While it is clear that there are attendees who go to see and experience new food brands, learn about the future of retail, buy stuff for their companies, build relationships with other attendees and brands – it seems like most CPG brands go to trade shows not knowing what they are doing or why they are attending. This guide is not about whether or not attending trade shows should be a thing for your company, but *specifically* why some companies end up wasting money on them.
I think this is important because you can’t manage if you don’t know where business comes from in the first place. And once you understand that information… we have an opportunity as a class of professionals (who attend these events) to figure out alternatives systems for building/securing/measuring growth opportunities around our business lines (increase trade show attendance) that don’t rely on buying booth space or paying for expensive tradeshow services.
I’m not going to talk about specific areas of the business that are important to attend trade shows in this post (e.g. sales, marketing, brand building). I am simply talking about whether or not an individual CPG should be attending these events. In other words… what do we gain from showing up at a tradeshow compared to any other form of direct outreach/marketing channels available to my company? What is the value of having a physical presence at one of these events vs having another medium (email, social media, etc…) that allows me to reach potential customers while they are researching their next purchase and lets me build relationships/localize my message around my buyer personas?
How to determine if you should attend a tradeshow as a CPG Brand
In 2013, the average cost per point for a tradeshow attendee was $.38 (if you were able to get them to come anyway). So at an average trade show, if I am paying between 5-10k in booth costs by myself and another 1-3k or so for travel/hotels – that means I need 2,814-6,500 people walking through my booth if I want to make it all back on just the business I captured from having a physical presence there. Not even mentioning whether or not these attendees actually see value in what we are doing or have a desire to buy our products. In fact, this article reports that 60-75% of attendees don’t buy anything at these events, despite being offered a plethora of value-adding services (free samples, etc…).
What about the other sources we have available to us? Email marketing allows us to build relationships with customers directly, and leverage automation when it comes time for them to make another purchase. Automation also helps us keep our costs down by doing things like sending out branded emails at predetermined times throughout the year. For example, if I run a seasonal business where 40% of my sales occur during 4-month window, I can plan ahead and send email communications around that season instead of spending money on tradeshow attendance (which may or may not yield results in terms of new business/installs/sales).
And if you want to build local relevance around your brand, there are better ways than showing up at a tradeshow. If I am a grass-fed beef supplier in the south – I have no need to show up at an organic food tradeshow where my customers are located (check out this great article about why grass-fed suppliers should stop going to organic trade shows ). Instead, I can leverage targeted social media ads and email marketing campaigns that hit people where they live.
This is exactly what we did with our company after changing focus from B2B white-labeling solutions for consumer packaged goods companies into developing consumer brands (customers who will buy directly from us instead of through other retailers).
Our business model required us to build local relevance and awareness around our brand through social media campaigns, targeted email marketing, and local events in order to facilitate an install base growth strategy (we’re not going to ship free product into your cities – you’re going to have to buy it from a retail location). This was done without ever having attended any major trade shows in the past, just by leveraging online/off-label marketing tactics. And because we were able to do this without spending money on booth space or tradeshow attendance costs… we were also able to pass these savings onto our customers who now have lower pricing than the competition.
I can already hear some of you asking, “What about all of those top business opportunities that I can find at a tradeshow? Shouldn’t that be the only opportunity I go after?”
Well, if you’re talking about a SaaS business that is already in front of these qualified buyers – don’t you think that they have seen your booth before and that they aren’t going to buy from you again because you are at their next tradeshow? What will happen when the business owner remembers your face or company name after seeing you 3 years ago? And what is going to get them to give you more money just because this time they are physically there and could potentially see your booth instead of doing research online on his/her phone like he did last year (31% of trade show attendees use phones for pre-show research according to this study).
We realized pretty early on that we were lacking any valuable assets at our booth, other than the free samples and coupons we gave out. We had no way to prove that people who came to our booth actually bought from us in stores or online (or will buy from us again). And if they bought from us before we didn’t know anything about them.
Bottom line: If you are going to spend money on local marketing tactics then it makes more sense to invest your money in things like Facebook ads where you can target specific demographics instead of doing something like trade show attendance which only has value for discounts (you can give coupons/discount codes at any type of event) and brand awareness (which could be done virtually).
The average person spends less than 10 seconds looking at your booth before they move on to the next one, and most of that time is spent seeing if you have free stuff or not. You can’t get people excited about a product in that amount of time, nor do you have enough space to convey your message in any meaningful way – especially when your competition is right there with a bigger booth and more expensive marketing tactics. You are competing with each other over the same trade show attendees instead of working together to grow the industry *for all* companies. And this is why I am against most major tradeshow events as they tend to focus on the revenues of just a few companies (the major trade show owners) while ignoring all of the small and medium-sized businesses who are paying higher fees to be there in the first place. The people you really want at your booth can pretty much do everything they need online with discounts, coupons, free samples, or social media outreach.
The exception for this is when your company is brand new and you need to physically meet potential customers in person since most businesses won’t buy from a company they don’t know. We realized that because our product isn’t always something that people will want to use right away – it’s often an add-on effect where customers may try it out, fall in love, but then realize they needed more in order to start seeing increased benefits. In this case, we invested money in booths at tradeshow events so that people could see the product live, try it out, and hopefully buy from us immediately. It worked for our sales team because they were then able to pass these customers off to other parts of our company (who did a better job of retaining them).
And if you are thinking about doing business with an overseas manufacturer – trade shows definitely are not for you. The average buying cycle is closer to 18 months long and often requires multiple meetings over Skype or phone calls before something is actually purchased from China. I have yet to meet someone who has a simple online store built or even mockups ready – that would be motivated enough to physically travel to China where a trade show would be the most logical place to network with people.
What does work for us as a CPG brand is doing smaller things like sponsoring BBQs, community events, and local expos which are more focused on community building instead of revenue generation. These venues tend to draw customers who are also interested in investing locally or supporting small businesses and we’ve found them to be perfect if you have an established business that just needs some extra exposure.
Another thing that works well for us is having people already know about our company before attending these events – usually through advertising/marketing online beforehand. If your booth costs $500-$3000 then make sure it is because you are confident that those $500-$3000 will be brought back in sales. You should not be investing in booths when you don’t have a customer base lined up as this will just result in wasted money (and it’s even worse if your product sells for less than the booth costs). If the average number of days before someone buys from you is more than 30 then it’s unlikely they will walk away with enough information to make that buying decision while looking at your booth.
In conclusion, I totally understand why most companies attending trade shows do so – it’s easier and there aren’t immediate consequences or risks. But focusing on quality customers through marketing/retention instead of sales volume can be significantly more profitable since word-of-mouth is still the best way to generate sales in any industry. You also shouldn’t attend trade shows with high booth fees because they won’t bring you as many qualified leads as you think (because of the reasons I discussed above).
If someone convinces you otherwise then refer them here and let me know how it goes! Or, use this handy tradeshow ROI calculator to determine if attending a tradeshow as a CPG brand is right for you and your business goals.