Where Will SMB Marketing Be in Five Years?

I had the pleasure of attending BIA/Kelsey‘s 2014 Leading in Local SMB Digital Marketing Conference in New Orleans a few weeks ago. This was my first SMB related BIA/Kelsey conference in five years, after going for several years. I also had the pleasure of sitting on the Thought Leaders & Decision Makers panel. My co-panelists were Annette Tonti, SVP at The Search Agency and Eric Owen, CEO at Mono Solutions. The panel was co-moderated by Michael Boland, Chief Analyst and VP Content at BIA/Kelsey, and Charles Laughlin, SVP and Managing Director at BIA/Kelsey. The panel was free-form, vibrant and I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

There were a few questions posed, all positioned in a “looking five years ahead” context. What struck me most was how aligned the panelists were on our forecasts and no doubt it’ll be interesting to look back at our answers five years from now – especially about the affiliate programmes getting so popular in every niche, from food to insurance (visit their website to see the conditions).

The video (30 min) from the panel is below and here’s Mike Boland’s blog post on the panel on the BIA/Kelsey blog. I’d love to get your thoughts, especially if you feel differently about these topics or our perspectives.


Creating a Trade Show Booth Experience

One of the projects my team just took on at Litle was revamping the trade show booths. Litle is at something like 25-30 shows this year, exhibiting at them. I was disappointed with how little information there is on the web on designing a trade show booth experience. Not designing the booth itself, that’s not hard, but the experience of the booth – how to really make it effective. I liken this to a casino floor, or a car lot. A trade show booth is more than just graphics, a table, some freebies, or booth babes. So we were left to our own devices. Here are my thoughts.

It’s critical to understand the experience of your audience and match it to your goals. So, figure out what the goals are, prioritize them, and line them up with the audience experience.

The purpose of a trade show booth is to,

  1. Generate leads
  2. Inform and educate
  3. Leave an impression of the brand (many times that precious first impression)

As I see it, there are three personas who interact with a trade show booth.

  1. The observer: This is the person who stands on the outskirts of the booth. She stands back about 5-10′ feet from where the action is, reading the graphics, avoiding the sales people, glancing over at the freebies, and deciding whether to move in or move on. The observer is barely a prospect.
  2. The burglar: This is the person who dives in for the freebies, a business card, collateral, moving like a tight end, weaving between people, careful not to make eye contact, and sliding out of the scene as if he was never there. Obviously this is a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the idea. The burglar is a prospect.
  3. The engager: The engager is truly interested in learning more. He or she will step in, listen to a conversation or start a new one, ask questions, and truly engage. The first question from the engager is almost always, “so what is [company name]?” The engager is a lead. Oftentimes the engager is a customer (this is a good thing).

The game is this this: you must convert these folks into leads: the observer to a lead, the burglar to a lead, the engager to a more qualified lead, the customer out of the way (but not all the time). The layout and experience of your trade show booth must allow for this to happen naturally. You must convert these people, and do so comfortably.

Think about where a conversation begins at your booth. If your booth people are too far inside the booth, then these people have to work harder to get what they want. Game’s over before it even starts. If your booth people are located on the edges of the booth, positioned properly near the freebies, the collateral, or other content, you’re making it easier to engage with the prospect. However, if this engagement is happening right in front of the booth, crowding it, and doesn’t make room for new engagers, then there’s a bottleneck. That’s a problem. You need to create throughput.

Just as where the conversation starts is important, so is where the conversation ends. And connecting those points together is critical, it must be seamless. You should be prepared to move the conversation, literally, downstream, out of the way, deeper into the booth, making room for more prospects. If you have a customer at the booth, that’s fantastic, especially if it’s a happy customer. Keep this person nearby, but not in the way. Ask her questions about her experiences, make sure people nearby are hearing it. Get her to engage with your prospects – seriously. Why not? If she’s a customer, and a happy one, she’d be happy to do it! Hey, now you owe her one.

Some tips for creating the booth experience:

  1. An open concept allows for the conversations and interactions to breath, creating a feeling of openness, ease, flexibility. There’s no rush and it’s not confining.
  2. Lighting is also important. Many booths have fancy spotlights to highlight graphics or create effects, but most sales people doing booth duty don’t face those lights, their backs are to them. The booth attendees are the ones who face the lights, and often times they’re blinding. So if you must use lights, use them wisely. Test them as if you were a visitor.
  3. A place to rest. Most attendees have been on their feet for several hours, concrete floors, carrying a laptop bag or similar. They’re tired, grumpier than they let on, and probably thirsty. Give your attendees a break, let them sit down, catch their breath, have a drink of water, and do so in a relaxing format.
  4. Inform the entire time, organically. Consider where you want people to begin their interactions with you; at the corner of the booth? Out front? Well, have some information nearby, and make it easy. Don’t make them work for it. Where the conversation begins is where you also need to have some customer logos nearby, perhaps behind you on the screen, on the wall, on a slick. Then, once conversation evolves, its your job to move them down the assembly line, out of the way of new prospects, towards the next level of content. Wherever you move the conversation, have information. Let them pick what they want, but be aware of what they’re responding to. Wherever the conversation ends, have information handy, especially business cards, but most importantly have business cards stapled to collateral – this will provide some context when they’re going through their piles a day or two later. You want your card to end up next to the keyboard, not in the wastebasket.
  5. Don’t be shy and don’t be pushy. The impression you leave you on these people will be, in most cases, their first impression. If you’re sitting down, playing with your iPhone, not making eye contact, or just plain ignoring people, they’ll forever associate your brand with laziness. Contrarily, if you’re standing out in the aisle handing out freebies and roping people in like cattle, they’ll do everything to avoid you and rest assured they will note your brand – they’ll remember. Just be casual, be easygoing, have a smile ready. Hands out of your pockets, at the ready for a handshake. Look alive, but not manic.
  6. Fake it if you have to: If you have three people doing booth duty, sometimes a good idea is for one person to not where the company colors. When the booth is quiet, and people are just strolling by and not stopping in, have this decoy person engage with the booth, fake it. Just don’t do it in a way that gets you caught. Don’t put on such a show that if the person swings by later and you’re now working the booth you look like a total jerk. So be smart about this.

Out of all the points above, if I had to pick the most important part of designing a booth experience, it’d be the layout itself – how you position yourself in the booth, how you position the furniture, the content, etc, all lends itself to the experience. Think like a casino, but don’t create a labyrinth. Think like a merchandiser, but don’t create a boutique.

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Ten Conference and Networking Tips

The Kelsey Group, or should I say BIA/Kelsey, held their annual Marketplaces conference this week in sunny San Diego. A heck of a show it was. So good that I probably was only able to sit in a handful of sessions. I say that because when I first started going to Kelsey shows in 2005 I was a newbie to the local scene, a newbie to local search conferences, and I probably sat in on 90% of the sessions, and soaked up information like a dry sponge. And that was the intent – to learn as much as possible, and then learn more. While my desire to learn at these shows hasn’t changed, my priorities have – it’s all about networking now and prospecting and establishing business relationships, of all types.

My colleague, Todd, and I had back-to-back-to-back meetings from even before the preconference started on Monday morning. By the time I left the hotel late Wednesday night, it wasn’t without three more impromptu meetings that kept me busy and well fed right up until I had to leave for the airport at 7pm. Here I am, 1:30 the next day, 60 minutes away from a follow-up meeting.

I wonder sometimes how some businesses in my industry (vertical? space?) are even able to stick around or grow without attending shows like these. These shows are sort of like annual or biannual checkpoints for many companies; are you still in it? are you thriving? surviving? ready to grow? growing? ready to do that deal you put-off last time around? changing models?

Since I started attending these shows almost five years ago now, I’ve seen many companies come and go. It’s exciting to grow alongside other companies, competitive or complementary or otherwise – it really is something to have those brothers and sisters to grow up with. It’s also sad and disheartening to see some of them vanish, never to be heard of again – to reminisce with others about those brands, faces, names, stories.

Perhaps the one point that really stands out for me though is how clear it is to me that these kinds of conferences and trade shows are so vital for me as an entrepreneur, and for CitySquares as a business. Some thoughts I’d like to share while they’re still fresh:

