Why Demo at Trade Shows?

September 26, 2007

As I stroll through the exhibitor hall at trade shows I see one booth after another demonstrating their products. One person told me recently about his excitement about the trade show: he was new to the job, and was planning to show his pre-beta, Java-based product using a broadband modem connection from the trade show floor. Isn't he just asking for an embarrassing public failure?

Realistically, what product information does a customer retain afterwards? Back in its heyday, Comdex estimated that they threw away two tons of product literature every day. If they don't keep the collateral, will they remember the demo?

Why do we demo at trade shows?

Do we think that the product will sell itself? 'Once the show attendees see our paradigm-shifting, discontinuous innovations, they will stop, shop, and buy.' Instead I fear that we're showing too much too soon in the sales cycle and turning off our potential buyers.

Why do we demo at trade shows?

Do we think people buy products at a show? For instance, one company sells a multi-million-dollar ERP package for the Fortune 500, yet their booth seems designed for selling word processing to the masses. Do we really think someone will come to the booth, whip out a corporate AMEX and just charge it?

Why do we demo at trade shows?

Do the sales people demand it? Demo-selling is the laziest kind of selling. It says, 'I don't want to know you or learn your business. I just want to get you to buy as quickly as possible.'

Why do we demo at trade shows?

Because everyone is doing it? My mother used to ask, 'If everyone jumped off a cliff, would you?' Most event marketing seems to try to be the same as everyone else, only a little better. Just as we build commodity products, we tend to create commodity, look-alike marketing programs. The best marketing communications programs should be remarkably different than that in the other booths.

Why do we demo at trade shows?

Ask yourself: Where do demos belong in the sales cycle? I suspect you will answer 'after gathering information about the customer's problems.' Perhaps also after the solution-oriented presentation. The best demo is customized to the customers, their problems, and within the context of how we can specifically solve their problems.

Ask yourself, 'Why do we demo at trade shows?'

Do you have a good answer?

At your next event, try just asking people who come by the booth a few simple qualifying questions about their problem and its urgency to them. If they answer in the affirmative, scan their badge or take their card and invite them to enjoy the show. Meanwhile send a set of materials to them through the mail or better yet, have a sales person contact them the week after the show. Nobody retains information from a trade show--everyone is yelling to be heard. Perhaps you could be a little quieter and much more effective. Let's use the demo where it belongs, much later in the sales cycle.


Commentary

As part of a BlogFest, several product management and marketing bloggers recently commented on this topic. Their opinions are published below, as well as links to their blogs where the discussion continues.

David Meerman Scott at Web Ink Now

Corporate dysfunction at its worst: The B2B trade show demo

For some markets, the trade show demo is very important. While I was in high school and summers during college, I worked in a cheese shop.Once a year, I went to New York for the Fancy Foods and Confection Show. Demos were all over the place, many involving tasty treats: Cheese, sausage, chocolate, coffee, and more.

Or imagine the people at Blendtecon a trade show floor at a kitchen equipment show. The demo would be only one minute and they would probably pull off something really fun and informative that would sell blenders.

OK, but what about B2B technology companies?

Yuk! Can you imagine anything more boring than a ten minute screen-by-screen demo by a product manager who knows all the leading, cutting-edge features of some mission-critical, flexible, and scalable solution that improves business process using industry-standard technology? Makes me want to scream in disgust!

demo hell
Yes, I know that there are exceptions.
But in my experience, the trade show demo is interruption marketing run amok and is often an excuse-fest for both buyers and sellers. The company uses it as an excuse for bad marketing and the attendee uses it as an excuse for lack of interest.

Nearly all B2B technology company trade show demos are conducted out of laziness. Here's how the dysfunctional process works and why B2Btechnology demos are so overused: Marketers don't understand buyers,the problems buyers face, or how their product helps solve these problems because they don't get out into the market. Instead these marketers are holed up in their own offices. Then the tuned out marketing person builds a demo script using reverse-engineered language that they think the buyer wants to hear based not on buyer input but on product features. During the demo they go through each feature in the product all the while spewing superlative-laden, jargon-sprinkled, gobbledygook-filled hype.

Um… This is not effective.

The decision for any marketing initiative should start with buyers and your buyer personas. What problems do your buyers have? How can your company solve those problems with technology? How do your buyers describe the solutions? I think that B2B technology product companies need to re-think the entire trade show experience, not just the demo.I’d ask a more fundamental question: Do you need to be at the trade show at all? And if so, do you really need a booth?

