We love when someone writes about one of our ‘soapbox’ topics, like learning pathways, year-round educational sponsorships, or non-traditional ways to get additional value from your learning management system (LMS). So we were delighted to read an article in Forbes by Tracy King, CEO and Chief Learning Strategist of InspirEd, about building a new home for expos on your LMS. Brilliant! Like us, she sees the LMS as a year-round content hub for exhibitors and solution providers.
Problems with the typical trade show exhibit model
Tracy points out the problems inherent in the traditional exhibitor model and explains how an LMS can solve these issues.
Lackluster virtual event experience for exhibitors
Sponsors and exhibitors keep the lights on in many associations. So when associations had to switch to virtual conferences, many were hesitant to mess around with a successful formula. Instead, they tried to replicate the in-person exhibit hall experience.
But that experience rarely met exhibitors’ expectations. One survey found that 43% of exhibitors who participated in a virtual trade show said they wouldn’t do it again. In another survey, 69% of exhibitors rated virtual events as fair or poor.
Many factors are to blame: event platform functionality and usability, exhibitor preparedness and marketing, and attendee purchasing authority. Plus, many virtual attendees use exhibition time to get work done between sessions; they’re not a captive audience like they are in person.
Exhibitors didn’t see the value. After a show or two, many stopped exhibiting and switched their marketing dollars to strategies that reliably deliver brand awareness and lead nurturing, like content marketing.
Disappointing virtual event revenue for associations
Many associations didn’t price their virtual events high enough. They believed they had to give away the content for free or at a deep discount to attract attendees, especially if they weren’t providing high-quality networking and discussion opportunities. Exhibitor and sponsorship revenue didn’t make up for the loss in registration revenue. Loyalty only goes so far; many vendors aren’t willing to pay for a lackluster experience.
As a result, some associations will abandon virtual events once in-person events are back. That’s unfortunate because when virtual conferences are well designed and priced appropriately, they meet the needs of audience segments who will never attend in person.
Solution: an online content hub for exhibitors
What we (and Tracy) propose instead is a year-round content hub for exhibitors and other solution providers in your market. The more an exhibitor pays, the more they get to display and the more places they show up. Companies, consultants, and solution providers can offer:
• Thought-leadership content, such as articles, case studies, reports, checklists, templates, videos, podcast episodes, and curated content bundles.
• Participation in demo days, like the ones offered by ASAE.
• Live events, such as roundtable discussions, Ask-Me-Anythings, hackathons, brainstorming sessions, and lunch-and-learns.
• Educational content, such as webinars, mini-courses, and learning pathways with digital badges—for credit or not. Tracy said, “Not all education must be accredited to be valuable and solution providers are expert content providers.”
• Breakout rooms for instant or scheduled meetings.
Tag sponsored content or programs so members and customers can distinguish them from association content and programs when searching or browsing the website.
Vendors pay extra for a featured listing on the LMS landing page and inclusion in “related resources” or personalized “recommended resources.” For an additional fee, they have access to landing page banners, carousel or advertising space, or a landing page takeover. Keep it interesting by featuring a random solution provider on the landing page each day or two for free—that’s like an industry influencer discovering an obscure booth in the back of the hall.
Why a year-round content hub is a better use of marketing dollars than trade show exhibits
Here’s why we think content hubs are a win-win for suppliers, associations, members, and customers.
Vendors have content expertise to share
A group of legal industry vendors published The Vendor Value Manifesto, in which they said, “We’re paying as much attention to this industry as you are and more than many of your speakers and most of your attendees.” They ask associations to “give us ways to engage attendees as thought-leaders and problem-solvers so they view us as experts in the industry and not just peddlers in the marketplace.”
They suggest organizing the hall (or hub) around the problems attendees wish to solve. Their lab track idea reminds us of learning pathways. “Together, we can design ‘Lab Tracks’ that explore unique methodologies, employ creative facilitation, focus on specific problems, integrate vendors in different ways, and generate revenue for conferences without significant downside risk to either of us.”
Vendors must market year-round to your audience
Vendors appreciate the opportunity to mix and mingle with clients and prospects during the two days of your conference, but they need to market their products and services throughout the year. Nurturing leads is a long process; they rarely land on someone’s radar and close a sale during a trade show. Yes, you have other options for them, such as advertising and event sponsorships, but you can make far more revenue by offering them a year-round content marketing hub.
One LMS is more exhibitor-friendly than multiple event platforms
This past year, exhibitors had to acclimate to and design marketing content for multiple virtual event platforms. Trust me, that’s not easy. When vendors get used to marketing year-round on your LMS, they may shift more of their marketing budget your way. It’s much easier to become comfortable with one platform and stick with it all year than having to get up to speed on several other event platforms. This decision also gives them time to prepare and update marketing materials and educational content.
Small-budget businesses can afford to participate
We know many solution providers in the association space—small companies, individual consultants and other solo service providers—who can’t afford the exhibiting expenses for industry trade shows:
• Booth space and registration
• Show services, such as electricity, internet, materials handling/drayage, cleaning, and lead retrieval
• Flooring and furnishings
• Booth design, construction, and signage
• Marketing collateral and promotional items
• Shipping and customs
• Staff lodging and travel expenses
When conferences are prohibitively expensive, attendees miss out on learning about up-and-coming, innovative smaller players in the market—the deck is stacked against them.
Next steps to a year-round content hub for solution providers
Here’s how to start if you want to explore this idea.
Consult with solution providers
The Manifesto folks said, “Invite us to offer suggestions, give feedback, and share the lessons we’re learning (and the solutions we’re seeing) before you go your own way.” Gather an advisory council made up of representatives from companies with a diverse range of sizes and specialties.
• Learn about their marketing and exhibiting challenges.
• Figure out win-win solutions together.
• Tell them what you’re seeing as far as topic trends.
• Listen to what they’re seeing.
• Find out what kind of onboarding help they’ll need.
Help exhibitors leverage their expertise
Content marketing doesn’t come naturally to everyone. Teach vendors how to develop and deliver content that addresses the interests and needs of different market segments. You want them to succeed because the traffic they attract to the LMS benefits your programs too. If members and customers get used to seeing and browsing your educational website and programs, you can turn them into lifelong learners and supporters of your vendor community.