To Exhibit or Not to Exhibit. Things to Consider.

SHRM's 57th Annual Conference & Exposition just ended and by most accounts, it was a very good show. We (HRmarketer) sent four representatives to SHRM and we will post a complete and comprehensive debriefing sometime over the next several days. In the meantime, here are some thoughts about exhibiting.

This year's SHRM event had 800 exhibitors (25 more than last year) and 250 of these exhibitors were new. Some well known HR service providers that did not exhibit were Oracle and The Hay Group. Also, quite a few smaller companies who exhibited last year chose not to exhibit this year. Workforce Management Magazine sponsored this year's Daily Conference at SHRM and they had a great article titled "Exhibitors more strategic in selecting conferences". It is worth the read. One of the most common reasons that vendors cite for not exhibiting at SHRM or other major HR shows is they feel that key HR decision-makers do not attend.

Not all HR products and services are purchased by senior HR executives and for many vendors, the primary buyer or purchase influencer is an entry to mid-level HR professional, making SHRM an ideal place to be. Years ago when I was with a large employee benefit firm, we spent over $30,000 for one of those floating events on the QE2. Although we had over 60 individual meetings with senior HR executives, we did not generate any qualified leads. After speaking to other "exhibitors" months later, I noticed a correlation between those who generated a high volume of leads and closed business versus those that did not get any business. It all depended on what service the vendor was selling. Certain product categories did well and others did not. Executive coaching, high-end recruiting firms and ERP companies did well. Employee benefit firms who sell to mid-level benefit managers did not do so well. The point is, there are a lot of variables that go into a decision whether or not to exhibit. The better you understand your target buyer, the details of the purchasing process and even the psychology of your target customer's buying behavior, the better decisions you can make about which events to exhibit.

Someone once said (Ogilvy I believe) that half of every dollar you spend on advertising is wasted but the problem is you don't know which half. I think the same can be said for exhibiting. The fact is, it is very hard to compute an ROI on tradeshow exhibiting. Sometimes it makes sense to exhibit even if your ideal target buyers are not attending.

I remember closing a sale once from a customer who learned about our company from a tradeshow two years earlier. She told me she kept the lit pack from our booth but the timing was not right. When she was ready to buy, she remembered talking to our company at the tradeshow so she gave us a call. It's not uncommon for some pharmaceutical firms to spend a lot of money sponsoring and attending events where no primary buyers are in attendance (e.g., an event or function where med students are the primary audience). When I asked a pharma marketing executive why he said "we are building relationships with tomorrow's buyers". This is the same reason healthcare companies will sponsor events for purchasing "influencers" like nurses. By the way, pharma firms are some of the BEST marketers in the world and HR vendors can learn a lot from studying them. This is one reason why we were somewhat perplexed at Oracle's decision not to exhibit at SHRM. Sometimes, you attend an event just to build goodwill.

As we've alluded to before on this blog, research shows buyers need to come into contact with your brand multiple times before they take action. This is why it is important for HR suppliers to execute a consistent message on a regular basis using a variety of marketing activities including press releases, monitoring query services to secure media placement opportunities, writing and placing byline articles, writing, distributing and publishing white papers, advertising, securing award recognition and participating in (i.e., speaking) and/or hosting events - even if they are big and large with junior HR decision makers :-)