October 30, 2015
by Andy Saks
You’re planning a trade show booth.
You know you need a “draw,” something special and cool to entice attendees to visit you and let you scan their badges.
You think, “I know! Let’s have a drawing and give away a cool, new, coveted gadget like the…”
And you likely end that sentence with the name of the latest cool, new, coveted gadget from Apple.
You’re not alone. Apple products have topped “Big Booth Giveaway” list for nearly a decade now.
From 2007-2009, exhibitors gave away iPhones by the truckload. In 2010, they switched to iPads and MacBook Airs. And this year, as predictably as the sunrise, the Apple Watch became the must-give-away booth prize across the trade show industry. (Apple TV, which began shipping in 2007, has also earned a Best Supporting Giveaway nod.)
As a booth presenter, game show host and emcee at over 200 trade shows in a variety of industries, I’ve personally promoted, drawn winners for, and handed out more iPhones, iPads, MacBook Airs, Apple TVs, and now Apple Watches than I can count. And for you, I have a request:
DON’T DO IT. YOU’RE WASTING YOUR MONEY.
Worse, you’re wasting the very opportunity you worked so hard to generate. An opportunity that, once its fades into trade show history, will never return.
Don’t get me wrong. I like Apple products. In fact, I’m an “Apple guy,” and have been since my first day of college in 1988. I’m typing this on a MacBook Air that’s projecting its display on to a large iMac screen. I’m on my fourth iPhone, I love my iPad mini, and I regularly stream stuff on Apple TV. (I’m not sold on an Apple Watch yet though, and may never be. But I love my Pebble watch.) And though I’ve been disappointed and frustrated by a variety of Apple issues, especially in recent years, and I’ve threatened many times to defect, in my heart I know Apple and I will always be together. (Apple knows this too, and seems pretty smug about it.)
So why am I giving the cold shoulder to using Apple products as booth prizes? Because, in a nutshell, this strategy doesn’t serve your goals. In fact, it crushes your goals into a tiny ball and tosses them in the new recycling bin at the entrance to the show floor for someone else to use. And after years of watching my clients try it, I’m hoping this post will save you some pain.
How’s that? Here are six reasons giving away Apple products is a Bad Idea:
The goal of having a “draw” at your booth is to attract attendees to your booth. The more unique and valuable your draw, the more people you can expect it to attract.
Moreover, you probably hope attendees will apply the attributes of your prize to your company. If they see your prize as cool, valuable and unique, they’ll see YOU as cool, valuable and unique.
Apple products are generally perceived as cool and valuable, so those attributes are covered. But they fail the second test. They are not unique.
Walk any exhibit floor at any trade show in the country and I’ll bet you at least half the booths with Big Giveaways are featuring Apple products. My wife is at the Educause trade show today, and she’s counted TWENTY booths toting Apple Watch giveaways, and many other giveaways featuring iPads, Surface tablets and GoPro cameras (all of which could share a bronze medal in the Overused Giveaway Olympics).
If you can’t walk a show floor, then trust me. I’ve walked a million of them. Booth after booth, everyone’s doing a Big Giveaway for the same Apple products. I’ve often joked that the most-marketed company in any trade show is Apple; they’re not exhibiting at the show, yet their products are marketed everywhere by those who are exhibiting. If Steve Jobs were alive, he’d be smiling (or smirking) watching you eagerly shine your biggest spotlights on HIS products instead of your own. (Ironically, Apple itself rarely participates in trade shows. With all this free promotion, why bother? Apple even pulled out of MacWorld itself in 2008, a show about Apple.)
So to an attendee, your Apple giveaway isn’t one of a kind—it’s one of twenty. Or thirty. Or fifty. So the subtext of giving away Apple products isn’t “We’re cool, valuable and unique.” It’s “We’re following the herd, giving out the same stuff as everyone else in an attempt to look different.” Attendees who are drawn to your booth for your Big Giveaway are drawn to nineteen other booths for identical Big Giveaways, figuring if they enter all the drawings, they’ll likely win at least one of them. Which is not why you came, and not how you want to be remembered.
