Trade shows are a key component of most companies' marketing efforts. And for small businesses, trade shows are especially beneficial because they provide an opportunity to reach a plethora of potential customers, investors, industry analysts and journalists over a very short period of time. However, the limited resources of most small businesses mean you have to extract the most from each appearance as possible. Want to know the secrets to making the contacts you want? Susan McPherson, vice president of global trade show services at PR Newswire, shares her tips for leveraging your participation in a trade show.

Entrepreneur.com: What tools and resources should a small business use to plan for a trade show?
Susan McPherson:
Trade shows begin booking exhibitors at least six months in advance. An important step is finding out if the trade show management offers any tools to help exhibitors reap the full benefits. These might include media lists, a website for posting exhibitors' news before, during and even after the show, and special packages and pricing with service providers. These benefits can be especially helpful to a business with limited resources.

You should also consider asking the trade show management about their PR plans. In many cases, there'll be opportunities for riding the coattails of the show's promotional activities. For example, if they're issuing a news release about the event, consider asking if your company can be listed in it as an exhibitor; or offer your participation as a case study for their marketing materials.

If you're launching a new product or service, make sure to target the daily show magazine or newspaper, both online and in print. Also consult the editorial calendars of industry trade publications. Many will run show editions. Keep in mind that most magazines have long lead deadlines, so be sure to make contact early.

And last, but certainly not least, if you're launching a trade show-specific website, be sure to have it populated with relevant content at least three to four weeks beforehand, and make sure that you're able to update it while you're on the road. Use your special event URL in all show-related correspondence, press releases and invitations, and include a link to it from your main website. A well-managed site could be the difference in converting leads to customers.

What's the best way to manage a product launch at a show?
McPherson:
There are a few simple steps for getting the most out of launching products at a trade show:

  • Plan ahead. Develop a calendar of tasks to complete prior to the launch. The calendar should extend at least a month in advance and should account for such activities as drafting and finalizing the launch release and marketing materials, producing graphics or product photos, securing customer testimonials and performing media outreach. Then, align these activities within the timeframe of the trade show. Some tasks may need to be adjusted based on trade show rules and deadlines.
     
  • If media coverage of your launch is a priority, preview your product for select journalists and analysts ahead of the event. Doing so will enable those reporters to break the story the day of your official launch. Make sure to obtain the trade show media list as far in advance as possible.
     
  • A well-orchestrated product announcement is key to generating publicity. Check with event organizers to see if there's an official newswire sponsor and if there are any regulations for issuing news at the event.
     
  • Create a standalone website or product page that can be updated quickly and easily. Populate the site with information about the launch, including marketing materials, the official launch release, photos, fact sheets and a link to encourage further communication.
     
  • Make sure you have the right people staffing your booth. Product managers are essential if you're going to be demonstrating a new service. If you have happy customers who have used your product, you might consider asking them to act as live testimonials at the booth.
     
  • Unless you're introducing the next iPhone or similar product, don't hold a press conference. The cost will outweigh the benefits.

How should a company structure its product launch announcement if the news is being issued at a show?
McPherson:
Follow the same basic news release writing guidelines as you would for any other announcement. Make sure to address the five W's--who, what, where, when and why--avoid jargon and write a catchy headline that directly relates to the news.

The only major difference between a trade show-based announcement and a standard release will be the dateline. The lead paragraph should indicate that the launch is taking place at the event. This'll add an element of timeliness to the news and attract the attention of reporters assigned to the show.

What's the best way to secure media interviews?
McPherson:
Again, plan ahead. Use the media list given by show management, and send out e-mails to reporters who'll be attending. If the show doesn't supply a media list, search for past articles on the event and develop a list of publications and reporters on your own. The same reporter may be assigned to cover the show again. And if not, he or she should be able to point you in the right direction.

Be sure to initiate contact at least two weeks prior to the show. Remember, your company won't be the only one trying to set up an interview. Reporters' calendars fill up quickly. And give the media a reason to take notice. Offer breaking news or a unique angle that distinguishes your company from the other businesses.

Also look for opportunities to secure speaking engagements, either as a keynote speaker or as a participant in a panel discussion. Speaking engagements require extensive planning and creativity, so start early and identify several themes you're comfortable discussing. Don't focus solely on topics directly related to your business. The most enticing speakers are those who can branch out beyond the standard subjects.

What marketing materials should you have on hand?
McPherson: Minimal ones. No journalist wants to carry reams of paper, and with concern for the environment growing, no one likes to see waste. Consider placing all your marketing materials on branded jump drives. You should also include these materials on your trade show website for easy download by journalists when the show is over.