While Andy's focus is on corporate displays and presentations, everything he says also applies to FOSS projects that exhibit at anything from regional Linux conferences to multinational expos like OSCON and LINUXCON. And one last thought before we turn this over to Andy, who we recorded from Skype at an extremely low frame rate to make this a narrated slide show (with accompanying transcript, as usual): If you're working in a typical corporation, trade shows are often your best way to meet your own company's executives, espcially at casual after-show gatherings. You might also meet execs from other companies and be open to conversations about changing jobs, but this is not something you want to talk about with your bosses or their bosses, but is best kept quiet until or unless you have a firm offer in hand.
Slashdot: I am Robin Miller for Slashdot and this is Andy Saks, who is going to help you make your booth and tradeshow presence more valuable, and before you say that’s not your job, yes it is. Sooner or later they are going to drag you to one and make you man that booth. Andy, help. What does a poor non-booth person need to learn now?
Andy: Oh it is a funny situation. I think this is part of the problem; that the tradeshow manager and the event manager will generally bring who they feel are their most valuable folks to represent them at the booth. They may want salespeople, engineers, marketers, usually a combination, and these people aren’t always 100% excited about being taken off of their normal jobs or if you are a salesperson, away from their normal routine and territory to stand in a booth in a random city for three or four days and represent the company. So right off the bat, you’ve got a challenge between the attitude you want to project to the attendees and the attitude that your staffers may be in the mood to project.
Slashdot: Yes. Yes, so what do we do about this? How do we get those marginal – I mean booth-marginal – people up to speed?
Andy: Well, the first thing to realize is that the staffers that you bring to the show are the most important aspect of your booth. And that’s not a judgment on my part, there’s research in the tradeshow industry that shows that when an attendee who may be incredibly valuable to you, they may be worth let’s say 5, 6, 7+ figures when you add up the initial sale that you could make with them, installation, service, buying new versions and upgrades down the line, the referrals they generate to you, to other people who become your customers—if you consider that one attendee, over their life cycle could be worth a massive amount of money. And then you think okay, if I put myself in the head of that attendee, and I am walking by a booth, and I may have an experience with that booth that’s a second long, I may just stop for a moment, look at the booth and decide not to enter, or I may have an experience going in that’s an hour long or anything in between.
As an attendee, what is most likely to make or break my decision to become a lead for that booth? Am I mostly swayed by, let’s say, the setup of the booth itself, the demo stations, the giveaways, the signage? Am I most swayed by let’s say the products and services that the company is representing? Or am I most swayed by the individuals who are in the booth, who I am talking to face to face? Which one of those three generally makes or breaks the interaction and makes that person say: Yes I want to be your lead. Or no, I think I will keep my badge to myself and move on. And research shows that on average the biggest influence in your booth is you. You make or break the booth more than anything around you. I think that is an important point to get across. Because what I find when I do my booth staff training is that many booth staffers think of themselves like museum guards.
AAndy: Their job, they feel, is to stand against the wall quietly, to tell everybody ‘no flash photography’ and ‘the men’s room is over there’ and basically just to be wall paper and not to get in the way of attendees exploring the products. In fact, it is the opposite. You don’t live to serve the booth or the products. The booth and the products live to serve you. They are all there to make you more attractive; to make your experience easier to be there when you need them. But you are center stage, you are the rock star. And if you don’t take advantage of that, your booth is not going to make back its investment on the time and effort and expense it took to create the whole thing at the show.
Slashdot: And let me ask you because I know the answer to this: Which is better—the locally hired cute girl in a bikini or the engineer who knows things?
Andy: Well, you already know the answer to that. Right?
Slashdot: It is the engineer who knows things.
Andy: Yes of course it is. I am actually not a fan of the lady in a bikini. We generally call them ‘booth babes.' In fact, there are shows like the RSA IT show just this year, that banned the use of booth babes in its show, and I think the trade show industry as a whole is turning away from them. I am not a believer in them for the simple reason that the first person the people that you meet in the booth, especially the first person who is usually an assistant of some sort, they need to embody the personality that you want people to associate with your company. So if you want people to think of you as vapid, and as having no class, and no brains, and generally only able to stand there, smile and run a scanner over your badge, by all means, hire a booth babe. If you want to be thought of as smart, resourceful, efficient, cutting edge—all of those attributes—you should bring an engineer to your show. And you should train them to be a great staffer as well, and then you get the best of both worlds—you have somebody who has the complete knowledge base about your company and can answer questions intelligently, and has the extrovert skills of being able to talk to strangers comfortably for hours at a time.
Slashdot: Okay, how do we gain those skills? We don’t want to have the museum guard, that’s a very good point, at least unt after dark when everything comes alive.
Andy: Well, it certainly is challenging and I understand that most people aren’t built for the tradeshow setting, in fact, I call tradeshows the Bizarro world of marketing and sales. There is really no other environment where you would plant yourself in a room for three days with your competitors immediately around you, and be fighting over the same attendees as they are, trying desperately to make a strong impression in just a few minutes... create a follow-up and all of that. I mean, it is a really trying environment, and I think people come to it with the expectation that they will be able to float through it—that almost never happens. There are very specific skills that will help you out, and the best thing about these skills is that if you have them, you have more fun as a staffer. Your day goes faster. You have better conversations. You have more interested people who want to know what you do. You hear better stories. So it is a more enjoyable show day for you. And I would say the first thing you want to do is, just as a mindset, is to make it about the attendee. And that’s a tough thing to do. That’s a tough shift to make. Because, most people, when they go to a show, they are standing there in the shirt that represents the company, right, they got the company’s logo on it, they are wearing a badge representing the company, they are standing in the booth—everything is about them and the company, the products, everything screams, “Look, how great we are!” so the instinct is let me go ahead and talk about the company and how great we are—that must be what I am here to do. In fact and I say this gently, attendees don’t care about you.
Andy: Attendees only care about whether you can solve the problem they already have. Whether you can take them from the point A that they are at now, the pain points they are experiencing, to point B that they’ve already decided, the place where they wanted to be, where those pain points are relieved. If you have a way to get them there, and it is cost effective and it is reasonably easy, and it respects them, and has their end goals in mind they are all yours. If you can’t do that, and you want to brag about yourself, you are going to have a very short conversation. So you are always best off by starting the conversation and continuing it by asking questions.
Every attendee is different. Find out. Who they are in their company? How they got to the position they are in. What their situation is now. How are those pain points being created? What’s going wrong in their inherent situation? What do they see as the prospects for fixing it? What role do they have in the decision making process? Are they decision maker, an influencer, or are they just here to kick tires? What are the other options they are considering? What are the features that they would absolutely die for? They don’t care about the fifty other features you have—what are the one, or two or three features that if you just did this, they would fall at your feet? That’s all they need. They don’t care about the rest. The more information you have about this particular attendee, what they care about, what they need, what they are on the show floor to find, the better you can serve them. And you’ll find there’s less talking you have to do. Because as you let them talk, the impression that you are making on them is: This company really cares about me. And that’s reassuring. And that creates trust. And then when you finally do talk, all you have to do is talk about the aspects of your product or service that relate to them. That they care about. And those conversations tend to go much faster and be much more efficient and much more powerful than starting from scratch assuming that everybody has to know everything.