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Trade Show Give-Aways That Work
By Mark S. A. Smith   Printer Friendly Version

Premiums and incentives have been a staple of the trade show business since the beginning of civilized sales. The polite term is "advertising specialties." Call them what they really are: "bribes." Show visitors' offices are littered with pens, coffee mugs, note pads, and other "trash and trinkets" (another term often heard in the trade show world).

You've been to shows, swiped goodies from the candy jars, collected a bag of trash and treasures, and then taken them home to either throw them away or give to the kids. Now ask yourself what impact these give-aways had on your buying decision?

If you choose to use a give-away, make sure that you're trading the prize for your visitor's name, address, and phone number.

Promotional Link
Create unique gifts for your target market such as promotional coffee mugs.

Any advertising specialty item should reflect the quality of your product and the good reputation of your firm. You don't want your logo on a cheap pen that doesn't write. There is a subconscious discounting of who you are when a visitor throws away the logo items that you've given them.

Your premium should be something genuinely useful, and it should be kept in a place where the prospect will refer to it when they have need for your product. A good example is the Domino's Pizza refrigerator magnet. You come home, nothing in the fridge, call Domino's delivery. If you can't position your give-away effectively, don't use it.

The best premiums are those that help your visitor get their job done faster or better. They have a high perceived value, and cost you very little to reproduce. Information premiums have the highest perceived value and the lowest relative reproduction cost. Examples are reprints of articles, special reports, audio and video tapes, computer software, and books. Such premiums self-select your prime prospects, because they are of little use to the general public.

An effective premium is a laminated wallet card covered with valuable reference information that your customers use regularly. For example, a Century 21 office in Denver gives out a three-fold city street guide that doubles as their business card. Spectranetics, a company who builds lasers for clearing arterial blockages, created a plastic wallet card summarizing the recommended treatment options for various patient conditions. The cardiologist can discretely review the technical details of the procedure before scrubbing up. A welding equipment distributor gives out wallet cards with recommended amperage settings for welding a variety of alloys.

One of the most effective promotions I've ever used is a laminated wallet card, which includes the "Trade Show Success Checklist." It includes valuable information that any trade show exhibitor will need, it's a reminder of what I do, and the contact information is included, discretely, so that clients can easily call with their questions.

The next best premium is,

  • something that a visitor wants
  • or helps them do a better job
  • but they wouldn't necessarily buy for themselves
  • or their organization wouldn't buy it for them,
  • and is specialized enough to self-qualify them as a potential buyer.

Specialized tools make excellent premiums. For example, a dive table card for scuba enthusiasts, or a plastic slide rule for landscapers used to calculate application rates for fertilizer. Another example is a wine selection book for a meeting planner, or a keyboard-mounted calculator for a computer programmer.

If you decide to use premiums, select something meaningful and useful to your customer or prospect and then use it as a parting gift. Say, "Thank you for stopping by. Here's something for you to take with you as a thank you for your time. We'll talk after the show." Insist on making your give-away work hard to get you sales.

How are you going to give it away?

You can also use a controlled give-away to attract visitors and qualify them. Some of the most desirable give-aways are apparel items like T-shirts, hats, and sunglasses. Ask the visitor to complete a survey, a questionnaire, or have them listen to a presentation to qualify for the prize.

Professional association shows often prohibit certain give-away items like food, candy, newspapers, posters, T-shirts, bags, and novelties. Ask show management what you're permitted to do before ordering 10,000 imprinted Frisbees®.

Don't get caught in the "Bag Wars," where others give away better quality bags than you do. So you move up to more expensive bags, and they counter with even more expensive bags, and then, what's the point? Bags seem attractive for two reasons: everybody wants one, and they become walking billboards. The problem is that they fail the prime criteria for self-selection and value after the show. I suggest avoiding bags and containers altogether! The only really effective bag promotion I've ever seen was when United Parcel Service distributed specially designed bags, offering to ship them back to the visitor's office at the end of the show (for a fee!)

