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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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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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