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It’s time for a visualization exercise. Are you ready?

Picture this:

You’re standing, with your booth staff, in your exhibit at a large tradeshow. This is one of the best shows you regularly participate in as it attracts a sizeable number of your target audience. Your team is prepared. Your display looks terrific. You’ve got interactive demonstrations, you’ve sponsored a speaker, and your giveaway items convey your marketing message, appeal to your target audience, and are in plentiful supply.

Looks good, right?

There’s something in this scene, something I haven’t mentioned yet, that could make it all even better. Something that will not only boost your ROI, but will create that most vital of marketing tools.

What is it?

It’s a secret weapon that’s more than come of age. In fact, it’s been around since the beginning of time but only now is it realizing its full potential. This build up and suspense is all about "word of mouth marketing" and how you can use it to your advantage on the tradeshow floor.

I’ve recently read Seth Godin’s Flipping the Funnel, and it really brought home the concept of how underutilized tradeshow attendees are as a marketing tool. Attendees are more than prospects and contacts: they’re a potential sales force, just waiting to be tapped on your behalf.

According to Godin, we should:

Turn strangers into friends.
Turn friends into customers.
Turn then … do the most important job
Turn your customers into sales people.


Why would you want to recruit a whole bunch of amateur salespeople, you might ask, when you already have a perfectly competent, fully trained professional sales team? After all, you’ve spent considerable resources recruiting, training, and retaining your current team. Isn’t that enough?

Frankly, no. Regardless of how big your sales force is, there’s no way they’re going to be able to connect with every person who might be interested in your products and services. Even working flat out, as Godin suggests, they’re not selling as much as you’d like.

This is where your friends and customers enter the picture. If you view them as assets, as allies in the world of sales, you’ve already expanded your potential marketplace. When more people are working on your behalf, you’ll reach more customers. It’s simple mathematics.

There’s another benefit as well. When your friends and customers recommend your products and services, their words carry far more weight than anything your sales team can say. People value the opinions of colleagues, peers and relatives far more than they do the assurances of a salesperson. It’s the difference between editorial speech and advertising, played out in a face-to-face setting.

So Now What?

Being convinced that recruiting tradeshow attendees to act on your behalf is one thing, convincing them to do it is another. According to Godin, we continually spend a tremendous amount of time and energy attempting to spread our marketing message to more and more people. This particularly holds true at tradeshows, where the focus is often on how to attract more people to your exhibit. As well as talk several people at once.

A slight shift in the priorities might be in order. While starting new business relationships will always be important, a new emphasis has been placed on strengthening and maintaining existing relationships.

Consider your current customers. Ask yourself — or even better, ask them, how they feel about your products and services. How about your customer service? What makes doing business with your organization unique, enjoyable, and/or remarkable?

Whatever the answers, what are you doing to help your customers spread the word? Godin offers a number of technical solutions in his free e-book which I highly recommend that you read, but here are a few more hands-on tools to implement at your next tradeshow:

Be Honest

Tell your best customers how much you appreciate them and how much you would value having more customers like them. It’s no secret that you’re in business to make money. No one thinks you’re at the show as a philanthropic endeavor. Appealing to your customers to spread the word carries with it an implied compliment: You’re reinforcing the fact that you think they’re important, by extension, that other people think they’re important, and that their opinion of you matters.

Encourage Referrals

Do you know how often your customer thinks about your company? It’s probably less than 1% of their daily life — after all, they have their own companies to worry about, and their own customer base, not to mention their own personal lives and world events. Sometimes people need a little prompting to spread the word — otherwise, it might never, ever occur to them.

Offer Incentives

If you want your customers to do something for you, you need to do something for them. Godin’s idea is that by offering superior products and services, in a remarkable fashion, you’ll transform customers into fans.

Having strong advocates and supporters never hurts. Offering incentives for spreading the word can be a simple thing – an attractive discount on their next order, for example — or something more elaborate. Remember, as tradeshow attendees skew younger, they may be motivated by more than financial savings or benefits to their company. Consider offering something more personal: a gift that would appeal to your target audience.

In Conclusion

Transforming customers into fans may not have been the top priority on your exhibiting list — but it should be. Recruiting an all-volunteer sales force to augment your existing efforts is one of the most cost effective ways to get your marketing message out there.

Remember: people like to share stories about what they find good, interesting, or unique. By offering that at your next tradeshow, you’re giving yourself a vital leg up on the competition — those who are concentrating on the next new thing miss out on the value of what they might already have.

This Marketing article was written by Susan Friedman on 11/26/2006

Written by Susan A. Friedmann,CSP, The Tradeshow Coach, Lake Placid, NY, author: “Meeting & Event Planning for Dummies,” working with companies to improve their meeting and event success through coaching, consulting and training. For a free copy of “10 Common Mistakes Exhibitors Make”, e-mail:; website: