Marketing & Branding

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.