  1. Never judge a book by its cover. It’s so easy to dismiss a company because their slides may have seemed boring, or overly complicated, or the speaker wasn’t charismatic enough, or was even too charming. It’s easy to dismiss a company because their booth wasn’t fancy enough, or because someone was shy or anxious and didn’t have a drink at the mixer. I’ve been surprised so many times. Be bold, be brave – talk to everyone – but don’t be too aggressive about it. Just be there. Being there is the first step. Before you know it you’re deeply engrossed in a conversation and discovering common denominators.
  2. Don’t go to bed. I mean this. You didn’t spend your or your company’s money to go to bed when the best stuff happens. The best time to meet people, to learn, and to establish relationships and prospect for deals is during the hours following each day’s show. Whether in the bar, the restaurant, in the lobby, in the hallways, or outside the hotel at dinner and bar meetings – that’s when it happens. Simply put, be available. Don’t drink? No problem – but be there. You can make up the sleep on the plane or when you get back to your hometown. This way you’ll really be taking advantage of all the networking opportunities.
  3. Be real, be curious, be yourself. Don’t know about a topic being discussed, ask the panelists questions when the mic goes around. If the mic doesn’t make its way to you, stick around after the panel and track down the people you want to talk with. They’re at the show for the same reasons you are!
  4. Have business cards. I know it’s a no-brainer, but there is nothing worse then meeting someone and not getting their business card, or vice versa. Bring three times as many business cards as you think you’ll need. I can assure you that if you’re doing all of the above, you’ll use them. You may even need to run up to your hotel room to get more cards.
  5. Ask for time. If you meet someone you’d like to get to know better, or learn more about their business or talk about some ideas you have for working together, just ask them to meet with you. This is so easy – whether its an early breakfast meeting the following day, a chat in the hallway at a table, outside in the sun, at the bar that evening, over lunch or dinner, or even out in town – just ask them for their time. You’d be surprised. I’ve never been turned down. Sometimes you meet with someone and you find there’s just not a fit. OK – now you know! Time wasted? Absolutely not! More often than not though, there’s a synergy somewhere – but don’t force it either.
  6. Follow up. LinkedIn is the best way to follow-up. If you’re not on LinkedIn – get with the program! Really though. When you gather up all those cards every day, before you finally close your laptop at the end of the night, set them down, search LinkedIn for each person and write a personal message to them – remind them who you are and add some context to the message. A lot of names and faces get mixed up, business cards are just the reminder. Mention the topic you were discussing, be it business or even something casual that was discussed. It’s hard to remember who everyone is, but when you add context it jogs the memory and make it a lot easier for the recipient to accept your request. Follow up again a few days later with an email or a phone call.
  7. Go to the sponsored parties and events. Most evenings after the day’s events, there are company sponsored parties and gatherings. Go to them! If you find out its exclusive, and invitation only, just find out who’s doing the inviting and ask if you can attend – its rare that you’ll get turned down. Again, that’s what these events are for and the more people that show up, the better off that company looks – they want a good turnout! They want to be sold out and want people talking about it.
  8. Relax. This is especially important because no one wants to talk business 100% of the time. Be yourself, talk about where you’re from, learn about where others are from, talk sports, schools, family, hobbies. You’d be surprised when you do – often times you’ll find that you have a lot in common, and what was at first perhaps an awkward introduction turns into laughter, common interests or connections.
  9. Keep it simple. You’re wearing a name tag. People will look at it. After shaking someone’s hand and introductions the first question will be “so what does [your company name] do?” Don’t go into a 10-minute monologue about your special patent-pending technology that’s going to change the game and disrupt the whole business. First, no one likes to hear that their business is threatened by yours, and two, no one likes a bore. Be able to explain in less than 3-4 sentences what you’re business does – specifically what problem it’s working to solve. But don’t be secretive either. No one likes a spy or stealth company being sly.
  10. Know the right people. This is huge. Get to know a few people who run the conference, or who seem to know the right people, the folks at the booths, and others. If you see someone talking to someone you’d like to speak with, just ask for an introduction! They’ll be flattered you asked them. Knowing the right people does not mean shadowing people, tagging alongside them like a pet dog though either.

I hope these 10 points ring true for you, or inspire you to get out there more. And if you have any tips you’d like to add to this list, I’d love to hear from you, as would my readers.

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User Experience

So my father sent this to me today, it’s a funny little bit about a book – the introduction of the book actually, and how it compares to the user experience of, well, the old reliable scroll. It’s very funny, and very well done. But what it really makes me think of, in the context that I live in every day, is website user experience.

It seems to me that with this web 2.0 transition that we’re all going through and adapting to, some developers and designers are trying to reinvent user experience. Citysquares.com isn’t the perfect example of a flawless user experience, but over the last year I’ve heard many more compliments and praise than negative. And over the past many months in my daily blog reading and in meeting with many other local startups, user experience is a big issue that many engineers struggle with. And let’s face it, most innovative web 2.0 startups are built by engineers. That’s a problem. Engineers are focused much more on function than form. That’s their nature. That’s not a bad thing, not at all. But without an intuitive user experience, startups are only creating more challenges and hurdles for themselves. A recent startup that I met with comes to mind. I won’t single them out, but they’ve got a moderately clever idea and have already gone to market. But their user experience leaves much to be desired. It was a big problem even for me – I like to think that I can adapt easier than say, my mother (who’s a great test case). If I can’t figure it out, my mother will only get frustrated and say “to heck with this!”

My partner and good friend Bob Leland is going to be launching his blog soon. And I can’t stress just how excited I am to see him join the blogosphere. Bob is a very very talented UI and UX guy. That’s his specialty and that is what his blog will be focused on. Again, although Citysquares.com is not the best example of his abilities or our vision (it’s a result of the limitations of our platform, for now anyway), Bob has done amazing work with the site and it’s only going to get better.

So without further delay, here is the video. Enjoy!

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