(Don’t) Make Your Startup Look Stupid With Booth Babes And Chotchkies!

It’s hard to make a splash at a trade show these days. Your engineers spend months crash-proofing your product for the demo, but what if no one notices it? Marketers have long relied on sex appeal and free junk to lure conference-goers into their booths, making booth babes and chotchkies one of the more talked-about aspects of the modern trade show. But what message does this really send to your audience?

Marketing and the Market

We all agree that marketing and PR has changed radically over the last decade. Press releases are passé, journals and trade publications have been replaced by blogs, your rep is no one if she isn’t on Twitter, and once-mighty conferences have shriveled or closed their doors. Technology buyers have changed, too: What was once a conservative club for middle-aged white men has broadened into a cross-section of society. Although minorities and women remain under-represented in IT, they are making their presence known.

imageA brief walk through a recent trade show vividly demonstrated to me that although the venues and audiences are evolving, many companies have been slow to adapt. They still rely on the tried and true techniques, hiring scantily-clad "booth babes", passing out flashy electronic junk in plastic bags, and staging distracting stunts rather than focusing on the product.

How To Look Stupid

As a speaker on cloud computing and enterprise data storage, I attend dozens of trade shows every year. Yet I am still amazed by the lack of consideration for the consequences of these cheap tricks. It boils down to a simple question: What does a sexy babe, a magician, and a flashing pen tell the world about your company?

It sounds like the beginning of a joke, and makes any company look stupid. More precisely, the typical trade show booth schtick demonstrates the following:

  1. They’re out of ideas and are just here to amass a big contact list
  2. They have little regard for your customers and don’t care if they alienate well over half of the world’s population
  3. They don’t think anyone cares about the product because they don’t staff the booth with experts
  4. They are wasteful of natural resources, buying cheap plastic electro-junk that will be in a landfill in a week
  5. They are wasting of investor or shareholder money and aren’t focused on deriving a real return from marketing investments
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As a man, I concede that attractive ladies get my attention. As a geek, I concede that flashing LEDs cause me to take notice. As an American, I concede that amassing stuff holds great appeal. But as a thinking person, I know that all of this is a waste.

Junk For Leads

VMworld 2009 Chotchkies by Stephen Foskett

Why would trade show exhibitors continue making the same stupid choices? One reason is laziness and a lack of creativity: A marketing manager recently told me he just couldn’t think of anything better to do! Mental inertia tends to take over when it comes to the complexities of planning a trade show booth. Girls dressed like nurses brought in the crowds at Comdex in 1989, so why not try it at VMworld in 2009? Plus, attendees love hauling home sacks of flashing plastic booty to taunt their co-workers who were unable to attend.

An odd combination of show policy and new technology is another reason: Companies attend trade shows primarily to collect sales leads in the form of contact information from attendees, but these lists are jealously guarded by promoters. Modern shows employ badge barcodes and portable scanners, allowing exhibitors to collect leads with the press of a button instead of relying on a fishbowl full of business cards. This is the only way for them to access the promoter’s contact list, so the show floor has devolved into a mad scramble for badges. Eye contact and a handshake has been replaced by endless repetition of the same question: "Can I scan your badge?" Chotchkies, booth babes, and raffles are a simple way to lure attendees in for a quick badge scan, but the resulting sales leads are laughably poor.

Building a Better Trade Show

I’m going to assume you would rather not walk away from your next trade show with a worthless lead list and a sour taste in your customers’ mouths. Let’s apply some new-school thinking to the problem and build a better trade show!

  1. Replace the spokesmodels with informed techies – Rely on your recognizable and respected bloggers, speakers, and authors – you do have those, don’t you? Your solutions engineers and technical executives are another great pool to draw on. Staff with a 50-50 balance between sales and product expertise.
  2. Replace the chotchkies with something that reflects your product – Use some creativity and think of a truly useful giveaway or socially-redeeming contest. Give away a worthwhile chunk of your product or service if possible, or represent the value of the product with a thoughtful giveaway. If you sell on efficiency and green IT, a flashing plastic pen or smooshy foam cloud sends the wrong message.
  3. A hands-on lab beats a taped demo – Let your customers-to-be try your product out in person, both on the show floor and at a better-equipped lab. Offer a free training class with a certificate of completion so they can demonstrate their success back at work.
  4. Get on the agenda and off the show floor – Your best leads and most-informed customers come from speaking engagements and social marketing, not badge-grabbed passers-buy. Arrange a customer roundtable or birds-of-a-feather session to locate and engage real sales leads.
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I will be putting all of these into practice at my next show, TechTarget’s Storage Decisions in New York. I’ll be on stage speaking to attendees about cloud storage in general and the offerings of my company, Nirvanix, in particular. Our booth will be staffed by cloud computing experts (and little old me!) and we will be planting a tree for every visitor rather than handing out junk. We sell a managed storage as a service, so visitors can try it out for themselves either at the booth or at home. Finally, we will be inviting select attendees to a post-show cloud strategy roundtable event so they can continue the discussion in more depth.

