Branding Beat - Cut Through the Noise

Barcodes, Badges, and Scanners at Conventions: Are You Taking the Wrong Approach?

Last Wednesday, I attended the ASI Show in Chicago with several of my colleagues. The convention was well organized and the booth variety was impressive; more than 700 exhibitors showed up to promote their goods and services! However, despite the fact that I enjoyed my time at the convention, there was one issue I felt particularly inclined to write about: the use of handheld scanners.

My scannable badge from the ASI trade show.

My scannable badge from the ASI trade show.

Each of us received a shiny badge upon our arrival at the show, complete with a lanyard and a scannable barcode. The vendors all seemed to have portable scanners attached to their hands in order to garner attendees’ contact information, and some of them weren’t coy about obtaining that information by any means necessary.

From what I could tell, there were three distinguishable scanning techniques at the ASI Show (and only two of them would be considered polite or tactful):

  • The Whole Package: Vendors who chose this option were friendly and thorough. They introduced themselves, took the time to explain their products and answer questions, and spent quality face time with me before politely asking to scan my badge. Note—If you use this technique at a trade show, then you’re doing everything by the book.
  • The Introduce-and-Scan: This is the condensed version of the previous approach; vendors who used this option were less thorough but still took the time to network for a minute or so BEFORE they picked up their scanners. Note–-You’re on the right track if you use this technique, but you may want to build up to the scan a little bit better so it doesn’t seem forced.
  • The Stealthy Scan: Vendors who chose this method should be ashamed! These exhibitors stood at the edge of their booth areas and reached out to scan unsuspecting attendees—without any prior warning. They didn’t say anything more than “hello” (if that) and it was clear that they were only interested in meeting some sort of scanning quota (one of them even admitted this by shouting: “Help me meet my quota!” as we walked by). Note—If you use this strategy, then it’s definitely time to reevaluate your trade show etiquette! Barcodes aren’t everything.

I expected vendors to approach me and eventually ask to scan my barcode, but I certainly wasn’t expecting any scan-and-runs! It was disappointing to see so many exhibitors using stealthy scanning methods to obtain personal information. Would you think kindly of a staff member (or of a company, for that matter) who abruptly reached out toward your chest as you walked down a crowded aisle? Not likely.

Being scanned without my permission was a bit freaky and it made me feel like a faceless, nameless entity (Minority Report, anyone?). Besides, even if there is a customer scan quota to meet and you’re only interested in the numbers, there’s no reason to point that out to attendees. The sympathy vote doesn’t count for much if people don’t care about what you’re selling in the first place! And as Jana mentioned in another blog post: “The ultimate goal for your presence at a trade show or convention is not to get more contact information. It’s to get more customers.” Keep that in mind when you have your barcode scanner poised for attack!

Codes may be everywhere, but you don't have to go scan-crazy!

Codes may be everywhere, but you don’t have to go scan-crazy!

However, I’m happy to report that the vast majority of vendors at the ASI Show got it right. The people who spent those extra minutes or seconds to inform me about their products prior to jabbing me with a scanner are not only the most memorable but also the most likely to receive a call back. Furthermore, exhibitors who exchanged business cards with me and had their catalogs readily available (in addition to politely asking to scan my badge) are the ones who demonstrated that they actually wanted my business. Don’t rely solely on your scanner to network for you!

General trade show takeaways from the aforementioned scanning techniques:

  1. You won’t get any new business from conventions if you piss off the attendees. It’s okay to come up with irresistible bait to get people into your booth, but it’s not okay to violate their personal space by trying to snag their information via barcode as they pass.
  2. Your time is money, but quality face time is priceless. Take the initiative to engage interested customers and you’ll go far.
  3. It’s an unwise decision to replace all networking with a quick barcode scan. Expand your efforts to include both traditional (business cards, conversation) and modern networking strategies.
What do you think of handheld scanners and barcode badges? Have you used any of the scanning techniques I mentioned? Don’t forget to check out Amy’s post if you’d like to see the giveaways we received at the show!


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  1. Joseph Giorgi

    “Your time is money, but quality face time is priceless. Take the initiative to engage interested customers and you’ll go far.”

    Absolutely! If exhibitors would only take the time to get to know their booth’s visitors a little more before soliciting them for information, then visitors would be MUCH more likely to consider recommending or doing business with those exhibitors in the future. Simple as that!

    You’d think that this would be common sense, particularly at a large-scale industry event. Sadly, it seems that some of the suppliers at this year’s ASI Show still have a thing or two to learn before next year’s show.

    • Jill Tooley

      Thanks, Joe! I believe that mentality carries over to any industry, and not only at trade shows. It’s SO important to build relationships with potential clients first! Even though it may not be possible to spend an hour with each person, even a couple of minutes is better than running up to someone and scanning willy-nilly. 🙂

      Let’s hope that the questionable exhibitors shape up for next year’s show!

  2. amy

    I loved that you had scanning personalities for the trade show; The Stealthy Scan one cracked me up, great job!

    I hope the few vendors that stuck out (and not in a good way) take these tips to heart and make improvements for next year’s show.