The web is a free 7x24 trade show. Consider a re-focus of efforts to blogging or a content-rich website or other online initiatives to reach buyers.


Jeff Lash at Good Product Manager

Use conferences to learn, not to sell

If you want to be a bad product manager, use conferences and trade shows where you are exhibiting as a time to sell. When prospective customers approach your booth, quickly greet them and go in to your product pitch. Demo all of the features and point out the aspects where you are superior to your competition. Push for a sale, a trial, or a specific follow-up before the person walks away. You’ve paid good money for your booth, after all, so you need to close some sales to make up for it.

If you want to be a good product manager, use conferences and trade shows where you are exhibiting as a time to learn. One of the worst things you can do in a booth is to automatically try and sell to everyone who walks in, using the same standard pitch.

  • Many people may just be casually browsing, and pitching to them is a waste of your time and theirs.
  • Visitors likely have different levels of knowledge from your product, from those who have not heard of it before all the way to those who are about to make a purchase decision. The information you provide needs to be different for each audience.
  • This is an opportunity to learn more about the person and their needs, so that you can answer the questions they have rather than just giving them the “standard pitch.”
  • The prospect may not even be aware of your competition, so mentioning competitors and how you are superior is irrelevant since at best it provides no frame of reference, and at worst informs them about other products that they otherwise may not have investigated.
  • Booths are usually staffed by a few people. There is almost always someone else from sales or marketing and they will likely be much better at “selling” than you as product manager. It is also a good opportunity to observe the sales process, to learn how your product is being sold, how its benefits are being communicated, and how questions about it are being answered.
  • Except for small dollar amounts, very few sales are actually closed at conferences. Most sales representatives use them as opportunities to reconnect with current customers and collect and evaluate new leads.

Conferences and trade shows are great opportunities to learn about customers and potential customers, their needs, what they think of your product and your competition. When someone approaches your booth, do not start in to the standard sales pitch. Instead, greet them, ask if you can help, and listen to what they have to say. Try to listen more than talk. Ask questions to not only understand more about the solution they are looking for but to understand the context of their question.

By just spending a few moments asking some up front questions, your time will be much better spent. You will not waste time pitching to unlikely buyers. You will learn information about the needs of potential customers. You will see how prospects evaluate your product and others. You will get to watch how sales people communicate, respond to questions, and interact with customers.
While it is important to staff your booth, take an opportunity to walk the exhibit floor and learn there as well. Check in on competitors and partners. Gather information to bring back to the office. Evaluate the marketing messages and promotional campaigns of other vendors, and make a list of things that you can do to improve your booth for the next conference. Talk with conference organizers or attendees milling around in common areas.

Trade shows and conferences are valuable opportunities to connect with customers for sales purposes, but they have as much value if not more as opportunities to learn about customers, prospective customers, competition and your overall market. Good product managers use conferences and trade shows as an opportunity to do research and take back information to help improve their product and the message around it.


Saeed Khan at On Product Management

Abridged version

Why demo?

Steve writes:

Do we think that the product will sell itself? … Instead I fear that we’re showing too much too soon in the sales cycle and turning off our potential buyers.

I have to ask the question: Steve, what evidence is there that trade show demos turn OFF potential buyers?

Steve, you bought an iPhone right? Steve Jobs demo’d it at an Apple Conference a few months before they went on sale. What was the sales cycle that ensued that convinced you (and 100,000+others) to get it as soon as it was available? I’m pretty sure it sold itself.

Full version

Why demo?

Why even attend trade shows at all for that matter? All those airline tickets and hotel rooms, not to mention trade show booth rentals, cost serious $$$. And then there are all those people who just come to your booth to get the nifty pen or other cool swag you have on hand.

What a bother!

But let’s get back to the original post. Steve writes:

Back in its heyday, Comdex estimated that they threw away two tons of product literature every day. If they don’t keep the collateral, will they remember the demo?

Steve, a bit of logical fallacy here don’t you think? Sure, people throw away literature at trade shows. That doesn’t mean they throw away ALL of their literature, and it doesn’t at all imply they suffer from memory loss.

At it’s peak, Comdex attracted about 200,000 attendees. A bit of math (the numbers work out quite conveniently), and we see that (2 tons) 4000 lbs/ 200,000 people = .02 lbs per person of wasted literature each day.

That’s about 9 grams per person. Not really a lot when you think about it. So, if people aren’t actually throwing that much away, maybe they are remembering the demo?

