Branding Beat - Cut Through the Noise

Trade Show Exhibitor Secrets from the Pros (C2E2 Edition)

The mother of all conventions is the San Diego Comic Con, which often hosts Hollywood types who want to screen footage from their movies or television shows. With more than a quarter million visitors each year, it’s no wonder that exhibitors hit the jackpot with their target customers on their doorstep.

The difficult part? Their proximity to very similar vendors and artists means they need to work twice as hard to get the attention of the passersby.

C2E2, or the Chicago Comics and Entertainment Expo, is only three years old and is growing rapidly as a late spring pop culture event for Midwesterners.

We’ve written before about Artist Alley booths and the overall C2E2 experience, but we wanted to tackle niche convention presence in general and what makes a booth great.

Paul Rudd was unavailable for comment.

Good: The Onion


  • Knows its audience with quirky humor (e.g., wears “nerd” and “snob” as badges of honor)
  • Large poster with brand name prominent.
  • Added Twitter logo with handle.
  • Enticement to approach booth with contest.
  • Catches attention with visible prizes on counter.
  • Freebie coasters on the table.


  • Poor communication to prize winners: I won a gift bag and only found out via Twitter once I got home, because reception sucked in convention hall.
  • No one at the booth any time I passed during the two days I was there.

Still bitter about the prize package. Harumph.

Fix-Its: A text to winners or predetermined time to check a winners’ list would have been helpful, and I wouldn’t have walked away empty-handed. Having people at the booth to engage passersby would have improved relationship-building with potential readers. Adding in some kind of skilled activity to compete for the prize would have been a great way to start conversations (e.g., headline writing contest). Also, there were no copies of The Onion in regular newspaper form (it’s always free anyway!), which was a huge missed opportunity to snag new readers.

It’s the opposite of the carnival – you’ll almost certainly win, and you’re probably weirder than the person behind the table.

Better: Vantage In House Productions


  • Name and art featured prominently on banner, plus web address.
  • Comics and prints available to purchase (and credit cards accepted and marked clearly).
  • Interactive game earns prizes.
  • QR code and Twitter handle on rule sheet.
  • Guaranteed prize (plus you can decide if you are able to meet the challenge before you pay).

Can you name ten?


  • Costs a dollar to play.
  • Art style may not have wide appeal.

Fix-Its: Free to play, but if you lose, you have to do a sketch for the artist or something equally silly (and free). Include other styles of art that may appeal

Coal-eyed monsters are a real attention-getter but may not be appropriate for all industries.

Best: Christopher Jones Comic Art


  • Candy as freebies, which is extra attractive in venue with overpriced food/drink.
  • Call to action with actual product as reward/promotional product.
  • Large poster with name displayed prominently with his art.
  • Current art prints, trade paperbacks, and back issues all available to purchase.

Candy – the freebie that appeals to ALL demographics


  • Doesn’t make use of vertical space.
  • No activities/contests to engage passersby in conversation.
  • No additional promotional products with his name for additional brand impressions.
  • Might have butterscotch flavored suckers in there which are super gross and make the other suckers completely inedible just by touching them.

Fix-Its: Take a leaf out of Terry Huddleston’s book and maximize his use of vertical space. Include an activity or a contest that entices people to linger and consider the challenge. A trade show or convention is a unique opportunity where your target audience is eager to have an in-person conversation with you. Pique their interest and latch on!

Tips Overview:

  • Offer freebies and sale items (if appropriate).
  • Maximize visuals by expanding into vertical space.
  • Contests and activities draw attention.
  • Visible social media links for those who are too shy to approach but may want to check out your business later.
  • Calls to action.

What aspects of a convention booth stand out to you? Where do people go wrong in trying to lure in interested passersby? What’s the most creative booth idea you’ve ever seen? Sound off in the comments below!

Until next time, keep expanding your brand!


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  1. Eric

    Quite a lot to think about when marketing oneself or his/her company when it comes to conventions, and think you’ve offered some pretty useful tips. “Using vertical space” is likely far more important than it seems, because if you’d like people to know where you are without consulting some labrynthine map, there better be a truck-stop-height sign to beckon them toward you. Neat article!

    • Jana Quinn

      Thanks, Eric! I think the vertical space one is huge, too. With so many rows, it’s hard to remember where vendors are, but if your booth can be a visual checkpoint, you’re not only pulling in people looking for you, but you’re also a focal point for anyone using your booth as a marker.


  2. Amy Swanson

    What an awesomely helpful blog, Jana! I’ve seen a lot of “good” booths, and only a handful of “best” booths at the conventions I go to. You hit the nail on the head with your suggestions to make them better 🙂

    Ps. Totally loved your thought here as a con for Christopher Jones Comic Art’s booth: “Might have butterscotch flavored suckers in there which are super gross and make the other suckers completely inedible just by touching them.” 100% agree!!

    • Jill Tooley

      Awww, but I love butterscotch! 🙁 Then again, I am kind of an old lady.

      • Jana Quinn

        I first read that as “a kind old lady.” Kind old ladies would have butterscotch candies with them at all times. Good call.

  3. Jenna Markowski

    This is an extremely insightful blog, Jana! I’m pretty shocked that The Onion had no real people at their booth AND didn’t have print copies of their publication — talk about missed opportunities! The idea of free food as a giveaway is definitely a good one. That’s how NCC got me to go to pretty much any of their events!

