Ten tips to help you increase lead fulfillment and protect your exhibit-marketing program in the process. By Travis Stanton

You went to the show, wowed attendees with your exhibit, gathered hundreds of leads, and passed them on to sales. Your work here is done. Or is it? According to EXHIBITOR magazine’s most recent Sales Lead Survey, at least 40 percent of leads generated on the trade show floor go unfulfilled. Essentially, four out of every 10 leads you collect in your exhibits might just as well go directly into the trash – along with nearly 40 percent of your program’s value. “Driving sales is why companies allocate big bucks to exhibit at events,” says Peter Gillett, CEO of Zuant, a lead-capture and -management firm. “If you don’t follow up on leads properly, you are throwing money down the drain. Still, our anecdotal evidence suggests that up to 90 percent of exhibiting companies falter, at least to some degree, when it comes to following up.” You might think it’s not your responsibility to worry about whether or not the sales department does its job, and maybe you’re right. But if your leads go unfulfilled, it’s nearly impossible for them to translate into sales. And even if a sale does come through, if you’re not tracking leads, your program is unlikely to get any credit, making the expense of exhibiting difficult to justify – especially if company management decides to curtail its marketing budget.

“Ultimately we do get evaluated, rightly or wrongly, based on how good of a job sales does following up on the trade show leads we provide,” says exhibit-marketing consultant Bob Milam. “If the leads don’t turn into sales, for whatever reason, it negatively impacts management’s perception of our program’s value.”

So to help you safeguard those all-important sales leads – while simultaneously underscoring the efficacy of face-to-face marketing – here are 10 ways you, as an exhibit manager, can improve your company’s fulfillment rates. Follow these steps, and you’ll not only lead the way to increased sales, but also be equipped to justify your company’s investment and protect your trade show program in the process.


1. Proactively Plan to Follow Up

“To be clear, every company intends to follow up on sales leads, but the lack of an organized plan often derails those intentions,” says Catherine Walker, director of exhibitor services for event-management firm Experient, a Maritz Global Events company. “Exhibitors carefully allocate the time needed to coordinate, travel to, and exhibit at a show, but they often don’t schedule the time needed to follow up on leads. And if follow-up is not explicitly scheduled, ‘real life’ and other accumulated tasks often get in the way.” Mike Mraz, marketing strategist and educator for Skyline Exhibits, agrees. “Many marketing groups simply pass leads from the scanning machine on to the sales team, but there’s no organized plan for following through,” he says. “Sales and marketing need to get together on the issue of lead fulfillment because there’s no way to pound that hammer unless there’s accountability on the sales side as well.”

Mraz suggests sitting down with your sales manager to determine exactly how and when sales associates will follow up with leads after the show. Will they call or email contacts? Will they fulfill requests for literature via email or direct mail – or will the marketing department fulfill literature requests? And just how long after the show will this follow-up take place? This information is critical for two reasons. First, it allows you to be more specific with the promises you make to attendees, e.g., “A sales associate will call you next week to answer your questions and email you the information you requested.” Second, it creates a set of expectations you can use to gauge success or failure. For example, if the sales department agrees to follow up on leads via email within two weeks after the show, you can easily and objectively determine whether or not that expectation was met – and hold delinquent or underperforming reps accountable. In Walker’s words, “If your marketing team doesn’t have a timeline or accountability for follow-up, you shouldn’t be surprised when leads fall through the cracks.”


2. Define Your Target Audience

A lead is little more than a business card if it doesn’t provide information about the prospect, including his or her needs, buying influence, budget, and time frame. This information, usually obtained through a series of qualifying questions, is what helps you and your sales department learn about your prospects, customize communications, and prioritize follow-up. To help ensure that your sales department will actually pursue the leads you provide, the qualification criteria must meet their expectations. “One of the main reasons leads don’t get followed up on is that marketing and sales do not agree on the definition of a lead,” Gillett says. “This must be addressed and corrected, or the company will continue to suffer lost revenue as a result.”

