At the risk of sounding cliché, 2020 was a year that brought infinite challenges to the business world. From bustling offices that turned to 100% remote working environments, and in-person connections moving entirely to Zoom, the way we conduct business internally and externally pivoted almost overnight. One industry that dramatically shifted as a result of the pandemic is the trade show industry, whose transformation to exclusively virtual formats was met with mixed reviews. For some brands, the virtual format made it easier to share information. For others, the spontaneity of conversation was lost.
While most people are eager to get back to in-person trade shows and networking events in the future, signs have indicated that things might not return to normal so quickly, leaving brand marketers unsure of whether or not to embrace this new virtual show format for 2021. Read on to decide if a virtual trade show is right for your business.
What Can Be Gained From Virtual Trade Shows
More often than not, brands who exhibit at trade shows are there to showcase something new and exciting. Particularly for new products that are more complex in nature, it can be difficult to convey everything you want to say in the live format due to over-scheduled meetings, crowded booths, and other programming. For CYBEX, maker of juvenile products including car seats and strollers, the new virtual format alleviated some of the pressure to fit everything into a short window of time, and truly allowed them to showcase every aspect of their new product. “We were able to focus on overall brand storytelling and highlight our hero campaign videos which sometimes get lost at a traditional trade show,” said Felicia Pandola, Associate Director of Marketing at CYBEX. The virtual booth allowed them to use multimedia assets like product tutorial videos, campaign videos, photos and videos of the physical showroom, and a pre-taped safety seminar that replicated and enhanced what they could typically do in-person at a trade show.
Further, the virtual format can be infinitely more cost-effective for brands. According to Clare MacNab, CEM, CMP, JPMA Director of Meetings & Events, “The opportunity to reach a much broader audience, for a much lower cost than constructing a trade show display, is a compelling aspect of virtual shows.” She noted that over the past year, she has witnessed the virtual platform technology become significantly smarter, faster and more intuitive, and that exhibitors have become more adept at translating their sales efforts to the virtual world. “As product sales continue to move increasingly online, virtual trade shows most closely mimic the experience the consumer will have when selecting and purchasing products,” she says.
Lastly, media and buyers still need to know what’s coming to market next, and many are still opting to attend the virtual trade shows to discover new category innovations. Per MacNab, awards programs are a great driver of attendance to trade shows. “Although judging has moved online, the JPMA Innovation Awards program will continue to award the most innovative new products in the baby industry. Winners have traditionally received a large amount of media coverage and by utilizing online tools, we expect that exposure to increase and for buyer awareness to be greater than ever,” she shared.
What Is Lost In The Virtual Format
No matter how creative and interactive a virtual trade show and/or booth might be, one thing that is impossible to recreate in this format is the face-to-face interaction and spontaneous collaboration. Across the board, brand marketers who chose to forego exhibiting in the virtual format noted that the real benefits they experience from trade shows often come during the unexpected conversations, happy hours and dinners after show hours, etc. For Yvethe Tyszka, Vice President of Marketing at Zesty Paws, “Trade shows provide value beyond just showing the line of products to buyers. They give people an opportunity to get to know one another on a deeper level beyond just work. Virtual shows remove that opportunity, in turn diminishing the value of the attending the show.” Other brand marketers agree that these impromptu, or perhaps even scheduled, social gatherings simply cannot be replicated in a virtual environment. Too often, much like a Zoom meeting, attendance at a virtual trade show becomes another work day task with little time and/or desire to stay connected longer to forge relationships.
Additionally, for products that require sensory elements like taste, touch, and smell, the virtual format can be nearly impossible to replicate that experience. For Melissa Lyons, Social Media & Marketing Manager at Ellenos, her two key priorities for shows like Expo West are meeting with retailers and sampling their yogurt. “Without a clear retailer component or the ability to sample, the virtual event just didn’t seem like the best use of resources,” Lyons shared. Many CPG brands like Ellenos reported that it made more sense for their sales teams to set up individual meetings with buyers where a COVID-safe sampling could still take place.
How Can Brands Decide If A Virtual Trade Show Is The Right Move
Now that we’ve tackled some of the pros and cons of virtual trade shows, it’s time to determine if exhibiting at a virtual trade show is right for your brand. We’ve put together a handy list of questions below to help guide your decision.
- Do you have something new to share with buyers and media? If the answer is yes, this format is worth considering. If the answer is no, exhibiting in a virtual trade show is likely not the best use of resources.
- Does your product require a sensory element to get the true experience? (must be smelled, tasted, etc.) If the answer is yes, your resources might be better used for one-on-one meetings or you may want to consider a way of getting the physical product into as many hands as possible before the show. If the answer is no, and you have the ability to re-create the sales pitch with multimedia tools, the virtual format may still work well for your brand.
- Does your team have the bandwidth for individual sales meetings right now? If the answer is yes, you might want to consider going this route to strengthen relationships with your best contacts. If the answer is no, the virtual trade show format may be an easy tool to help you reach more people quickly.
- Does your team have the bandwidth to create compelling multimedia assets for a virtual booth? If the answer is yes, you should consider moving forward with a virtual booth. If the answer is no, it is probably worth passing until you can put your best brand foot forward. Remember that this may be the first time someone encounters your brand. You want that experience to be just right!
- Are you an emerging brand that struggles to be seen at the live events? If the answer is yes, the virtual format might be a great place to break through the noise and/or use as leverage for a better booth location when shows return in person.
How To Bolster Your Presence If You Do Choose To Exhibit
One thing that has been made clear by attendees is that virtual booths and shows must be interactive and/or have a wow factor that makes the experience enjoyable. Below are a few things to keep in mind when planning your brand experience:
- Make sure the branding and visuals are on point. Particularly if there are influencers and media attending, they may be taking screenshots for their own content needs. You want your brand visuals to be clean and professional.
- If the format allows for multiple attendees to interact with a brand rep at once, make sure the background visual of the key speaker is easily identifiable and branded. Otherwise, attendees can get lost trying to keep track of who is speaking.
- Try to become part of a panel and/or the larger programming. Attendees and media tend to prioritize these sessions over visiting individual booths when strapped for time.
- Participate in the show’s awards program, if available. As noted above, award winners tend to enjoy more visibility and garner more media coverage.
- Start promoting your presence at the show early. Reach out to buyers and reporters well in advance to let them know what they can expect to see in your virtual booth. Relying on organic traffic to discover your virtual booth is just as ineffective as exhibiting in-person with no pre-scheduled meetings.
- If it is feasible to send product in advance to key media and buyers, do it! The ability to touch, feel, taste, etc. while learning about the brand is much more compelling for the attendee.
- Don’t forget to follow up after the show. The virtual format gives you a unique opportunity to collect data from attendees. You must continue to nurture the relationship after the show by offering even more value than what was shared in the virtual booth.
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