No for-profit company is in business for the primary purpose of making friends.
Relationships are funny things. Often elusive, fluid, and difficult to define, these highly valuable connections seem to take priority in our personal lives as well as our professional ones. Especially lately, as marketers increasingly look to social-media impressions and influencers' recommendations as success metrics, building and maintaining relationships has emerged as a top objective for companies in general, and face-to-face marketers in particular.
In the past few years, I've met a rash of exhibit managers who, when asked about their measurable objectives for a show, respond with variations of, "This show is really all about relationships." In other words, their goal for the show is, presumably, to forge new relationships and build upon existing ones. When I ask about lead-count or show-related sales goals, they explain, "It's really not about that. It's about connecting with attendees." That's all well and good, but what's missing is the measurable objective. It's almost as if relationship building has become the "Get Out of Jail Free" card for exhibitors unable to prove their programs' value.
Building relationships cannot be your overriding exhibit-marketing objective because relationships are not an end in and of themselves. If they were, your performance evaluation would include stats about how many birthday cards and fruit baskets you received from clients and prospects. Rather, relationship building is a strategy, a means to an end of increased sales or market share by way of the trust and loyalty those relationships intrinsically represent.
You can go into a trade show with the strategy of building relationships, using tactics such as VIP promotions, in-booth hospitality, off-site events, etc. But if "building relationships" is your objective at the show, that objective must be measurable. Why? In the real world of metrics and upper management, relationships are intangible, fluffy, and ephemeral. And if you can't measure it, it doesn't exist.
So if you're going to shows with the goal of fostering relationships, cut the crap and admit that in the end it's all about sales. No for-profit company is in business for the primary purpose of making friends. Next, look at relationship building less as an objective and more as a strategy – a way to ultimately achieve your company's primary goal of increased sales or return on investment. Then choose the tactics you'll use to build those relationships at a show (such as the ones mentioned above), and – here's the important part – establish actual, measurable objectives that will help you identify whether or not you have built relationships via your exhibit-marketing efforts.
Those metrics might include things like the number of in-booth meetings (How many existing "friends" did we meet with at the show?), staff interaction rate (What ercentage of prospective friends did my staffers interact with?), average length of booth visit (How much face time did we spend forging or enhancing those relationships?), brand awareness (Do more people know about our company because of its presence at the show? And do those who already knew about it know more than they
did before they arrived?), brand perception (Did our relationship-building efforts result in a more positive impression of our company?), and/or intent to purchase (Have the relationships we forged translated into an increased likelihood to buy?).
Armed with those metrics, you can confidently state that your program does or does not, in fact, build relationships with your target audience. What's more, you can establish benchmarks and better analyze the tangible effect your program has on your company's bottom line. Birthday cards are nice, but if friendships and fruit baskets become more important than your program's ROI, you better hope upper management likes pears as much as profit. E