Original post : Apr 25, 2012

Grab Your Target's Attention - Lessons from Kent 2020

opening lines at exhibitionsWe didn't exhibit at Kent 2020 this year. Sharon was manning the Chartered Institute of Marketing stand so I took the opportunity to wander freely around as a visitor. My objectives: 1/ to conduct some market research on behalf of our clients; 2/ to see if I could get more leads than last year when we did exhibit; 3/ to collect freebies (come on we all do it!) and 4/ to conduct an informal survey on how exhibitors tried to engage with a visitor.

Was I successful? Well yes, pretty much: 

  1. I got lots of information on our client's competitors which will definitely help with our plans going forward.
  2. I didn't get more leads but I didn't get less either so for me the jury is out on the value of exhibiting.
  3. Overall the standard of freebies left much to be desired this year. Clearly the recession is taking it's toll. Apart from the sweeties, my kids were most impressed with the pen with a torch in the end from UPG Print Group and the 3D business card from Cascade. Well done guys!
  4. Very interesting and the main subject of this week's blog. Read on......

With my hessian carrier bag in hand I strolled casually into the hall. My plan was to walk slowly enough to give the stand-jockey time to make his/her move and to make sure I looked at each stand. Long enough to show interest but not so long as to be obvious.

The results of my qualitative and completely unscientific research are quite startling.

I would say that the most common  approach, exhibited by about 50% of people, was to make no effort at all to engage with me. Some of this group were on stands with several people who were clearly enjoying chatting with each other too much to waste their time on the punters.  Come on guys don't make me make the first move. Us visitors want to be woo'd!

The next biggest group, about 20% I'd say, were those who did say hello but so quietly I could hardly hear it. Almost as if they felt obliged to make an effort but either couldn't really be bothered or are so terminally shy that the idea that I might reply took their breath away. I know your mum always told you not to talk to strangers but really, if you're working on an exhibition stand you have to take some risks!

Next come the open openers. The bright and breezy "Hello there!" followed by something like "How are you enjoying the show?". They broke the ice and could move the conversation on. Maybe 15% fell into this category.

Around 10% of people gave me a big smile but left it too long to say anything so I'd moved on.

The remainder was composed of two main groups. The first were the "crazy" people who dragged me onto the stand and had my card in their prize draw before I could say iPad 3. The second, and thankfully smaller group, was those who did engage me but with an opening line that caused me to stop in my tracks through confusion rather than interest. In my case it was the man who said "What brings you to the show?" I felt like the evil computer on Star Trek that is fed an insoluble logic problem by Spock. I froze. My eyes boggled, I stammered. I'm sure my voice went increasingly high pitched and smoke started to appear out of my ears. What should I say? A car? My 4 objectives?  Material for a blog? By the time I'd made a decision he was off confusing someone else. I have no idea what he was offering.

Of course once the ice is broken the next stage begins. What approaches to qualification and close were employed? The strategies are as varied as with the openings. I have to say once people get going they were OK at getting their message across. The biggest fault I noticed was that people were so keen to tell me all about how great was the thing they had to offer, that they spent next to no time trying to understand me, my business, my challenges etc. They could never know whether I would be a good customer or not.

Overall my day's research allowed me to categorise stand-jockeys into 5 groups based on characters from Disney's The Jungle Book: 

  • Shere Khan - Watchful, alert, prepared. This guy is a pro. He know what he wants and he's going to get it. He can sense any hesitation in the passer-by and pounce ruthlessly and without mercy. The chase is brief and effective. The opening line cuts straight to the bone and you quickly give up any resistance and accept your fate. Most likely to say: "You'll have a quote waiting for you when you get back to the office."
  • Baloo - Chilled and relaxed, he's here to have fun. If business comes as a result then hey that's great. If you're happy he's happy. Most likely to say "Of course you can take four pen, torch, bottle opener, stapler gizmos for your kids!"
  • King Louie - One of a big buzzing group on the stand. The gang are lively, even frenetic. There are lots of fun and games and Louie will pull you in and make you part of the action. He'll convince you that you stand a great chance of a major prize but you suspect that he's really only interested in your email address. Most likely to say ".. now if you can just fill out this form..."
  • Kaa - A smooth operator. Knows just what to say while maintaining slightly too much eye contact. Calm and convincing he knows what makes you tick and  what rings your bell. How could you not have realised that what is making your life incomplete is the absence of a one cup coffee maker? Especially when the little cartridge thingies are so cheap when compared to a Costabucks Republic bucket of latte. Most likely to say "..and here's your receipt."
  • The Girl - Male or female "The Girl" is demure and shy. Never speaking the girl just goes about the business of sorting leaflets, stocking shelves and filling the jelly bean jar. The girl may stop occasionally and look longingly in your direction before returning to paper shuffling. You don't know what the girl's company does but you have the vague notion that it may have been the most interesting stand at the show if only you had plucked up the courage to talk to her!  Most likely to say "...." 

