7 Trade Show Competitive Intelligence Tips: B2B Market Research podcast

Episode #98 of the B2B Market Research Podcast – 7 Trade Show Competitive Intelligence Tips

We cover:

  • A few important ratios to keep in mind.
  • What you should check out as soon as you hit the expo hall floor.
  • Well-known trade show CI strategies that aren’t effective and that should be simply be left in the dust bin.

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Speaker:

Sean Campbell – CEO of Cascade Insights

[Modified Transcript]

In this episode, we’ll be sharing a number of tips that you can use to gather competitive intelligence more effectively when you’re at a conference or trade show.

This podcast is brought to you by Cascade Insights. Cascade Insights specializes in competitive intelligence services for B2B technology companies. Our laser-sharp focus means we deliver detailed competitive intelligence insights that generalist firms simply can’t match. You can check out our free resources and sign up for our free monthly newsletter.

Today, I want to talk about some tips you can use at your next trade show to conduct more effective competitive intelligence efforts.

The first thing that you need to do is some prep work. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that you shouldn’t go to a show that you haven’t prepared for, but I would almost say that. You should already have a game plan before you show up. You should know what booths you’re going to visit and what booths you’re not — or at least those booths that are less important.

You should also have a good understanding of if you should invest your time in the sessions versus the expo floor.

Trade show competitive intelligence tip #1: Watch the content later

This leads to my first tip: for a lot of conferences today, and especially for B2B focused technology conferences, you can simply buy the content or get access to it after the show.

Frankly speaking, its better to engage with folks on the expo floor than to sit through a series of 60 minute sessions that you can simply watch later.  And if you’re concerned about missing the Q/A, for many B2B technology conferences these days – they record the entire session for later viewing, including the Q/A.

Trade show competitive intelligence tip #2: Check out the ratios

This brings up tip two: once you hit the expo floor, the first thing to observe are some ratios: what’s the booth size relative to the staffing levels and number of attendees for a given booth?

For example, when I was at the RSA conference last week, the Splunk booth was basically under siege. It was an average size booth with an average size team on hand, but the number of attendees essentially overwhelmed both the booth and the staff. In fact, the attendees were overflowing into adjacent booths just so that they could get a glimpse of some of the demos and the presentations that the Splunk team was giving.

That alone is some interesting intelligence.

The inverse can also be true. You can observe booths that are massive and have tons of staff, but no one’s visiting. So obviously you can pull some intelligence insights from this type of comparative ratio as well.

Trade show competitive intelligence tip #3: Look at the players

A third tip is to look at who is in the booth. Is it predominantly engineers? Is it predominantly marketers? And so on.

Your first thought might be that the individuals staffing a booth don’t always have their title on their badge, and you’d be correct. But in this day and age, and especially at a technology conference, no one’s going to look at you strange if you stand just to the side of the booth staring at your phone — and while you’re staring at it, what you’re actually doing is pulling up LinkedIn profiles of the people that are in the booth just by glancing at the names that are their badges.

That’s a worthwhile thing to do. It helps you get a sense of whether the booth is staffed mostly by engineers or marketers. In turn, this can guide you as to the type of questions that you can ask — and really dig into — when you visit the booth.

It’s also important to know if the booth is just staffed with hired guns. These are folks that are reading from a script and they’re not going to give you a lot of intelligence insight, so maybe you want to go by that booth at a different time when there’s a higher caliber of people staffing the booth.

Trade show competitive intelligence tip #4: Notice the product themes

Tip four is to look at what product themes are evident in the booths. For instance, when I was at the RSA conference, I noticed that the FireEye booth actually was missing a theme. By this I mean there was a product FireEye offered that wasn’t being discussed in the booth at all. It wasn’t being demo’d, it wasn’t in the literature…it didn’t seem to have any presence whatsoever.

That’s something interesting that you could dive into and ask the people in the booth: why aren’t you highlighting this particular product?