Later Steve writes:

Do we think that the product will sell itself? … Instead I fear that we’re showing too much too soon in the sales cycle and turning off our potential buyers.

I have to ask the question: Steve, what evidence is there that trade show demos turn OFF potential buyers?

Steve, you bought an iPhone right? Steve Jobs demo’d it at an Apple Conference a few months before they went on sale. What was the sales cycle that ensued that convinced you to buy it? I’m pretty sure it sold itself. Or at the very least, the Steve Jobs reality distortion field helped convince you to buy it.

BTW, if the product can’t sell itself, whose fault is that? Sure not all technology products are right for trade show demos, but that doesn’t mean none of them are. I had a wonderful experience a while back demoing a software product at a show. Could have sold lots of licenses on the floor if it were possible.

Many people attend technology trade shows explicitly for the opportunity to see a live demo of a product and speak directly to savvy personnel from the company that makes the product.

Ever watch a late night infomercial? They are nothing but extended demos of the products — kitchen devices, exercise machines, you name it. And boy do they sell product. One of most popular products sold by infomercial is the Showtime Rotisserie. It is claimed that over 7 million units have been sold, generating revenues of over $1,000,000,000 dollars.

Steve continues:

Do the sales people demand it? Demo-selling is the laziest kind of selling. It says, “I don’t want to know you or learn your business. I just want to get you to buy as quickly as possible.”

I have to respectfully disagree here. First of all, as mentioned earlier, many people go to shows with the expressed intent to see the product and get a demo. Demo-selling is only lazy IF the vendor explicitly doesn’t want to listen to the prospect. In fact, if that is the case, it is not only lazy, but incredibly foolish as well. And yes, some companies do behave that way, but many companies don’t.

The great thing about trade shows is that in exchange for a short (not necessarily canned) demo of the product, I get to have face to face conversations with potential buyers. What’s my response to someone who comes to the booth and says:

Hi, can I get a demo of you product?

I say,

Yes, absolutely. But first can you tell me a bit about yourself and what you are looking to do with a product like ours?

If the person bites and responds to the question, then I have them.I can ask them a few more qualifying questions and if they fit the profile I’m looking for, I can get into a demo with them and continue the conversation, asking questions, probing for information etc. If they don’t fit the profile I can still give them the demo I promised, but I can decide how deep or not to take it. In the end, I get what I want, and they get want they want. Seems reasonable to me.

Later Steve writes:

Why do we demo at trade shows? Because everyone is doing it? My mother used to ask, “If everyone jumped off a cliff, would you?”

My mother used to say the same thing, but never in the context of trade shows.

Just because everyone is doing it, it doesn’t mean it’s stupid.

I have a friend who was vacationing in Thailand a couple of years ago. He was sitting down to have breakfast with his wife and son. As they were eating breakfast on the restaurant patio, they started noticing people running up the road. As they watched, the number of people running up the road continued to increase. Many of the people were yelling in Thai as they ran by. My friend didn’t understand Thai.But, he figured that if so many people were running up the road, he and his family should do it as well. They abandoned their breakfast and ran along with the throngs of other people, not knowing why everyone was running.

The date was December 26, 2004.The people were all running up the road away from the beach and the massive tsunami that was bearing down on them. We don’t always have all the data to make well reasoned decisions on what to do, but many times, by observing crowds, we may get insight that delivers significant benefit.

There certainly are ways to have bad demos and to promote and sell products poorly. Some companies do it far too regularly, by focusing on their own features and functionality and not understanding the customer’s frame of reference. But that has nothing to do with a trade show. Alan blogged about this in one of his posts.

Steve concludes:

At your next event, try just asking people who come by the booth a few simple qualifying questions about their problem and its urgency to them. If they answer in the affirmative, scan their badge or take their card and invite them to enjoy the show. Meanwhile send a set of materials to them through the mail or better yet, have a sales person contact them the week after the show. Nobody retains information from a trade show–everyone is yelling to be heard. Perhaps you could be a little quieter and much more effective. Let’s use the demo where it belongs, much later in the sales cycle.

Steve, that’s an interesting idea. We have a big product launch coming up in September. We’re announcing the product at a big trade show at the Moscone Center in San Francisco. Now, I’m wondering, what would be the reaction of someone who took time off work, came down to the Moscone Center (maybe they are local, maybe they flew in for the show), and came to our booth and after a short interchange, I scanned their badge and sent them off to the next company of interest.