VMworld booth babe photo by SpinMaster James Price, flash drive chotchkies by Stephen Foskett

[Editor’s Note: Stephen Foskett is a brand new SA contributor today – welcome to the team, Stephen! –mrh]

More on Chotchkies and Booth Babes:

BlogHer ‘09: The Weaponizing of the Blogosphere

A View From BlogHer ‘09


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  1. Great post Steve. Looking forward to seeing the substance at Decisions in NYC. Love the post-show roundtable idea. It wasn’t all bad at VMworld. One firm that I visited, @Asigra, had prospects take a 20 minute survey and as a post-show activity send a very meaty analysis of the results; with a customized analysis for the prospect. For sure they went for quality over quantity and gave something of value in return for a prospect’s time (and card).

    CIO’s want marketing to be a source of value. Useful content is much more valuable (in general) than more crap.

  2. Excellent. :) One of my guys was called in at the last minute to do an analyst conference that had a trade show attached. He felt bad that he didn’t have give-away stuff, so he raffled off a week of his consulting time. Talk about great leads generated!

  3. And if you are marketing and not tech, you should be required to wear a pointed hat or other type of flare, so us technical types don’t waste our time diving into the weeds. Conversation will also be way more productive for both of us. :D

    Great post, Stephen!

    Sean Clark –
    Twitter: vSeanClark

  4. I love Sean’s idea! I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve spent 5 minutes talking to someone who then sheepishly pointed out that they had no idea how to respond and directed me to someone else!

    This post is getting massively re-tweeted by women in technology positions. I must have struck a nerve…

  5. Sorry didnt read the post too busy looking at the pictures of all those thumb drives

  6. Thanks for a really good article, Stephen. Yes, I’m RT’ing it now as a thinking person in that half of the population you mentioned.

    Author, “The Standards Game” blog

  7. Definitely a great post, Stephen.

    It happened to me a few times at SxSW where I’d set up for a video interview with a vendor, and the marketing guy had been giving me a great elevator pitch before the camera came on, we get into the discussion and he suddenly clams up due to the inability to go off script into technical details.

    Augmented reality contact lenses (http://siliconangle.net/ver2/2009/09/02/while-were-working-im-going-to-tre/) with a tag indicating technology expertise level would be awesome.

    Failing that, the pointy hat thing might work, too.

  8. Is it just me or is it ironic that you took the time to include a photo of the booth babes? Just sayin’…

  9. Bruce: Funny and true! I really didn’t mean to do that, but of course some of the success of this post has probably been due to that very picture! Witness the reaction on FriendFeed as exhibit A. But I guess the thumb drives kind of drive geeks crazy, too (per Andy!)

    Another unintended reaction: I didn’t mean to suggest that booth babe == women, quite the opposite in fact! Happily I think the thinking folks of the other gender understood that the point was to be respectful to them…

  10. I avoided the Bluecat booth like the plague specifically because of those “booth babes”. I go to a conference to get good technical information and make good contacts, not to be accosted by provocatively clad women out fondle my badge. Thanks for the post!

  11. Why am I not surprised that you got the booth babes to pose for you! My corporate team did a video of me to show the “day in the life of a blogger” and we thought about trying to do something funny to include them but decided against it. You can see the video here: http://bit.ly/XK6RZ. Actually wish you had been around because I would have pulled you into it. I needed a rock star blogger in the video, though John Troyer from VMworld makes a brief appearance.

  12. As a technical product manager, nothing is more insulting to me to have an attendee ask to ‘speak with someone who knows the product’. Booth babes are an insult to us women who have the technical chops to discuss the merits of our products!

  13. those babes are the closer’s…you just need to be invited back to the hotel room

  14. This boothbabe phenomena is rife throughout many types of industry and their conferences / trade shows. As you say, it is difficult, as a man, to ignore the attractive young ladies, the lure of free glitzy techstuff and even the stunts. This is mainly because we all become brain dead whilst prowling the floors and corridors of such shows and because there are so many stalls that of no interest to us anyway. It is depressing how little business is generated by such events and I often wonder if you would actually generate as many genuine leads by having a very low key, small display where only potential customers who were actually interested in you / your product, bothered to stop by. You always see the big flash stalls getting a lot of foot traffic but know that 99.9% of it is a complete waste of time. Of course the option you suggest of real tech knowledgeable staff and the opportunity for customers to try things out would be even better, but I do wonder about the cost / success ratio of the low key / low cost approach

  15. Of course, I attend trade shows for the free stuff and to flirt with the booth babes, as I’m pretty sure the booths in question would rather talk to a thousand people than a hundred, based on your suggestions above.

  16. Wonderful job right here. I seriously enjoyed what you had to say. Keep going because you absolutely bring a new voice to this topic. Not many people would say what youve said and still make it interesting

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