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By Ruth P. Stevens

Trade shows are an essential part of the business marketing toolkit, but they need careful management. A few years ago I wrote a column ranting about trade show exhibitorsī overuse of buzzwords. I made the case that everyone doing booth duty should be armed with a well-crafted elevator speech, a 40-second statement that answers the inevitable question: "What do you guys do, anyway?"

In this column, I want to make a corollary point. Exhibitors also need to work on their booth signage.

At last monthīs National Center for Database Marketing show in Philadelphia, I experienced frustration as I walked the show floor. NCDM is a great show with a terrific exhibit hall promoting new technologies and services. I always find it a learning experience. However, as I walked the aisles, I noticed how my eye would scan the signs to decide which booths to visit and which to pass by. When the signs made sense, I was fine. But many left me clueless.

So what does a clueless aisle walker do? Two choices: Go up to the booth and pose the big question ("What do you guys do, anyway?") or move on. This leaves one mumbling, "Why donīt they tell me what they do? Why do I have to do all the work?"

Let me give an example. Hereīs a sizable booth, nicely populated with good-looking people, obviously a prosperous business. And the signage? Three headline words: "Innovative, Experienced, Dedicated." Plus the name of the company.

So what do I make of that? Nothing. Iīm forced to go up and ask the big question. When I do, I get a compelling answer. "Weīre a direct marketing agency handling everything from soup to nuts. We do creative, we do databases, we have millions of e-mail names for sale. We do production. We do outbound telemarketing."

Sounds like a company Iīd like to know about. So why didnīt they say so in the first place, on the signage?

Then I notice a smaller sign at the side of their booth that does list a menu of services. But the list contains their cutesy trademarked product names for the services. If I donīt already know them, I am still clueless. I still have to ask the question. Theyīre still making me do the work.

Hereīs another example: A booth whose signage said "Connecting the eGeneration." What does that mean? Is it a telemarketing shop specializing in the youth market? Is it an Internet service provider? Turns out it is an enterprise-level software product that creates personalized communications in multiple media, like paper and e-mail. Itīs used by companies like Fidelity and Merrill Lynch to create monthly statements for customers. Again, an interesting product, worth knowing about. But why does it have to be so hard to figure out what they do?

The guy at another booth summed up his product succinctly: "Itīs a tool that prevents you from key-entering an incorrect address." So I asked why his signage didnīt say that. "Because Iīm not in marketing," he said. Hmmm.

But all is not lost. I did come across some excellent signs. Consider this one, from infoUSA. The signage literally said, "We Have the Best Database of 14 Million Businesses." And "Our Database of 266 Million Consumers Can Help You." I get it. I want to know more, so I go up to the booth and grab a brochure.

Could it be that booth signage is intentionally vague? That itīs a teaser? That the marketers want me to come up, ask the question and give the sales people in the booth a chance at me? Or maybe they want some flexibility, some wiggle room in their value proposition. So if I say "Do you do X?" they would have the chance to say, "Of course!"

Well, I prefer straight talk. My objective is to work the hall efficiently. So when a booth worker answers my question clearly, I am ecstatic.

The objectives of trade show signage are twofold: to qualify and to attract.

Here are three rules for developing signage copy:

  • Use a sentence or phrase that answers the big question. Avoid buzzwords.
  • Make the graphics clear enough to read from 30 feet away.
  • Pretest your signage with a variety of people — employees, customers, prospects. Your objective: an immediate grasp of your value proposition.

A little tinkering with the words on your signage will pay off big in your trade show productivity.

Article courtesey of Family Business Strategies.

About the author: Ruth P. Stevens can be reached at http://www.ruthstevens.com. Ruth P. Stevens consults on customer acquisition and retention, and was recently named one of the 100 most influential people in business marketing, by Crainīs BtoB Magazine.

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