According to Ruth Stevens, author of “Trade Show and Event Marketing: Plan, Promote, and Profit,” the criteria used to define a qualified lead should be developed with direct input from the sales department. So involve sales reps in that discussion and allow them to tell you what is and is not important when qualifying and following up on a trade show lead. Once you know how your company defines a qualified lead, you’ll know exactly what information you need to obtain from attendees in order to qualify them, and therefore what questions and fields to include on your lead forms or branching-logic lead-retrieval devices.

Mraz agrees, calling the sales team “an incredibly vital component” in the process of developing qualifying questions. He suggests working with sales to identify the five to seven pieces of information that are most important for salespeople to know, then crafting a series of qualifying questions to help staffers obtain that data from your booth visitors.


3. Appoint a Spy

Concerned that his exhibit-marketing strategy wasn’t hitting its intended target, Milam hired three students to stand in the aisles surrounding his former company’s exhibit at the Institute of Food Technologists show and conduct exit interviews with attendees. The students watched for prospects who interacted with members of his booth staff. Then, as those prospects left the exhibit, the students asked them questions about the company’s marketing message. But what Milam discovered from his informal research had nothing to do with his overall strategy or the firm’s key messages. One of the last questions students asked was simply, “Did booth staffers make a promise to follow up with you after the show?” Based on the exit surveys, 850 attendees reported being promised some sort of follow-up action. But when Milam counted the number of leads with actual recorded promises, there were fewer than 150.

“What we discovered was that no one was writing anything down,” Milam says. “Staffers weren’t recording 80 percent of the promises they were making to attendees, so those promises were never being fulfilled. That was the real reason we weren’t seeing as many show-related sales as management wanted – not because the show itself was bad or our strategy was flawed.”

To alleviate the problem, Milam designated one of the company’s administrative assistants as the Lead Sheriff. It was her duty to observe staffer/attendee interactions in the exhibit and make sure the leads got recorded, along with any promises made. The strategy increased the number of recorded promises from 150 to more than 700 in a single year.


4. Score Your Leads

Too often, unqualified leads are passed along to sales. In other words, instead of only giving them the shiny needles, marketers mistakenly dump the entire haystack on sales reps. And according to Walker, that practice can negatively impact their perception of the value of trade shows in general, as well as the viability of any leads produced by face-to-face marketing. Stevens advocates prioritizing leads by first working with sales to develop a scoring system that assigns a weight to each of your qualifying questions. Doing so means individual leads can be analyzed and given point totals that indicate how well they align with sales reps’ predetermined criteria. For example, if their criteria is based primarily on budget and buying power, a lead from a decision-maker with a sizable budget would receive a higher score than a lead from someone without the authority or means to purchase your product. This scoring process helps prioritize the most valuable leads, along with those with the most potential to convert to a sale. Such prioritization means that even if sales reps don’t follow up on every single lead you generate, at least they’re more apt to follow up with the prospects most likely to make a purchase.

“In the modern digital world, this is absolutely vital,” Gillett says. “Work with your sales department to hammer out an appropriate lead-scoring matrix, and that matrix will become your key to deciding which leads should be dropped, nurtured, or immediately issued to sales reps for prompt follow-up.”

Additionally, multiple sources suggest scoring each lead and passing only the highest-scoring leads on to the sales department. The rationale behind this approach is simple: If you collect 100 leads, of which only 10 are qualified, you’re asking sales to make 90 cold calls to people who don’t meet the threshold for being a bona fide prospect. As a result, reps are less likely to take your sales leads seriously in the future, as their perception is that only a tiny fraction of exhibit-related leads are even worthy of follow-up in the first place.


5. Automate Emails

According to Ivan Lazarev, group head of event technology services at ITN International Inc., an Aventri company, there are four steps to effective lead management: capture, qualify, follow up, and distribute. “Most people skip follow-up because they confuse it with distribution,” Lazarev says. “The follow-up step is simply making sure the attendee knows that you have registered his or her request. It’s the ‘Thank you for visiting our exhibit’ email, and it should be done before the lead is distributed to sales.” Thankfully, many modern lead-management systems allow you to automate that initial contact. But what impact does this follow-up step actually have on lead fulfillment? Well, in a sense it instantly and automatically increases fulfillment rates to 100 percent, meaning that each prospect is receiving at least that autogenerated, post-show interaction with your company. But Lazarev says, at least anecdotally, that the follow-up step can also increase the likelihood of converting a trade show lead into a sale.