Why your candy bowl turns visitors into thieves

When you set up a candy bowl or offer other trivial give-aways to all visitors, you actually turn visitors into thieves. You've seen them; they sneak up, take a piece of candy, and sneak off, avoiding eye contact. If you do make eye contact, they say, "Hi-how-are-you," and move away at full speed.

A candy bowl really doesn't add any value in getting the right visitors into your exhibit, and it takes up valuable exhibit space. An exception, of course, is if you sell candy and you're giving away samples. How many times have you been asked, "Can I have another for my kids?" You have to say, "Yes" or you look like a jerk. Then they ask you what you do, and you have to do your pitch so they don't feel bad taking your stuff.

Everything in your exhibit has to work to get you business. If your give-away doesn't buy you customers, don't give it away. Otherwise you're throwing away your money that could be put to good use closing sales.

Drawings and Prizes

Avoid gimmicky promotions like "pop the balloon," or "miniature golf" because they waste time and money with people who will never do business with you. Perhaps you've seen these acrylic "grab the bucks" boxes with cash blowing around inside. This type of promotion will attract everyone. That may be appropriate for your business, but more likely, you're just blowing your cash.

If collecting names for your mailing list is one of your marketing goals, hold a drawing to give something away. Consider giving away smaller prizes more often throughout the day versus a bigger, single prize at the end of the show. More visitors will drop their name and address in your fishbowl when they think there is a reasonable chance to win a prize.

These contests, like advertising specialties, should self-select for qualified prospects. At a consumer electronics show, two competitors were both selling refurbished toner cartridges. The first vendor put out a fishbowl with a sign, "Drop your business card to win a COLOR TV!" The competitor put out a fishbowl with a sign, "Drop your business card to win a FREE TONER CARTRIDGE!" Which stack of leads would you rather take home?

If you want all the names possible from the visitors at the show, consider not going at all. Instead buy the registration list, if the show offers it. If it's an association show, you either rent the membership list, or get it when you join. You may be even better off skipping the registration list and buying a good proven mailing list to your target customers.

The Wrong Way to Use Incentives

Unqualified give-aways mean you collect unqualified leads your sales force won't follow up. Unqualified leads come from give-away items that attract every visitor, whether they can buy from you or not.

An insurance company held a fishbowl drawing for a set of steak knives. This is one of the least attractive give-aways I can imagine for a professional organization. (Reminds me of the movie, "Glengarry Glen Ross", sales contest where first prize was a Cadillac, second prize was a set of stake knives, and third prize was, "You're fired!") Few experienced professionals even need a set of steak knives.

I looked at the fishbowl full of business cards and asked the salesman how many of those cards were prospects for his business.

He said, "None of them. The hot ones are here, in my pocket."

"So what will you do with the names in the fish bowl?"

"Pitch them."

"How many of your hot leads want a set of steak knives?"

"I'll give all of them a set if they want."

So, he would have been much better off offering a free set of steak knives with every consultation appointment and only talked to people who wanted to do business with him.

Draw for something that is only interesting to visitors with whom you can do business. Never give away things that are of general interest like stereo equipment, travel, cameras, or TVs. Save those for your sales contests.

As a professional, lawyer, physician, accountant, consultant, or trainer, you could give away an hour of your services. Yes, you'll get some unqualified leads, but the number will be much lower than if you were giving away a Hawaiian vacation.

As a sporting equipment company, give away nine holes of golf with your owner or president. If you're in the automotive industry, give away something that has to be installed by you, so the winner has to come to your shop, or your dealer's shop, to get it. You then have the chance to sell them more.

At smaller, specialty conferences, you may want to consider drawing for various levels of prizes, including airfare, room and board, and registration fee for the next conference. Make sure the incentive brings the winner back to next year's show.

Pick your winners

Never imply that the drawing is random. Strategically choose your winners to help achieve your marketing goals. You might choose to have your top ten customers win, or your top 50 prospects. You may even choose to have everyone win the drawing. Use the winning notification as an excuse to contact a buyer.


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