Tradeshow Tips Straight from the Mouths of Independent Authors, Artists, and Publishers
If you’ve been a long-time reader of the Quality Logo Products blog or just so happened to click over to read our tradeshow articles, then you know that we’ve written a lot about trade shows in the past. We’ve also written a lot about comic book and entertainment conventions. We’ve written about how artists can sell their work in Artist Alley.
And while all of these articles offer some good advice (in my personal opinion), most of these posts were created based on a single snapshot from a single convention, and they were mostly written as an outsider looking in.
For this post I sought out independent creators and interviewed them for their tips and tricks. After all, I can talk about how cool a booth is all day long, but the actual creators are the ones who are in the trenches weekend after weekend selling their books and art.
Enough introductions, let’s get right into it!
Jim McClain promotes Solution Squad with an organized booth and professional attire.
The first chance that you have to make an impression is with your booth. Your booth can be seen from many yards away and could entice people to stop who may have just walked on by.
We’ve talked about the importance of using vertical space. Jim McClain, creator and author of the comic series Solution Squad, uses splashes of bright orange against a table of navy blue. Independent author Catherine Dougherty uses a black tablecloth with foil stars or a leopard table mat to catch attention.
But otherwise, booth display comes down to one thing: having a neat, organized table. The dudes from Unshaven Comics like to engage their customers by they making sure that “our table looks clean, organized, and hopefully inviting,” says Marc Alan Fishman, who does digital art and words for the publisher.
Even if you don’t have a strategy for anything else, make sure that your table is clean and free from clutter. “Aside from keeping everything neat and orderly, there isn’t too much of a science to my table set up,” says Michael Kelleher, an experienced illustrator and digital colorer. In fact, every single person that I interviewed for this post said something similar.
Equally important? Your product should always be the center of attention. RJ Casey of the independent publisher Yeti Press stressed that their new books are always in the center. On either end of the table, McClain uses wire frame cubes with posters on them to frame his stacks of books in the center.
Artist Sean Dove changes his booth setup often, but he still understands needing to have your product catch attention. “At the moment I have a poster wall behind me; it lets me show six to ten posters and is really the best way I’ve found to present my work and get people to see my table,” he says.
Unshaven Comics also suggests having “some form of signage that can be seen down the aisle. You want the barrier to entry to be as low as possible. You want people to know from your signage and presentation who you are, and what you do.”
Sean Dove catches passersby attention by hanging posters behind his table.
Now that you’ve grabbed the attention of people walking by, how do you get them to stick around? Well, you have to engage with them!
Author Catherine Dougherty likes to stand out in front of her booth and greet everyone who passes. She also gives passersby a business card and a bookmark or postcard for one of her books.
The guys at Unshaven Comics also like to go with the bold approach. One of their members, Kyle, will start with an “Excuse me! Can I tell you about our comic book?” If the person says yes, then he launches into the pitch for whatever their newest book is. When the show is crowded, the guys have been known to hold up a sign that says the same thing. Fishman explains “We try to look 50% friendly and 51% desperate. It always seems to help.”
McClain’s comic series is about math and geared for math teachers to use in their classrooms. He lures potential customers to his booth with Trader Joe’s peppermints and then asks if they’ve heard of superheroes based on math. He elaborates with “That usually either stops them in their tracks or makes them walk faster with terrified looks on their faces. Either way, I talk to the people I need to talk to!”
Tend to be shyer? Not a problem. Dove explains that “Overall I just try and be nice and welcoming.” He explains further with “I can be kind of shy so I have to work to really make sure I’m not just sitting in my own world. My main ‘move’ is I try and compliment something they might be holding or bought at the show.” So if you’re not comfortable with a hard sell, that’s an excellent way to break the ice and encourage people to talk a little more with you.
One last tip? Stand. The hours are long, but according to Casey from Yeti Press, “Looking someone in the eye and saying hello or giving a wave is a surprisingly infrequent strategy used in large comic conventions.” Kelleher agrees with him. “These days I try to stand at my table as much as possible… I acknowledge anyone that looks in my direction, even if it’s just a friendly smile.”
Too loud? Too crowded? That’s no problem for the guys from Unshaven Comics.
One of the easiest (and certainly the most cost-effective) ways to market your convention appearance is by using social media. You can make sure that your fans know that you’re attending, and you could possibly score new customers just by tagging posts with the convention hashtag.
Most of the artists and authors I spoke to use social media to publicize their attendance and announce products they’ll bring, though the network of choice changes. The guys at Unshaven Comics have a podcast and post on their Facebook page that has almost 3,000 fans. Sean Dove uses his Twitter account. Jim McClain uses both his personal social profiles and his pages for Solution Squad.
Dan “Beardo” Dougherty (referred to as Beardo hereafter to avoid confusion with Catherine Dougherty), actively tries to engage with his fans through Facebook and Twitter. He also uses his profile on GoComics.com to publicize his products and interact with people who read his daily comic strip.
The guys from Yeti Press enjoy using Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr as a form of a press release. Casey says, “If we have reminders, updates, or goofy pictures they go up. I try to post something at least every other day.”
Dougherty uses all of her social networks to her advantage as well. In addition to using her Facebook and Twitter accounts to broadcast her attendance at an upcoming event, she also blogs about her appearances on her author site. After the event she shares pictures on her blog.
Social media doesn’t require a large time commitment and the ROI can be huge. Kelleher says it best: “…when you have a cheap, easy way to promote yourself, use it to your full advantage. At the worst you’ll waste a few minutes, at the most you’ll gain some sales.”
