If your prospects are accustomed to attending industry trade shows and conferences it’s normally worth exhibiting.
Trade shows are one of the few venues where you can sell directly and explicitly and it’s accepted by prospects. If they walk up to your trade show booth they expect a sales pitch. If you give a talk to a group, leave a comment on a forum or someone else’s blog, write an article for a trade publication, or take part in a networking event the normal expectation is that there will be a very low “sales pitch” content.
We take different bootstrapping startups to tradeshows several time a year because it generates both awareness (attendance at the right shows demonstrates that you are part of an industry) and leads. This awareness will normally echo for a six to twelve months and help to support your credibility as a viable vendor. Your ability to attend appropriate conferences (in markets that rely on trade shows) is a significant health marker in this economy. That does not mean that you have to spend a lot of money on your booth.
The leads are the results of face to face conversation where your team can make an active assessment of the prospect. Face to face conversation is the fastest way to build trust and credibility (provided obviously that what you say is true and you follow up on commitments).
There is a temptation to save money and just to walk the show floor: treating it as a large networking event. We have done this with clients but they are normally not particularly happy with the results. It allows you to get a sense of the show and the attendees, but it normally doesn’t generate too many leads. It’s hard to be taken seriously in an environment where other vendors are setup in booths.
If you have a speaking slot on the conference program you should definitely get a booth so that people can find you before and after the talk. Otherwise you only have a few minutes immediately before and after the talk to engage in conversation and exchange cards.
A smaller more targeted conference is often more appropriate and cost effective. Another benefit to a smaller trade shows is that the booths tend to be all the same size or a large booth may only be 2-3x the basic booth, so the differences between small and large firms are minimized.
The conference selling environment is very different from the phone or a customer’s office and it’s better to cut your teeth in a smaller venue. Also, one of the most effective things you can display as a young startup is a customer testimonial.
Another key tool is an engagement checklist and timeline so that if you get asked how much will this cost and when can we be operational you look like you bring customers up all of the time. Nothing undercuts a successful presentation where a customer says “Wow, when can I have it?” when you answer with a short silence followed by “we are not sure, no one else has ever said yes.” Practice your presentation all the way to implementation planning and bring up or have a next step (e.g. pilot project, on-site visit) that is clearly on the way to finalizing a plan for production use. It also allows you to ask a number of questions to see how serious a prospect is (e.g. if they cannot answer “how are you currently doing X, Y, Z” they may be less serious than they appear).