According to Lazarev, each of your follow-up emails should thank the attendee for visiting the exhibit, set a basic expectation (e.g., “Someone will be in touch shortly to discuss our conversation at the XYZ show.”), and include a link to a website where recipients can get additional information about your company.

Gillett believes in a two-touch approach that occurs within 24 hours of a prospect’s visit to your booth. “The standard practice is to wait for lead data to come through from a lead-retrieval company and then send out a thank-you email. But that data often arrives one or even two months after you’ve attended a show and is therefore virtually meaningless.” Rather, Gillett recommends automating a generic thank-you email to be sent almost immediately after the staffer/attendee exchange and then following up a second time (within 24 hours) with more specific information that is customized to address the attendee’s interests.


6. Determine Your Cost Per Lead

Without a clear understanding of the investment involved in generating trade show leads, it’s hard for your sales reps to see them as more than names and basic contact information. To overcome this hurdle, Mraz advocates analyzing the total investment that each individual lead represents and then passing this information on to your salespeople. “It’s important for sales to know how much it costs to generate these leads,” says Mraz, who claims that understanding the size of the investment inspires accountability. Determining your cost per lead is simple: If lead generation is your sole objective at a trade show, take the total cost of exhibiting at that event and divide that figure by the total number of leads you collected. That gives you the average cost to obtain each individual sales lead.

“If I spend $10,000 to exhibit at a show and I generate 100 sales leads, there is a $100 cost per lead. So if I give you five leads to follow up on, that’s $500 of our marketing investment, not just five pieces of paper,” Mraz says. “If you don’t follow up on those leads, it’s the same as taking the company’s digital camera and running it over with your car. You’ve destroyed an asset.”

Assuming that you went to the show with multiple goals, assign each goal a percentage representative of its portion of your total objectives. For example, if your primary goal is lead generation, with secondary goals of boosting brand awareness and securing media exposure, lead generation may represent 60 percent of your total objectives, while the other 40 percent is split evenly between the other two goals. In that case, take 60 percent of the total cost of exhibiting and divide it by the number of leads generated.


7. Help Sales Avoid the Dreaded Cold Call

“Salespeople dislike following up on trade show leads that aren’t vetted,” says Kimberly Meyers, principal at marketing strategy and implementation consultancy Kimberly Meyers and Associates. “So to help sales reps avoid the dreaded cold call and give them a good reason to pick up the phone, I’ve implemented a variety of show follow-up programs over the years.” For example, when sales reps followed up on leads gathered at a print-industry show in Chicago, they invited prospects to a webinar on the power of variable-print technology. According to Meyers, the tactic gave sales associates an initial talking point. In other words, rather than diving head first into a sales pitch, reps extended an invitation to the webinar before they segued into follow-up sales discussions.

Another approach is to consider sending a direct mailer after the show but before the follow-up call from sales. Several years ago, one particularly savvy exhibitor sent each of the 200 qualified prospects it met with during a retail design, planning, and merchandising conference a direct mailer that contained a fresh orange. The mailer was an appropriate reminder of the company’s exhibit, which featured 1,174 fresh oranges hanging from an overhead truss. The mailer also contained an accordion-fold card with pictures of the company’s past design projects and a thank-you note with the firm’s contact information. Sales reps followed up with each prospect within 24 hours of the mailers’ expected delivery times.

The creative post-show promotion provided the perfect icebreaker for sales associates during their follow-up calls, as they were able to open conversations with, “Hey, did you get the orange that I sent you?”


