.
  • Undertake Conversion Rate Optimisation to improve the likelihood of your website visitors becoming leads.

It’s important to remember all digital marketing solutions are not set-and-forget mechanisms; the responsibility is on you or your digital marketing agency to constantly innovate and improve based on real-time results.

How You’ll Benefit

By acting fast and decisively your business will not only be ensuring its survival in the short term but you’ll be equipped to meet immediate sales objectives. Long term however, you could expect to:

  • reduce your reliance on trade shows
  • increase your business visibility
  • boost your business revenue
  • expand your trade horizons
  • mitigate against future global disasters, recessions, and pandemics.


Without taking immediate action to fortify your business development channels, the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting cancellation of trade shows will result in a series of problems, including:

  • lost market share
  • loss of revenue
  • laying off employees

You may even have to close your business.

Or you can turn to a highly effective, results-backed digital marketing strategy that not only targets those who would normally attend your trade shows, but even more high-value prospects who aren’t restricted by geography and travel costs through:

  • Lead magnet campaigns and online events or consultations designed to hook in those at the top of the funnel
  • Targeted search campaigns attracting those at the bottom of the funnel
  • Ongoing digital marketing strategies designed to bring in revenue each day of the year, not just from annual trade shows.

COVID-19 might look like an almighty speed bump for your business, but it doesn’t have to be the end of the road. In fact, it might be exactly what you need to take your business to the next level.

If you would like to find out more information or are interested in implementing any of these solutions, please get in touch with us today.

Let’s Discuss My Trade Show Marketing Channel Replacement Strategy Today