    I think, like Eric, the vertical space concept is one of the most important tips here. You certainly want people to see your booth right when they walk through the door of a bustling convention auditorium, and one surefire way to make that happen is to be the tallest!

    Ps. I also support your distaste for butterscotch suckers.

  4. Jana Quinn

    Thanks. No expert training here, just sharing what jumps out at me with a touch of common sense on the side. 🙂

    Butterscotch is good as a component in butterbeer, but on its own, my tastebuds are not pleased with me.

  5. Mandy Kilinskis

    I actually did see someone at The Onion’s table when I passed it once. However, they had their nose buried deep into their smartphone, and didn’t even look up when I approached. Now, I’m not saying that you had to jump up, throw promo products at me, and call me your new best friend, but a simple acknowledgement would be nice. For example, the people running the Yelp booth didn’t get in my face, but they were friendly and answered any questions I had.

    Vertical space is definitely important. I know that the tall booths always grab my attention. In fact, I usually navigate convention floors based on the tall booths – having your booth be a landmark would be great for extra traffic!

    • Jana Quinn

      Ha! The elusive Onion employee in the wild. Captivating. Although it does go with their “Helping Nerds Become Snobs” slogan… Clever? Nah. A missed opportunity to be sure.

  6. Rachel

    Freebies are always a super good idea; that’s always an attention-grabber for me, and a great reason for exhibitors to engage the people walking past their booths. Even better when it’s candy. 🙂 So many excellent tips here, Jana!

    • Jana Quinn

      I agree completely. People grab freebies just because they’re free. They may not need or even want the thing. So if you put in the effort to choose something your target audience will really like, you’re already ahead of the game. Big ups for candy and snacks for sure.

  7. Jill Tooley

    Freebies are a MUST at conventions, as far as I’m concerned! Even if it’s just a business card attached to a pen.

    I’m usually strapped for cash at cons like C2E2, where vendors and artists are present, so I’ll ALWAYS take some information home with me if I’m interested in what they’re selling. But what am I supposed to do if they don’t have anything with their name on it?

    I agree with you on the vertical space issue as well. I tend to walk right by booths with nothing but a table.

    Awesome tips! 🙂

    • Jana Quinn

      Freebies are bait. They’re icebreakers, conversation points, and gifts for a customer letting you pitch your brand to them without paying them like a focus group. They’re a fantastic way to establish long term visibility and make a memorable impact. But at its most basic level, a freebie is bait. And you wouldn’t go fishing with a bare hook, would you?

  8. Christopher Jones

    P.S. I will be sure to pick the butterscotch dum-dum’s out next time, lest you come around again!! 🙂

  9. Christopher Jones

    I would just like to thank you for your comments on my recent marketing efforts at C2E2. I have only started trying to improve my convention presence in the last year and it’s been a certain amount of trial and error. You are right that it is very hard to stand out at these things and it is quite a compliment to be noticed!

    I also wanted to add a comment on the vertical display issue. I agree that a vertical display can be one of your biggest assets at any trade show. However, especially for something like an artist ally, vertical displays present a real challenge. First, it is often the case that there is very little space behind the tables, so any large rig can be very prohibitive not only to your own sitting room, but also for other artists trying to get past you. Second, more often than not artists in artist alleys are there on a very constricting budget, and traveling with a large vertical display – especially on a plane – can be rather cost-prohibitive. That said, I would LOVE to see a future blog post focusing specifically on vertical displays and the different ways they can be executed, both on a budget and not!

    Have a fantastic day 🙂
    Christopher Jones

    • Christopher Jones

      The set up I had at C2E2 was the largest and most elaborate I’ve had to date. The biggest challenge is that the space you have to work with varies so much from show to show and often you don’t know what you’ve got to work with until you get there. You might be against a wall, you might have your back to an aisle between your row and another row of tables (as was my space at C2E2), and you don’t know how much room you’ll have behind the table. We were incredibly crowded behind the tables at C2E2 and it was challenging enough to get past the other folks at their tables to get out from behind mine and onto the show floor. The set-up I had took nearly an hour to set up and involved having more materials with me than I would have had at a show to which I’d flown – it was definitely a “road trip” set up. I’m looking into alternatives to my current banner stands that have an even smaller footprint but are study enough that they might double as framework for a vertical display space for my prints. Look me up at C2E2 2013 to see what I’ve come up with!

      One interesting note about a surprising success from C2E2 next year was the promise of the free mini-print for those who “liked” my Facebook comic art page. Having that offer at the convention was effective and generated the desired traffic and “likes” for my page, but the biggest spike of the convention came from a mid-weekend plug encouraging people to like page before visiting me at my table. There was a noticeable spike in Facebook likes, but not in people showing up to collect their prints the following day at the convention. The combination of a promised at-con premium and on-line promotion generated traffic for my web presence above and beyond the measurable traffic at my table!

  10. Christopher Jones

    P.S. I will be sure to pick the butterscotch dum-dum’s out next time, lest you come around again!!

  11. Christopher Jones

    Just dropping a note to let you know I’ll be at C2E2 as a featured guest this year, and I will have candy again as well as some new prints & freebies! I hope you are able to stop by my table and say “hi!” 🙂

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