Trade show competitive intelligence tip #5: What’s the social buzz?

Tip five concerns social monitoring: You have to do this for every conference that’s happening today, not just for technology conferences. That said, the amount of social data you can mine for technology conferences is particularly immense.

You’ll want to use tools that we’ve talked about before on the podcast, such as Hootsuite. This tool enables you to archive all of the tweets that align with a given conference hashtag – so you can set this up before you leave and analyze it once you get back. You can also monitor tweets with tools like Topsy or Twitonomy. You can even look at the type of content that was being shared by individual vendors during the conference with tools like BuzzSumo.

Trade show competitive intelligence tip #6: Skip the Start and the End

A sixth tip to keep in mind is that you shouldn’t stay at a given conference all week. It’s been my experience that the first and last day of the conference can be the worst days to gather intelligence.

During the first day the booth staff are laser-like focused on talking to potential customers. They’re not as interested in having conversations that go left or right of center and their conversations are typically going to be fairly brief.

On the last day of the conference, you might be left with more junior staff in the booth or those hired guns who are just filling in for the last day of the show. The more interesting folks to talk to have probably already flown home.

Hence the sweet spot is right in the middle of the show. Obviously what the middle is for you is going to depend based on how long a given conference is. The upshot is if you’re trying to maximize your time, definitely don’t bother arriving for that very first day or staying for the last day.

Trade show competitive intelligence tip #7: Combine your efforts

The seventh tip for maximizing your time investment concerns visiting booths at technology conferences: You can get meaningful demos of multiple products at the same time.

For example you can ask two engineers to talk to you about how two products integrate or work together in a customer data center. Because multiple products are represented by multiple people in the booth, this is easier than you might think. It’s just a matter of asking the person you’re talking to, “Can you bring somebody over from that part of the booth because I have a question that crosses both products?” You can get some really good intelligence with this strategy.

What strategies are not as effective?

Finally, there are some things you can leave to others. I’ve looked at a lot of articles, blog posts, and discussions about competitive intelligence efforts that are undertaken at trade shows. What I’ve found is that there always seems to be this list of tips that are really somewhat strange.

For example, there are people that talk about hanging out at the bar and trying to eavesdrop on conversations. Then there are people that even talk about riding up and down elevators in a vain hope of catching a glimpse of some interesting things being said in conversation. There are even people who will tell you to have breakfast at the hotel where the competitor seems to have gathered their staff.

Honestly, these are low wattage types of intel-gathering time and effort. You may occasionally generate a meaningful insight from this type of activity, and everyone can find an anecdote that resulted from some strange type of intelligence collection effort. But from a bang-for-the-buck standpoint, the tips I shared earlier – especially maximizing your time on the expo floor and being strategic about how you spend your time in the sessions — are far more productive than hanging out at the bar or otherwise trying to eavesdrop at a trade show.

To wrap this up, let me summarize the key tips:

One: Don’t forget that you can buy the content in some cases, so you don’t necessarily have to go to every session if your goal is to just understand the core content that was discussed in the session.

Two: Look at the booth size relative to the staffing and attendee ratio, in several combinations.

Three: Investigate who’s in the booth and approach people based on their background, not just based on a guess as to what that may be.

Four: Look at what themes are evident, what themes are missing, what themes are more prevalent for a given booth.

Five: Don’t forget to monitor the social environment and use some of the tools that we talked about in previous podcasts.

Six: Don’t stay all week. Come after the start of the show and leave before it ends. You’ll maximize your time that way.

Seven: Don’t forget to take advantage of that booth time to ask questions that span products, that show integration points between products, because you’ve got multiple people in the booth representing multiple products in many, many cases.

And finally, leave some of those stranger activities, like trying to eavesdrop in the elevator or have breakfast at the hotel where the competitor seems to be hanging out, to others. With that, we’ll wrap up this podcast. Thanks for listening.

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