    • Jill Tooley

      Haha, thanks! You and I commented several times about some of the shockingly aggressive people in attendance, so I made a note of it for this post. Luckily, there was no sign of nunchuck-guy at ASI this year…but some of the vendors weren’t far off! 😉

  3. Jana Quinn

    Spot on analysis of the scanning strategies. I’d love to see conversion rates. Do the people who scan 300 through shady means and without really discussing their product line really get more sales than those who interact with, answer questions for, AND scan only 50 people?

    Is there any long term damage from those who use more invasive means?

    I’d love to see more studies about lasting effects of unprofessional behavior; you’d think marketing firms would be funding things like this like crazy!

    • Jill Tooley

      Many thanks, Jana. I’d be interested in conversion rates as well! Someone on Twitter told me they’ve received 1,984 emails and counting from an industry show in January; that’s an INSANE number of emails! As unprofessional as some of the behavior was, many people consider it to be “part of the game” so maybe it doesn’t have as much of a negative impact as we’d think. Kind of a shame!

  4. Ness

    I’m thinking that any vendor reps that have a bunch of scans with nothing to show for it probably aren’t going back next year…. 😉

  5. Wim @ Sales Sells

    What a waste of opportunities Jill! As if sales are made from “stealing” your contact information and then spamming you… Companies that are not willing to invest in building real relationships, what kind of message are they sending?

    • Amanda

      Good point Wim. An approach like that is going to bring about negative attention only I think.

    • Jill Tooley

      I agree, Wim. Who would want to do business with a dishonest company like that in the first place? The deceptive approaches people try to use never cease to amaze me…

      Thanks for jumping in to comment! 🙂

  6. Amanda

    Nice post Jill. It’s nice to see that some vendors took time to talk with all of you before scanning. I have a question though–did you get the option to say no to the scan? Or could you cover up your barcode? Or would that look bad on us? Just wondering….

    • amy

      I suppose if you wanted to, you could say “No thank you” to being scanned…. but since we’re there to find out more about the new promotional products it would seem pretty weird.

    • Jill Tooley

      Thanks, Amanda! Sometimes they’d reach out to scan us so fast that we wouldn’t have time to cover our badges or react whatsoever. It wouldn’t look bad on us, necessarily, but the person doing the scanning may think we were being rude. Which is funny, because they’re the ones being rude!

      I admit, there were a few times when Amy and I just breezed by people who were shouting at us like carnival game workers…and I don’t feel guilty about it! 😉

      • Jen

        Carnival game workers. The perfect comparison. That is exactly what I kept thinking while reading about the stealthy scanners.

  7. lizzie

    DUDE. I WOULD HAVE TURNED THAT SH*T AROUND. Nobody scans my badge without taking me to dinner first…wait…wrong metaphor. I meant…that’s ridiculous! I mean, really, it’s not…because you see horrible examples of it everywhere you turn. Social media – same thing. People are asking for retweets, auto direct messaging, spamming other people. I thought we all, as a species, decided we had had enough spam? Who is creating all of the spam? The same people who stealth scan you at trade shows, that’s who.

    • Jill Tooley

      Haha, thanks, Lizzie! I hear you. Spam unfortunately seems to be a norm in our virtual lives these days…

      It was quite shocking that people thought stealth scanning was acceptable! Why should I have to walk around a convention with my hand covering the barcode?

      Thanks for commenting! 🙂

  8. Elizabeth Crane

    Maybe I’m old school but the whole barcode scanning thing just doesn’t seem right to me. I know it makes things easier but it does seem to make things a little less personal. I think we have all gotten so caught up with using emails that we sometimes forget that networking face to face is worth 100 emails. And whatever happened to phone calls.

    OK, before I get too carried away, I think if I was immediately asked for my badge, I would look elsewhere. Trade show booths most valuable thing is who is manning the booth. Some training and practice should include scanners at conventions and how to use them properly.

  9. Julien

    Great article, thank you!
    But personally, I am all against these scanners for various reasons.
    The first one is that it is unnatural and it cuts the flow of a good conversation – it is always a little awkward to say “hey, hold on, I’m gonna scan you!”.
    The second one is that the system changes from event to event. Why not having your own solution you use across events and countries that captures all your leads in one single place and enables you to follow-up more easily?
    With myfairtool we focus on offering a free solution to exhibitors to collect their leads AFTER a meeting (not while talking with a visitor). It is way more comfortable for both parties and gives the right structure for a perfect & quick follow-up.

  10. trade show staff training

    Make sure you know your product and be proud of it , qualify your lead make them understand that you are helping

  11. Darcy

    While I completely agree with the scanning approach, I can’t help but mention the attendees who fall under the same auspices. Many, (if not most) are merely looking for their freebie gift. So, we have the Sneaky Snatcher (stealthily walks up to obtain said freebie while you are engaged with someone else); Bored but Greedy (I’ll listen for a few seconds as I back away with my paw out); Polite Pat, who at least listens to your presentation briefly before reaching for their gift; and finally, Legitimately Interested, who wants to know what you can do for them and accepts the freebie as a thank you.

  12. Fred Jacob

    I have been producing shows and saw this as a problem.

    I have created a solution – Scan2Scan, a free app, that allows the attendees to scan the exhibitors and when they do – their info is swapped. A free service. Exhibitors can include their show propaganda in the swap and save on paper.

    No scan gun needed and the choice to scan is made by the attendee.

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