Actual recent conversation at HQ:
Were we reluctantly deciding to attend a singles mixer? No, partially since those don't exist anymore. No, sadly, that was a conversation about trade shows, the FOMO-inducing marketing money pit for small companies with big aspirations.
Trade shows - Expo West, Consumer Electronics Show, The National Restaurant Association Show - can be a little bit like a New Year's Eve parties: Months of planning and coordination combined with outrageous costs build expectations to impossibly high levels. And in the end, you often end up standing alone with a drink in your hand and a fat bill to pay. Actually, trade shows are a lot like New Year's. And just like New Years the untold promise of a midnight payday seems to justify the headache and the heartbreak.
Having recently wrapped up Natural Products Expo West - the Times Square New Year's Eve party for companies in the natural food space - now feels like an appropriate time to talk about trade shows.
Certain shows (like Expo West for us) can feel mandatory - We're in Industry X so we HAVE to exhibit at Show Y - when in reality shows should be objectively evaluated just like any other marketing or PR initiative, perhaps with even more scrutiny. A $10,000 sponsored Facebook post would seem ridiculous, But a $10,000 booth at CES ... "You think we'll meet the Wal Mart guy?"
Having been burned by trade shows in the past, we're a bit of a jilted lover: overly skeptical & constantly on-edge. We've started evaluating shows based on a very simple "Should we even go?" premise, based on a few questions that have nothing to do with Exposure, ROI, or proximity to Disneyland.
We just ask 3 questions. If the answer to any of these is no, then our answer is no:
1. Can we afford it?
The truth is, if you're not well-funded, or can't pay for the show out of your gross margin dollars, you probably shouldn't exhibit at any show, let alone an expensive one. Managing cash-flow is critical, and funding a show necessarily means funneling money away from other, probably more deserving, areas of the business. What could you do is someone gave you an extra $10,000?
2. Do we have clear goals in mind?
This year, we entered Expo West - our only show for the year - with vague, ill-defined goals: Meet customers! Talk to consumers! Hang out in Downtown Disney! When we left we had no idea how to evaluate whether or not we succeeded. Set specific, quantifiable goals for a show, and it will be easier to evaluate the show's success (and therefore whether or not you should do it again).
3. Are we really prepared?
Ask yourself: If we got a $100,000 order at this show, could we deliver? Are we so confident in our product, packaging, quality control, supply chain, and customer service that we would risk bankruptcy to fulfill the order?
Because, in a worst case scenario, that's what awaits you if any on of those is in disarray. In a base case scenario, if you can't deliver immediately, your would-be customer will soon forget you, or worse, have a sour taste in their mouth and deny you down the road. (Both have happened to us).Trade shows have a natural way of inducing FOMO. It's like missing a party: if you can't go, your imagination convinces you that Arnold Schwarzeneggar showed up to play ping pong.
But building a business takes time, patience, and disciplined resource allocation. You're playing The Hunger Games, not The Price is Right. Don't let FOMO guide your decision (in anything), don't chase the shiny object, and remember that there's always another New Year's Eve.