Catherine Dougherty uses a lot of purple, leopard, and even a jelly bean dispenser at her table!
Even in the digital age, tangible giveaway items are still important. Depending on the size of the event, you could be among hundreds or thousands of other sellers. So even if you don’t close every sale right there on the show floor, the right promotional items could bring in later sales and create new fans.
But promotional products have a science to them; you can’t just put your logo on whatever you want and expect success. You must know your audience. For book and comic authors, audiences consist of readers. For artists, it’s people who appreciate artwork.
One tactic? Hand things to everyone – you never know what may turn into a sale. Yeti Press has “bookmarks for anyone and everyone.” Dougherty hands free postcards to anyone who walks past her booth.
But it isn’t always that simple. “Free stuff ALWAYS gets people to our table! The trick is to learn what to give and HOW to give it,” says Kelleher. He elaborates with, “Buttons have always been a big hit, but the problem is that if you hand one to every person you see, you’ll inevitably see them laying in the trash and scattered on the floor throughout the show. Use the free merchandise as a ‘reward’ for anyone who takes the time to talk to you or look at your merchandise.”
Another way to give out items is to exchange them for a Facebook Like or a Twitter Follow. Kelleher will trade promotional items for an email address. “Just a simple ‘If you sign up for our mailing list we’ll give you this cool bookmark!’ gives me a way to stay in touch with my customers after the show.”
It’s also a good idea to really tailor your giveaways to your specific niche. Since Jim McClain’s comic book is about math, he’ll give away a printed lesson plan to teachers or people who know teachers. It’s a great move because it gives the customer a way to use his product right away without having to do the lesson planning themselves.
He also caters to the parents in the crowd by passing out coloring pages and boxes of crayons to younger children who might be crying. You can bet that people will remember someone who helped them keep their child happy.
Promo items can also be used to help upsell your merchandise. Yeti Press gives out buttons to people who purchase two or more books while McClain and Dougherty plan to give bookmarks to customers who buy from them. Even Unshaven Comics, who told me that strictly speaking they don’t do promo items, use limited edition stickers and posters to upsell their books.
And don’t forget that promo items can also be resold as merchandise. Kelleher offers this advice if you choose that route: “If/ when you get a little recognition, or if you have a REALY cool image, t-shirts can sell well at these conventions. Mugs and drinking cups are a GREAT promotional gift because people rarely throw them out, and just like the t-shirts, if they look cool you can get people to spend a few bucks on them.”
A great example of this is a mug that Beardo sold. It was a Beardo-branded mug that said “There’s hair on my mug.” Beardo said that the mug “flew off the table too fast for me to keep up with. People who didn’t even read Beardo would get it, and it was like their gateway drug into a strip they probably wouldn’t have read otherwise.” Now that’s a powerful promotional item.
Like all marketing, you should test the efficiency of your promotional products and pick something that works for you and your goals. For example, Douherty told me that pens
with contact info are great and Kelleher said that he’s seen creative people make the giveaway work. However, McClain has used pencils in the past and said that he didn’t get any kind of response from that item. Authors can make great use of bookmarks, but artists may want to stick to buttons or postcards that can better display their artwork.
Yeti Press keeps their booth nice and tidy and uses a yellow tablecloth to grab attention.
Last, but certainly not least, success at a convention comes down to selling your product. No matter how great your product is, if nobody buys it, they will never know.
Jim McClain makes a good point: “A friend of mine, Russell Lissau, quotes Glengarry Glen Ross when he says, “Always be closing.” If you’re not there to sell, more power to you. Display your work and get noticed. But you really can’t sustain doing comic conventions for very long if you don’t at least break even some of the time. You have to have a product and you want to get it into as many hands as you can. Why? So you can make more! That’s the point, isn’t it?”
Closing sales is a fine balance of encouraging a purchase and coming off as pushy. “Don’t wait for people to come to you,” advises Kelleher. “Get their attention and get them to your table, whether by a polite ‘Hello’ or the offering of a free gift, you must actively invite and welcome people to your table. You are competing against dozens, if not hundreds, of other publishers and most people will not stop at every table without a little prompting. Of course, be careful not to be obnoxious either. You need to ride that fine line of being personable yet not overbearing.”
Dougherty agrees. “Engage them in light conversation, but don’t be pushy about sales. Listen to what they have to say to you.”
Lastly, McClain advises that you “don’t horn in on someone else’s customer until they leave that table and get in front of yours. That is a good way to become very unpopular with other sellers.”
Unshaven Comics makes sure you know they’re present, even before they start pitching their books.
There isn’t, of course, any kind of silver bullet that’s going to make sure that you sell every single product you bring with you to a convention. But following the advice of seasoned professionals is certainly a good way to start.
It’s probably been a while since you started reading this post. So here’s a quick recap of the tips gleaned from above:
- Make sure that your table is clean and organized.
- An eye-catching display of your products is must.
- If possible, get signage that can be seen from down the aisle.
- Don’t sit at your table with your head down. Stand, make eye contact, and engage with people who walk by your booth.
- Decide on your goals for the convention and use your promo products to enforce those goals.
- Always be closing, but don’t be a jerk.
Above all though, be yourself. “Make it your own!” says RJ Casey of Yeti Comics. “Don’t try to make it live up to something you saw on TV. Many attendees seem stressed and overwhelmed, but if you come in and be realistic and leisurely, I guarantee you will have a better time.”
Have you sold books or artwork at some kind of convention? Do you have other advice to share? For attendees, do you agree with these tactics? Leave your comments below!
All pictures courtesy of the respective creators.