As we all know, exhibiting at conferences has long been a common practice among life science vendors. Yet decisions on where to exhibit are often made with little more justification than the presence of competing vendors. Furthermore the nature of the promotional activities conducted at the conference are rarely tailored to the targeted audience. Whereas other elements of the marketing mix—sales representatives, advertising, direct mail and even the Website —are subjected to rigorous analysis and planning, the role of exhibiting is rarely considered in light of the company’s overall positioning and branding strategy. Even more rare is the company that tactically plans the promotional activities it will employ at each and every conference. Instead we see the same booths, the same exhibits and often the same bored reps staring listlessly at the passing throng at every show we attend. Good thing most scientists only attend one or two conferences a year otherwise they may pick up on this fact!
Our research has shown that exhibiting at scientific conferences has unique advantages, many of which can’t be duplicated by other media. To effectively determine what proportion of the marketing mix should be devoted to exhibiting, you’ve got to first understand the relative strengths of exhibiting versus other marketing techniques and devise programs that leverage these strengths.
Exhibiting provides exposure to prospective customers in an environment where they are looking for information and are receptive to one-on-one communication. Attendees are free from the normal distractions of their labs and, surrounded by their colleagues, they can devote themselves to getting the specific information they want and need.
Thus, the single most important advantage of conference exhibiting is that it enables the vendor to communicate and interact directly with customers at a moment when they are actively seeking information. In one of our surveys (soon to be updated with 2008 data) twenty-five percent of respondents ranked vendor exhibits as being “very” important in helping them learn about new products and services in their fields of interest, compared to only 2% who did not. Perhaps just as significant, many attendees are “thought leaders,” decision-makers and other hard-to-reach prospects who are often difficult to contact through other direct marketing and sales techniques.
This reality makes it all the more important that life science suppliers re-examine their strategy to determine whether or not their exhibits, associated materials and activities meet the fundamental needs of conference attendees. Most marketing executives agree that exhibiting at conferences is too costly to be used solely as a means of generating interest and enthusiasm about their products and services. Exhibiting has its limitations too. For one, it can be extremely expensive. The cost of exhibit space, the booth itself, collateral material, travel and entertaining are high. Additionally, there is also the indirect cost of pulling sales representatives from the field to staff the exhibit. These expenses are routinely absorbed with few available measures to quantify the company’s return-on-investment other than a stack of business cards collected or the number of T-shirts distributed.
The leading companies that we’ve observed use meetings as an opportunity to introduce new products and technologies, thereby engendering a perception of leadership in the market segment. Some companies also believe that exhibiting can enhance subsequent sales calls—provided of course that contacts made at a conference are acted upon in a timely and appropriate fashion.
The value of establishing a company’s commitment to a specific field of research, fostering personal relationships with the field’s practitioners and building brand equity through exhibiting is undeniable. The benefits outweigh the costs, but the costs are high enough to demand that a company’s exhibiting strategy be carefully integrated with its overall marketing plan.