8. Keep an Eye on Your Sales Leads

“If companies are serious about their trade show marketing investments, they have to hold the follow-up team accountable – almost at gunpoint,” says Mraz, who encourages exhibit managers to keep tabs on which salespeople are notoriously lazy when it comes to following up on trade show leads. “If I’m giving you 10 leads, and you don’t follow up on a single one, I’m not going to give you any more. I’m going to give them to people who are pursuing them and turning them into sales.” Other sources suggest distributing leads using a lead- or customer-relationship management (CRM) system, then tracking follow-up and creating reports that state how many qualified leads you generated, how many were handed off to the sales reps, how many leads they followed up on, and – if possible – which ones resulted in actual purchases.

Milam has developed a similar reporting procedure. The same administrative assistant that served as his Lead Sheriff was later tasked with tracking trade show leads in the CRM database and creating a monthly report. “I think most exhibitors do at least a decent job at trade shows; they are producing business opportunities for sales to act on. But people continue to question the value of exhibiting. The criticism falls on us, but the responsibility for success lies elsewhere,” Milam says. “If the value of your program is called into question, and you’ve actually been tracking your leads, then you can legitimately pass some of the blame to where it belongs. But you need to have the numbers that prove others are not doing their jobs and following up on the sales leads your program is producing.”


9. Nurture Seemingly Dead Sales Leads

What happens to a lead that doesn’t turn into a sale? According to Stevens, many are discarded altogether. But even these so-called dead leads still provide value in the form of potential future sales. “Studies have shown that 45 percent of business inquiries eventually result in a sale,” Stevens says, citing a report by the Marketing Management Journal as the basis of this rule of thumb. “They may not be ready to buy right now, or maybe they don’t currently have the budget to do so, but eventually they’re going to make a purchase. You need to stay in touch with them so that when they are ready to buy, they turn to your company instead of purchasing from one of your competitors.”

Referred to as lead nurturing, lead incubation, lead recycling, and lead development, this idea represents a deliberate marketing strategy of repeated communications (via phone, email, and/or direct mail) designed to keep your company top of mind. And according to Stevens, that task falls on marketing’s shoulders.

“Marketing’s job is to deliver qualified leads to sales. If a lead is not qualified yet, that nurturing process belongs in the marketing department,” Stevens says. “Marketing should assess the leads after the show, give the ones that are qualified to sales, and begin nurturing and developing those that are not yet qualified. Once they become qualified leads, perhaps by requesting a quote, that’s the time to pass them on to sales.”

While there are no hard-and-fast rules for how or when these communications should take place, Stevens suggests varying their regularity to avoid making them look like autogenerated e-blasts. “Email them a case study about how an existing client has used your product or service, call and invite them to a VIP event, or send them an announcement about a new product you’re debuting,” Stevens says. “Don’t just send a ‘Hi, how are you?’ email. Send them useful information to help move them along the decision-making process.”


10. Commit to Making Ongoing Improvements

“Improvement in your organization’s lead qualification and fulfillment is an ongoing process,” says Gary Survis, venture partner at Insight Venture Partners. “Every sales organization wants its sales funnel to have a large prospect pool, especially ones that experience longer sales cycles. So to succeed, you need to put a stake in the sand, set a goal, and make sure your sales department is taking advantage of the leads that your program is bringing back to the table.” Start by establishing and circulating follow-up goals. For example, if you suspect sales is following up on a mere 40 percent of the leads you collect, set a goal of 50-percent follow-up for your next show and implement the tips and techniques that make the most sense for you and your organization. If you reach your goal, pat yourself – and your sales team – on the back. Then raise the bar bit by bit at each of your events to keep the ball rolling on the path toward 100-percent fulfillment.

If you don’t meet your initial goal, seek internal allies such as sales or marketing directors who might be willing and able to help you crack the whip. Or implement a few different tactics. But do something – anything – other than sitting idly by as your sales reps doom your program, and potentially your career, to an ill-fated end.

After all, you basically have three choices: You can resign yourself to the status quo, you can cross your fingers and pray things get better on their own, or you can make an attempt to improve your company’s follow-through. Even if your solution fails to completely correct the problem, you’ll likely see a slight improvement that will get your program moving in the right direction. As the saying goes, you need to lead, follow, or get out of the way. So lead the way toward consistent lead follow-up, and increased sales will hopefully follow.

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