Hate to say it, but I doubt the impression would be a good one. What ROI are they getting from me, having spent time and money to come to my booth? A handshake, a short conversation and a “we’ll have a sales rep contact you next week“?

I’ll think about your idea. But to be honest, when I have the opportunity to have a high touch, high value direct conversation with a good prospect, I’m going to take it.


Ethan Henry at On Product Management

So I have to go with Saeed here in response to Steve’s posting on tradeshows. Just because a lot of companies handle trade shows badly doesn’t mean they’re worthless. Most companies can’t do email marketing right either; I would not suggest that you stop emailing customers and prospects.

But before we think about what to do at the trade show, let’s review what a Product Manager can get out of a trade show. Two things: one, leads and two, conversations.

Now, leads may not be your direct responsibility, but everyone needs leads. Are trade shows the cheapest way to get leads? Nope. Are they the best way to get leads? Nope. But unless you generate more leads than your salespeople can handle, you need more leads. Even if you have too many leads, how many highly qualified leads are coming in through your other lead generation channels? (The answer is never enough!) Web- and email-based marketing is the #1 source of leads for many B2B companies and I can come up with plenty of ways that companies do web and email marketing wrong. That doesn’t mean they should stop doing it.

You need to have an ecosystem of leads, just like you need to have customers in more than one region or vertical market. And trade shows remain a good way to get new leads. I hate scanning badges as much as anyone, but it works.

Also, if you can’t prove that trade shows are generating quality leads for you, then that’s not the trade show’s fault. Implement close-loop leads tracking! You have a CRM system right? Creating a campaign in Salesforce.com and seeing how many opportunities result from it isn’t rocket science.

Second, conversations. A trade show lets you have longer, more fully engaged conversations with both customers and prospects. Prospects are key here - when was the last time you talked to someone who was actively looking to buy a product like yours but wasn’t yet in your company’s sales funnel? Talking to prospects is so important because if you only ever talk to customers you’ll never find out about what the people who decided not to buy your product think. Prospects can decide not to even consider your product or service based on your positioning, without ever talking to a salesperson. I have yet to find a better venue than a trade show to meet these people and talk to them.

Conversations at trade shows are also more casual and relaxed because of the whole circus-like atmosphere of the show floor. (Being at a circus is great, as long as you’re not one of the clowns). Customers have come up to me and said “I love your product! I use it every day!” I rarely get that sort of enthusiasm over the phone during customer calls. Customers have also come up to me and said “I like your product very much. There are twelve things wrong with it. They are…” - I heartily recommend doing a few trade shows in Germany because you will get this kind of feedback from more than one person. It’s great. When you work in enterprise software (my experience has been in development tools and IT management tools) you rarely get to have an animated conversation about the strengths and weaknesses of your product. The development team has never actually used the product and my wife and friends don’t really understand what I’m talking about when I try to explain what I do. Trade show conversations have provided me with months’ worth of stories and user feedback that I trot out during requirements planning sessions.

So, can you do trade shows wrong? Sure. Any marketing activity can become a mindless exercise if you lose track of what your real goals are. But we need to do trade shows.

So, why demo at trade shows? Come on - people need something to look at. Imagine going to an auto show where there was nothing but booths and flyers about all the hot new cars. (Let’s ignore the booth babes for a second. Besides, I haven’t seen a booth babe in years at the Toronto Auto show. I think they may be extinct north of the 49th parallel)

The demo isn’t the goal - it’s just a tool to get people’s attention. Entrepreneurs talk constantly about honing their elevator pitch. There better be more to your business plan than your elevator pitch, but that’s what the demo is at a trade show. It’s the shiny, animated prop that backs up your elevator pitch. Actual software that’s more than just canned PowerPoint slides says that you have a real product that goes with the pitch. Right or wrong, this is the bar that trade show attendees want to see before they’re going to stop and pay attention to you. And once you have their attention, you get to do the two really important things: scan their badge and have a conversation.

As a side note, one product I demoed at trade shows was a web-based marketing automation system. It was next to un-demoable. It worked great, but it was challenging to develop, deploy and track an integrated email marketing campaign in five minutes. (I probably could have done it in ten minutes :) ). But as I went through the pitch, everyone wanted to see something. One person wanted to see reports, one person wanted to see how to compose email, someone else wanted to see how the automation system worked. This was really a polite way of saying that I was full of sh*t and that there was no such product. My “demo” didn’t really show all that much but it proved that I had a real product, which made my message a lot easier to accept and remember.


