In a digital sphere that presents a clear indication of ROI for most companies, trade shows may seem a tad old-fashioned - but brand and promotions expert Aaron Inglethorpe believes business exhibitions could actually peak next year

Business exhibitions - IBM CeBIT 2010

IBM CeBIT is one of the world's biggest trade shows (Credit: Wikipedia Commons/IBM)

From smartphone apps to expensively-assembled videos, tech has transformed the way companies are showcased – but business exhibitions remain a central plank of any marketing strategy.

From London Tech Week to Las Vegas’ CES, the jam-packed trade show calendar offers a platform for businesses of all sizes to present future innovations, engage new audiences and drive more sales.

More than 40 major exhibitions will take place across the UK in 2018 alone – making it a multi-million industry – while there are hundreds more across the United States, Europe and Asia to name just a few key locations for corporate gatherings.

But with consistent popularity comes, it seems, a sense of apathy.

Google Trends data shows that searches for terms relating to business exhibitions have generally plateaued in recent years, while searches for terms like “digital marketing” have grown significantly – in spite of a 2016 report from the Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR) predicting a new peak for the global exhibition industry to hit in 2018.

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Here, brand and promotions expert Aaron Inglethorpe, of Croydon-based display systems supplier Discount Displays, explains why business exhibitions are set for a resurgence in 2019 and beyond.


The hunt for trackable metrics

One of the main barriers to growth in the business exhibitions space comes in the form of something which has conversely spearheaded growth in other areas – trackability.

The logic of investing solely in those channels which can be tangibly measured and proven to be benefiting a company’s bottom line cannot be argued.

Putting money into any channel requires the statistical proof to justify the decision and with return on investment (ROI) a common phrase in business boardrooms, the hunger for trackable metrics continues to grow.

Business exhibitions
Aaron Inglethorpe, of Discount Displays

This, in part, accounts for the take-up of digital marketing techniques from fringe channels reserved for the wealthiest businesses to essential channels featuring in the business plans of start-ups to enterprises.

In the case of online advertising, for example, there is a very clear user journey that can be followed through to conversion – put money in here, see money come back here.

It’s that data, that quantifiable measure of value, that makes online channels so enticing to marketers and business owners alike.


Measuring the ROI of business exhibitions

While measuring the success of an online campaign comes down primarily to the correct implementation of tracking code, and the nous to read the data, tracking offline activity is notoriously more difficult – or, at least, it has been.

At its most basic level, the success of an exhibition can be measured by the number of business cards collected or sales made on the day.

But what this fails to take into account is the value of the connections made through that event that one day, if not today, turn into new business enquiries.

Considering that consumers – both B2B and B2C – now have access to a whole world of possibilities when choosing their next product or service provider, mainly thanks to the web, the propensity for someone to make that purchase decision in the here and now has understandably decreased.

London Tech Week,5G
London Tech Week featured a 5G World conference

Far more likely, then, that a prospect gather their information and review it all before making a decision.

Which, practically speaking, increases the likelihood of exhibitions playing a part, but not the first or final part, in the conversion journey.

When it comes to tracking, this represents a dilemma.

The most common forms of attribution modelling – first click and last click – only account for those channels which kick off or close the sale.

They don’t look at the channels that encourage the sale along the way.

That said, modern marketing is taking a much more holistic view of attribution, meaning that models such as linear and data driven are increasingly commonplace.

Utilising these forms of attribution, marketers and business owners alike are able to give a share of value to channels which help the sale to happen – including exhibitions.


Moving toward an integrated future

As our ability to track our investments improves, so too does our propensity to invest in multiple channels at once, recognising that the more touch points we can create, the more likely we are to win the sale once the customer is ready to buy.

Practically speaking, that means layering channels for optimal success – whether that’s through the distribution of leaflets that encourage future interaction, or the use of newer technologies like “beacons” that allow online advertisers to send marketing messages directly to the mobile phones of attendees at an exhibition or trade event, making for some highly targeted campaigns.

On a less tangible level, it means investing more in brand, too.

When we recognise that success won’t necessarily come in the form of sales in the here and now, we appreciate how much our brand messaging (practically in the form of exhibitions stands and other exhibition materials) plays a part in planting the seeds of relationships that can one day lead to custom.

Business exhibitions are still an extremely valuable way to get your business noticed by the right people.

2018 may not be the year, but if we can appreciate the broader benefits and utilise new technologies to support our data-driven decisions, exhibitions are set to grow massively in coming years.