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The How-To: Utilizing Exhibitions As A Market Development Tool Events are an incredibly valuable market development tool to break into new markets and unlock new customers in existing markets.

By Omar Rahman

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Exhibitions can be used to cement your brand in existing markets, and build relationships with existing audiences, but do you use them as a market development tool- meaning to break into new markets, or reach new audiences in existing markets? The good news is that you can do that, and here are two key approaches.

Approach #1: Increasing sales in new geographical markets

Attending exhibitions in a new region helps position you for that market, introducing your brand to new people in a new context. Clearly, it isn't as simple as just turning up, so let's look at the specifics your business needs to know about exhibiting in new geographies.

1. Research first When you enter a new geography, the audience might be very different from your current audience. If you don't understand that audience deeply, exhibiting will prove a wasted investment because your conversion rates from attendee to lead to sale will be abysmal. So, to ensure your exhibition doesn't miss the market you need to research. Data, not intuition, should guide your decision to enter new territories. Which sounds obvious, except a CEB (now Gartner) survey found that only 11% of markets use data for customer decision-making.

The first research should happen before you decide to exhibit. The question is whether the market is worth entering. As the "Cracking New Markets' whitepaper puts it, "look at the current and potential application of your product, competitors and positioning in the market'. Assuming you've decided you do want to move into Poland or China or wherever, you then need to conduct extensive research into your buyer personas, to understand who they are, why they buy, and how to appeal to them.

Make that knowledge felt in every aspect of your next exhibition: in your stand design, in training your sales team, in your sales funnel, in your promotional material, and in any gifts you give away on the day.

2. Leverage influencers The Harvard Business Review talks about how Nike changed their perception as an "amateur' to achieve "the business equivalent of sinking three successive holes in one' when entering the golf market in 1995. Their secret? Nike have a consistent formula for growth that they execute again and again, part of which is securing endorsement from major celebrities in their new target space. In this case, Tiger Woods.

Although Nike is extraordinary in focusing on new customer segments, new products, new distribution channels and new geographical markets near-simultaneously, the point stands. When you're entering any new market, securing external endorsement creates credibility. Make sure your next exhibition packs a punch by aligning yourself to influencers in that new geography. There are several ways influencers can then help you boost your credibility– and also exhibition attendance and product sales. They could promote your brand/products/exhibition through social media and their own email list. They might add their image and testimonial to on-the-day promotional material and subsequent advertising. They could attend your exhibition themselves and meet attendees. They might even be the "prize' in a competition for attendees ("A day with Richard Branson', for example).

3. Generate excitement Global consultancy McKinsey observes, "Companies that harness word-of-mouth effects […] and get their brands onto shoppers' shortlists for initial consideration are more likely to capture the loyalty of emerging-market consumers'. That adage is true when entering any new market, not just emerging ones. Capitalizing on initial activity with word-of-mouth helps increase your reach and build your credibility somewhere new.

Your next exhibition can be a lynchpin of that strategy, by giving attendees something special to talk about. For example

  • Special gifts
  • An exciting competition
  • A popular special guest
  • Cutting-edge technology
  • An immersive new experience

For your next exhibition, develop a "centrepiece' that will help generate hype, then promote it relentlessly. Extend your event beyond on-the-day impact with pre-event promotion (to attract more visitors who are warmer and more likely to convert) and post-event promotion like announcing competition winners. Do everything possible to encourage social sharing on the day as well, to maximize your viral impact. Social booths or a social competition both work well.

Approach #2: Developing new market appeal in your existing market

The second way to grow your business through market development is to reach new customers in your existing market, by altering the way your product is perceived to attract customers who would never have bought from you otherwise. For example, a software subscription service might offer a different pricing system for business users– opening up a new market without fundamentally changing the product. Or you might start selling a food product in individual packages instead of bulk-only, so you can appeal to the domestic demographic as well as industrial.

Exhibitions are well-suited to this because of their face-to-face nature. You can bring your new product vision to life through hands-on product demos and attentive sales reps, to help capture business from customers who originally didn't fit your buying profile. Here are some guidelines to get this right.

1. Make product demos imaginative Exhibiting means you're perfectly placed to earn credibility for new product uses. Done right, product demos can be much more impactful than standard how-to articles or videos because they allow prospects to really experience your product in that new light. But to achieve that impact, your product demos have to be imaginative and well-researched, to show genuine, credible and useful new uses or approaches.

For your next exhibition, bring your products to life in new ways. Consider leveraging technologies like VR or AR for maximum impact, and try to give customers a way to touch, feel and use your product for themselves. That way, customers who might never have considered your product before can imagine new possibilities. For your business, that means increased sales from new customers without developing new products or broaching new markets: that's low-hanging fruit for business growth.

2. Focus on a single shift The big challenge when developing new market appeal is doing so without alienating current customers. Or as business leaders from 25 high-growth companies put it in the Harvard Business Review (HBR), "never put the core business at risk.' Your focus should be on restraint. As the HBR concludes, "although [these business leaders] constantly scanned for opportunities, they pursued only one at a time'.

For your next exhibition, aim to develop new appeal along a single fault-line. Add more than one new focus and you confuse your core message and risk your relationship with core customers.

3. Differentiate clearly As above: never put your core business at risk. That means you should continue to serve your existing market with the same rigour as ever. There are three main ways to do this at your next exhibition.

First, attend a new exhibition where you can cater to those new customers. This works if there's an event that specifically targets your new customers but not your current ones. A good example is moving from B2B to embrace B2C. Second, show two separate exhibition stands for both parts of the business, current and new. This works well when you've got different business units to cater to these new customers, which is often effective if new customers are very different from current customers, as in the B2B/B2C example. Businesses like IBM and HP have had plenty of success like this. Third, your least ideal but also least expensive option is to take two teams, create two sets of marketing materials, have two sales patters, and so on, at the same stand.

In the end, the more you differentiate, the better.

Exhibitions play a vital role in business growth through market development

Events are an incredibly valuable market development tool to break into new markets and unlock new customers in existing markets. Your main challenge will be gaining traction, building credibility and earning trust among new buyers– without threatening your core business. But follow the advice outlined here and you'll be well-placed to make your next exhibition a market development success.

Related: Exhibitions As The Most Effective Marketing Tool For SMEs

Omar Rahman

Co-founder, TGP

Omar Rahman moved to the UAE from the UK in 1991 to take a business development position in the sales department of EMA Lubricants, a joint-venture with Exxon Mobil. In 1995, he teamed up with Alexander Maddock to launch Top Gear Promotions LLC – now known simply as TGP – an exhibitions and events solution provider, having executed over 2,000 successfully delivered projects locally, regionally and internationally, for organisations including Etihad, Dubai Holding, General Electric, Dubai Tourism, IPIC, Masdar, Qatar Airlines, Emaar, Expo 2020, and many more. Rahman studied Civil Engineering at the United Kingdom’s North East Surrey College of Technology.

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