Nick Coster at Brainmates

Why Demo at Trade Shows?

To meet people who might be interested in your product, market your brand and sell stuff.

So if you are thinking about opening a booth at a trade show, you should be considering how well you can meet these three objectives.

Unfortunately many of the trade shows that I have been to end up looking like glorified car boot sales where hundreds of vendors are touting their wares to the general public.

Meeting People:

People that are visiting a trade show are:

  • Potential product buyers – these are the people who make the purchasing decisions. They are looking for the business reason for buying your product. Your product demonstration needs to be able explain how it will save money for their business or provide clear value for money.
  • Potential or existing users of your product – these folk want to see and hear how your product will improve their lives or solve a problem that they have.
  • Potential or existing competitors to your product – Competitors will be out there doing the same thing. Make sure that you have the best story.

From a product management perspective it is a great opportunity to listen to the questions that these visitors are asking, and what problems they are trying to solve. Here you have customers (and competitors) that you can talk to face to face that you might otherwise have to spend $1000’s on customer research and focus groups.

Use the opportunity to record as much customer information as possible without being intrusive. Remember these are pre-qualified leads and they are going to walk right up to you and tell you what they want. If your product doesn’t do what they want it to do, ask them what they are trying to do and record it as a potential opportunity for later.

So this is great for the product manager, but what is in it for the visitor? Why should they stop and spend time at your booth and tell you their story. This is where the opportunity for the Demo comes in.

Marketing Your Brand:

The Demo should not just be a walk through of your product’s features. The visitor needs to be drawn into the story of the product and how it can potentially solve the customer problems that have been previously identified.

The Demo should not just be about selling. It provides an opportunity to educate the visitors about your product and get them to (hopefully) start thinking about it.

With these objectives in mind you need to:

  • identify a problem that the visitor has
  • show clearly how your product can solve it
  • make it simple for them to remember your product story

When they walk away and go to the next booth what is the one thing that will they remember?

Sell Stuff

In some cases a person will walk up to your booth and want to make a purchase. What will you be able to offer them? This will clearly depend on your product but you must be able to provide a clear commitment to completing a sale. This could be the ability to process a sale on the spot, or provide a generic quote, or book time in your calendar for a proper sales interview.

This may not be the main purpose of the trade show but it is the ultimate objective of being there in the first place. If someone wants to buy from you, make sure you have something you can sell.


Roger Cauvin at Cauvin

Trade Shows: Of What Value Are They?

The esteemed Steve Johnson recently wrote a provocative blog entry on the merits - or lack thereof - of demoing at trade shows. He implies that showing demos is usually not very effective:

Nobody retains information from a trade show--everyone is yelling to be heard. Perhaps you could be a little quieter and much more effective. Let's use the demo where it belongs, much later in the sales cycle.

And he contends that collecting information about prospects' situations and problems is often a better use of trade show time:

At your next event, try just asking people who come by the booth a few simple qualifying questions about their problem and its urgency to them. If they answer in the affirmative, scan their badge or take their card and invite them to enjoy the show. Meanwhile send a set of materials to them through the mail or better yet, have a sales person contact them the week after the show.

In my opinion, Steve's key point is that:

The best demo is customized to the customers, their problems, and within the context of how we can specifically solve their problems.

If you've read SPIN Selling,you know that your best chance of making a high-value sale is to use a facilitative process that starts with asking a lot of questions. Only after you've fully understand the individual prospect's situation and problems do you describe your solution in detail.

Regarding trade shows, however, the more important questions to me are:

  1. Why are you an exhibitor at the trade show at all?

  2. Who is attending the trade show, and why?

What goals are you trying to achieve as an exhibitor at the trade show? If you're trying to sell product, then Steve's advice is important to keep in mind. But maybe you're trying to affect media coverage? Or maybe you're trying to gather intelligence on the attendees and competition? I wonder, though: perhaps you can achieve this latter goal just as effectively without being an exhibitor (and just being an attendee)?

It matters who is attending the trade show. Is media attending the trade show? Are tech geeks with little or no buying authority attending the show? Are actual prospects attending the show? Perhaps you should attempt to segment the population of the trade show into various personas.

The bottom line is that the issue isn't as simple as whether you should demo at trade shows. You need to research the expected trades how population and shape your goals accordingly. In the end, you may decide that

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