Branding Beat - Cut Through the Noise

How Small Businesses Can Rock Their Next Trade Show: Tips from Chicago Comic Con’s Artist Alley

So you don’t have thousands of Facebook fans. And you might not make hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

But that’s okay, because you’re considering trying the marketing power of a trade show to grow your brand awareness and client base.

It can be intimidating to jump into a huge convention for the first time, and everyone could use a little advice. So when I went to the Chicago Comic Con this year, I interviewed a couple of artists in Artist Alley that were new to the convention for some pearls of wisdom.

Here are some tips straight from some of the coolest people at the convention.

Your Presentation is Key…

With hundreds of booths to visit, trade show attendees are in a hurry to see as much as they can. This means that you have just a few seconds to grab their attention. And nothing grabs attention better than a great presentation. Whether it’s freebies, dynamic booth design, activity, or approachable staff, you need to have something that will make people stop and look.

Scott McMahon, a first year attendee, said that many people were drawn to his bowl of QR codes. He and another artist encouraged passersby to take and scan a paper QR code. A few lucky winners scored free commissions or comic books; the rest were encouraged to visit the artists’ websites.

Ed Cho and Lee Cherolis, creators of the comic Little Guardians, had a large banner showcasing their names and characters from their comics. The bright colors and use of vertical space stood out from the neighboring booths.

Second year Chicago Comic Con attendee Yeti Press opted for a clean, uncluttered layout on a bright table cloth. This was vastly different from packed booths with neutral table colors and grabbed more attention.

…But Don’t Forget to Engage

You might have the sharpest-looking booth at the show, but without friendly, knowledgeable people to staff it, it’s a lost cause. Make sure that you, friends, family members, and/or employees are at the booth at all times. When attendees wander by, greet them with a genuine “Hello” and let them know you can answer any questions they have. Also encourage interaction with your products: people who manipulate objects are much more likely to purchase them.

who is more engaging

Who would you rather talk to? (The correct answer is neither.)

McMahon agrees that engagement is key: about 50% of the people he talked with ended up buying something from his booth.

A non-traditional Artist Alley layout at Chicago Comic Con this year (an in-the-back, uneven layout instead of the normal block of straight rows) severely reduced passersby for booths closer to the back of the convention center. RJ Casey of Yeti Press noted that they had far fewer visitors than last year, so engaging with those visitors was crucial. He greeted potential buyers warmly, and let them flip through his comics while he talked about his products.

Make Sure People Know You’re There

social media and conventions

“Come to booth 573 for free sausage and gr8 deals. #hungry #freesausage #SuperGreatCon2012”

The best potential customers are ones that come to a trade show and specifically seek you out. Find out what options are available to you to publicize your booth. Does the trade show offer vendors the opportunity to email announcements to registered attendees? Can you get one of your branded promotional items into the welcome bag? Are you allowed to have employees wander the show floor and pass out flyers or stickers?

For a less expensive option, make full use of your social media channels. All three of the artists I spoke with made announcements about their booths on Facebook and Twitter. The other half of Yeti Press, Eric Roesner, tweeted about their booth throughout the four day convention.

Don’t Get Stressed Out

don't stress it's lego sad keanu!

Not everyone will be looking for a Lego Sad Keanu. And that’s their mistake.

Worrying over every interaction and potential customer will quickly burn you out. Remind yourself that not every single attendee is going to be interested in the products or services you offer. Some do genuinely need time to think before they purchase or commit. That’s why you should offer business cards, bookmarks, and other freebies with your contact information printed on them.

As independent artists and publishers, the artists I talked to in Artist Alley were drawn to other indie artists with unique creations. In this case, the artists selling prints of the Avengers weren’t going to get their business. On the other hand, other convention attendees might just want a sketch of Sherlock Holmes.

Conventions can be overwhelming, and they certainly take a lot of time and energy, but they could also mean plenty of new clients or leads. So to dominate in your next (or first!) trade show, let’s recap:

  • Make it pretty. Have plenty of eye-catching  images, branded freebies, and/or product samples. Arrange everything in a pleasing fashion that will make your booth stand out and attendees linger.
  • Say hello. Nobody likes a pushy salesman, but they do like knowledgeable, friendly staff. Make sure that your booth staff is properly trained and passionate about your offerings.
  • Be known. Tell your current audience that you’ll be at the trade show. Send one of your employees around with samples. End all of your pre-, mid-, and post-show tweets with the convention hashtag to catch other attendees.
  • Enjoy yourself. Conventions are also supposed to be fun and help you network. Don’t spend time lamenting missed opportunities; instead talk with customers that show an interest to increase conversions, relationships, and overall enjoyment.

What catches your attention at trade shows? Any other tips you’d like to add for other small businesses or independent entrepreneurs?



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  1. Eric

    At an event like Comic-Con, I can’t imagine a vendor NOT giving due consideration to making a graphic, bold, colorful display. Sure, it could reach sensory overload if everyone went off the deep end with it, but from what it seems, it’s highly under-thought. If a yellow tablecloth is making a dramatic impact, it seems that’s an area in need of improvement for a lot of vendors. Again, IT’S COMIC-CON, folks! Give ’em something memorable they’ll not forget about in as much time as it takes to walk past a booth.

    • Mandy Kilinskis

      A lot of vendors use their own art to decorate their booths. On one hand, this is great because it gives attendees an instant snapshot of what you offer. On the other, if you mostly do pencil sketches, they won’t be as eye-catching as full-color art. Also you start to get art-blind after a while. That’s why a table cloth grabs so much attention. It’s also a lot more cost-effective than a full-color vertical banner.

  2. Rachel

    Awesome post, Mandy! I especially like your tip about letting people know you’re at the trade show. This seems particularly important at a convention such as this one, given the spread-out and slightly odd Artist Alley setup Chicago used this year. Some of the tables stuck in corners or in a poorly-trafficked area kind of drew the short straw and didn’t get nearly the foot traffic some other booths did. So the more promoting on social media and the show floor these artists could do, the better!

    Also, hooray for Scott McMahon, who drew me an amazing picture of Captain America and Agent Coulson! It, and he, rocks. 🙂

    • Mandy Kilinskis

      Thanks, Rachel! I feel like there was a lot more promoting on the show floor at Chicago Comic Con in 2011 than this year. I’m curious if there was a rule against it this year or if the same vendors didn’t attend or if I just missed some of it. All I saw was the Threadless box man giving out stickers, and one of the artists had his girlfriend displaying art right when you walked in. There weren’t nearly as many flyers this year as there were last year.

      I second that hooray for Scott McMahon – that was an awesome picture! 😀

  3. Jana Quinn

    Awesome post, Mandy. I agree that the layout for this year’s Artist Alley was really weird, and it’s unfortunately that it didn’t get the traffic from years past. Over the past eight years of convention going, it’s become my favorite part of comic book conventions. As I said in a previous article, Terry Huddleston’s fantastic use of vertical space is what initially drew me to his booth. I believe I’ve spent about $150 to date on his art. Cory Smith is another artist who uses the space behind his booth to really show off his stuff. Engagement is also huge, but it’s a tricky thing in terms of making people feel pressured and escape when maybe a moment or two to quietly browse may have helped them become investment. In any event, great tips!

    • Mandy Kilinskis

      I totally agree. The pushy “omg please buy my stuff” engagement can turn me off. On the other hand, offering a simple, “Hi, do you have any questions about anything?” breaks down the barriers and makes me more comfortable to look around. There’s a fine line, and the people that know how to balance it will have the most success. 🙂

  4. Bret Bonnet

    I wanna go to ComicCon!

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