They say you are more likely to hire good looking people—someone who looks the part, presents themselves well, and articulates clearly what they will bring to the table for your company. First impressions are everything. The same holds true for presenting your business at trade shows. A professionally-designed trade show environment that clearly communicates what you do and for whom is more likely to generate interest than a lackluster display with an unclear message.

Blowing that first impression

If first impressions are so important, why do we see so many companies not putting their best foot forward at trade show events?

I’ve visited many shows across multiple industries and witnessed some pretty poor trade show environments. A single banner stand and a table. Or a pile of brochures on a table.  Or even an unattended booth with a TV monitor running a video. To make things worse, the components of the trade show environment aren’t aligned from a design perspective and look like a hodge podge of what was sitting in the back storage room of an office.

Company reps at some booths look like they would rather be elsewhere, or are mindlessly checking their phones. And most booths have candy or a branded tchotchke item that may or not relate to the bigger strategy or their business. These booths don’t reflect a company I’d like to initiate a conversation with, let alone do business with.

In contrast, there are also very well-planned, well-designed booths staffed by energetic and engaging people. Passerbys slow down, stop, and immediately take notice. They may even start the conversation with the rep. And the more experiential the booth, the more inclined prospects are to stick around and listen to what you have to say.

Your booth and the people staffing it are a first impression for potential customers. Like an interview candidate, you will be judged in a glance. Be sure you are paying attention to every detail from a design and communications standpoint.

Impressing a prospect takes a strategy

So many companies don’t put much thought into their trade show experience. It’s like showing up for a job interview wearing a stained t-shirt and sweatpants and expecting to be taken seriously.

You need a strategy. When preparing for your next trade show, ask yourself these eight questions:

1. What are we trying to accomplish?

2. What problems are we trying to solve for our potential customers?

3. How can we demonstrate this?

4. What kind of experience can we reasonably provide with the budget we have?

5. How can we stand out from everyone else?

6. How can we train our reps to deliver that experience?

7. How can we pre-promote the experience in a unique way?

– Consider unique direct mailers, email campaigns, digital promotion and personal outreach.

– According to Exhibitor magazine, less than half of exhibitors track metrics or response rates for these tactics, so be sure to put some in place.  In fact, 44 percent of exhibitors utilizing personalized campaigns achieve higher returns.

8. How can we follow up on the experience and measure performance?

– Follow up on all leads in a timely and personalized manner.

– Conduct a post show report to determine the ROI. Here’s a resource for what to consider in terms of key areas of evaluation: strategy, results, budget, and plans for improvement.

Most companies don’t have the budget of Microsoft or Amazon. But if you want to grow your business, it’s worth investing in a well-designed booth with a well trained staff that is aligned with your brand. But that’s not enough—you also need to incorporate these best practices:

• Open up your space to invite people in.

• Stand or use tall chairs so you are at eye level with potential customers.

• Properly staff booth, put away phones and actively engage people.

• Have collateral or demonstrations available that show how your product or service will help solve their problem.

• Create a means to collect contact information for leads and determine appropriate follow up.

• Draw visitors in with an interactive element, contest or giveaway item that relates back to your business.

According to a study released by the Center for Exhibition Industry Research, 33.9 percent of companies' overall marketing budgets go to trade shows. With such a sizeable investment in exhibits, your company executives undoubtedly want to see the return they're getting. But if you're not providing data to prove the effectiveness of your exhibit program, it's easy for them to view exhibit marketing as a money pit.

Companies that plan ahead and maximize their trade show experience with a well-executed strategy build a pipeline of prospects that eventually turn into loyal customers. Think of how your potential customers will consider you at that crowded trade show, and turn that first impression interview into a paycheck.