(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 Press releases are passé, journals and trade publications have been replaced by blogs, your rep is no one if she isn’t on Twitter, and once-mighty conferences have shriveled or closed their doors.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

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.

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