What were my conclusions at the end of the day? If you're going to be on a stand at an exhibition give some thought to how you are going to start a conversation. Have a few ideas and try them out to see which ones work best. Then have a clear idea about how you'd like the conversation to go. What do you need to find out about the person and his business? How will you qualify? How will you leave him feeling positive about your company.

Of course, I haven't even touched on what happens the day after the exhibition! Another blog maybe.

You can help us all by contributing to the debate. What's the best opening line you've heard at an exhibition?


Well Jim, you didn't nick much from our stand. We still had over 3KG of sweets to take home. Back to the plot, wouldn't it be refreshing if the event organisers created an anonymous survey for exhibitors and one for delegates. That would encourage to 'safely' get their feelings out by answering various questions and adding in other info. For example, exhibitors may make comments about REAL (instead some of the BS we see) levels of enquiries gained, quality of people who they spoke to etc. ... and delegates could comment about the quality of people on stands etc., even giving specific examples. The combined summary of anonymous comments could then be made available to anyone who completed the survey, resulting in the event organisers, delegates, and exhibitors, to learn from the collective input.
Comment by Andy Harris - Apr 27, 2012 13:01
Really helpful. I've done a couple of exhibitions this year in tandem with a more experienced exhibitor but am about to do one "solo" so this is timely. I'm going to really think about my opening line and also think about what we could put on the stand that would be a bit more engaging
Comment by Patricia Barclay - Apr 27, 2012 11:01
Never been too sure of the value of exhibiting, having been to many in my days back at BT. Particularly for big companies, you have to make sure that your staff feel motivated and educated enough to make the most of it. As for me, I find them far too scary, I'm the rabbit in the headlights!! Would rather go networking at smaller affairs where I might meet the same people from one occasion to another and get to know people a bit better and build real relationships.
Comment by Caroline Wilson - Apr 26, 2012 12:55
Very insightful. There is another category to add - the 'ghost'. Walk past a stand, no-one there. I also think that physical positioning is important as an Exhibitor - as a Visitor it is very easy to get 'Exhibitioned Out' (particularly at big events) so get a stand near the entrance and get your quarry while it's still lively. And yes I agree - the concept needs a big shake up. But what.....
Comment by Mark Lay - Apr 26, 2012 10:46
This blog rang lots of bells with me. Like you, I identified the five categories, plus a few subcategories as well - there is a brand of "Girl" who is so naive, they actually come across as offended if you speak to them. I was particularly thrown by the gentleman who looked my partner up and down and opened the conversation by handing her a toilet roll. We learned one thing too: Be clear, as a visitor, what you are aiming to get out of the day, and you will be more effective. Last year we were unfocussed. This year we were a) promoting our client's cake business and b) using that to promote ours. Much better progress this year.
Comment by Jane CoomberSewell - Apr 26, 2012 09:04
Like you I have previously exhibited at 20:20 and like you this year I ended up just doing the rounds instead. I am sure I met all of the Jungle Book characters you have mentioned as well as "Mowgli" (The shy, naive, fresh out of college, graduate who knows his product/service well but has no experience of interacting in the jungle of business networking.) I believe that business exhibitions have a place but they desperately need a big, big shake up to become effective and relevant again. We need to lose the glass jars of business cards of champagne and come up with something that engages visitors in a constructive mutually beneficial dialogue. A great article and worthy of more debate...
Comment by Alan Noake - Apr 26, 2012 07:43
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