How B2B companies are adapting to marketing without industry trade shows

Many B2B companies, especially small and mid-sized ones, have struggled in 2020 and 2021. Shutdowns, global competition to source materials, labor issues and pauses in CapEx spending have hurt the bottom lines of many businesses.

And as we’re nearing year two with few in-person B2B trade shows and industry conferences, it has become more difficult to prospect for new customers. Revising a sales and marketing plan when the pandemic hit felt like rebuilding an airplane in mid-air.

My Pittsburgh-based company is an industrial laboratory, vendors to industrial companies that are household names. Local events like Pittsburgh’s Northeast Safety Conference and Pittsburgh’s Microscopy Analysis (M&M) show are critical for promotion and, like many companies, when these B2B trade shows moved to smaller virtual formats, it hurt our ability to network, hear customers’ pain points and showcase scientists. Trade shows are a marketing tool unlike any other, and B2B service and manufacturing companies rely on these events to fill up sales pipelines and engage directly with decision-makers.

In this new climate, having a digital marketing plan is very important. For example, companies are subbing in webinars and articles to fill the thought leadership and instructional voids.They are partnering with industry trade publications to deliver content digitally wherever potential clients are receiving information. And they are optimizing key words in search engines to get published and video content in front of customers, hoping to be at the virtual cash register when procurement decisions are being made.

Companies are also rethinking account management processes, trying to focus less on transactions and more on customer needs and relationships. Don’t be afraid to ask for referrals from delighted customers. Some companies have gone out of business since the pandemic, so a refocus on sales support can uncover hidden gems. In 2019, inbound sales support teams might have ended more inquiries with, “No, we don’t do that.” Today, more sales teams are instead responding with, “We don’t do that, exactly, but let me show an alternative that you may not be considering.”

Finally, in this new world without in-person trade events, many companies are using COVID-19 as an excuse to re-evaluate dollars spent at industry events from past years. Most companies, big and small, will admit that it is hard to tie direct ROI to the large investment of renting a booth, show advertising, and employee travel and lost productivity. Sometimes companies felt like they were playing defense instead of offense when prospecting at trade events, attending only because competitors were there. Going into 2022, when industry events hopefully come back, companies should create a revenue benchmark of what two years without in-person trade events looked like. This will help quantify if all the shows a business attended in the past were worth it and will lead to some tough conversations with business unit managers about future attendance.

Every industry is different, and each will determine the right time to get back together at live industry events. For B2B companies, virtual trade shows are a waste of time if direct ROI is the main goal. Nothing replaces networking face-to-face. But reporting indicates that decision-makers are experiencing virtual fatigue, which gives me hope that we’ll get back together soon.

Dennis C. Hyde is marketing manager at RJ Lee Group.