Booths at a trade show are like actors at an audition. Everybody wants to be noticed, to be loved, to get affirmation from the judges they’re working so hard to impress.
That’s not a bad notion or a wrong direction. But are you impressing the right people with your Big Giveaway?
All trade show attendees are not created equal. Many are there just to kick the tires, kill time, follow a spouse or colleague around, or grab some free stuff.
These attendees do have value. Each body that enters your booth makes your booth look busier. And like a packed restaurant, a full booth makes the booth look more appealing to those walking by, making them more likely to come in and join the pack. And once in a great while, one of them becomes a valuable lead.
But I’ll bet these aren’t the attendees you really want. The attendees you really want have an urgent problem you can solve, a directive to find their solution at your show, the authority to make or influence their buying decision, the budget to afford you, and the visibility within their world to direct other potential buyers your way. I call these attendees your “Prime Prospects.” (In my trade show training program we brainstorm a profile of your Prime Prospect so you know exactly who you’re looking for and what they want from you, a very valuable exercise.)
Guess what? Your Prime Prospects don’t want an Apple Watch. Or an iPad. Or anything Apple. They can buy their own. So your Big Giveaway doesn’t attract them to your booth.
In fact, many Prime Prospects consider drawings like this an irritant, a distraction that diverts knowledgeable booth staffers away from sharing product information and towards facilitating pointless promotions, like a fine restaurant inexplicably giving away free plates of French fries to strangers on the street every hour, instead of focusing on its seated, paying customers.
The secondary purpose of a Big Giveaway (or anything you do at your booth) is to promote your most-appealing product or service, the one most likely to generate awareness, interest, leads and sales down the road.
By its nature, your Big Giveaway contest is arguably your most-visible promotion at the show, the one thing attendees know about you if they know nothing else.
And you worked to make it that way. You promoted your Big Giveaway in your social media platforms, e-newsletter, and website. You printed flyers and hung them on the doorknobs of attendees’ hotel rooms while the poor saps were sleeping. (Don’t deny it; I stay in those hotels too.) You put a big sign on an easel in the front of your booth, and placed a fancy slide on the TV monitor in your booth theater, which I’ll bet is your single biggest piece of digital real estate in your booth. In other words, you took all your available marketing channels for the show and dedicated them to promoting your Big Giveaway.
When you get back to your office, you will wonder why more attendees didn’t seem to get a sense of your products and services, what makes you different and cool and worthwhile. And it might be because you gave your most-visible marketing slots to Apple, promoting their products instead of your own.
Apple is the world’s most valuable company. I suspect, without doing any research (sorry, I’m on a deadline) that more words are read, more commercials viewed, more comments exchanged, more attention given to Apple in one day than your company gets in a year. Apple does not need, won’t appreciate, and certainly won’t reciprocate the free marketing you’re giving them. So take it back and dedicate your most-visible promotion to your own products and services.
That’s a big bowl of wrong, isn’t it? To disappoint and alienate the very people you spent all that time, energy and cash to delight?
That’s what happens, though, when you spend big on a single-item Big Giveaway like an Apple Watch.
Imagine you’re an attendee. You know that an exhibitor is giving away an Apple Watch at its booth. You’d love an Apple Watch. You go to the booth and let them scan your badge so you can enter. You find out the Big Giveaway Drawing will be held ten minutes before the show closes.
You had other notions for that time slot: maybe you wanted to catch a valuable workshop, meet a friend for a drink, or go to your hotel room and chill. But the chance at an Apple Watch is too tempting to pass up. So you forgo those other plans and come back as instructed for the Big Giveaway Drawing where the Big Winner is chosen.
The crowd gathers. The Big Winner is drawn and announced. It isn’t you.
You leave the booth annoyed. You wasted your own time. You had your hopes dashed. Maybe the winner didn’t even show up and gets to win anyway, and how is that fair? Maybe you’re even a little suspicious the drawing was rigged. (Yes, I’ve seen it happen. Don’t ask me who.)
This is the experience every single person but the Big Giveaway Winner has when you run a Big Giveaway. Everyone except the winner—that’s ten or fifty or one hundred potential customers—give you their precious time and leaves disappointed and empty-handed. Their last experience of the day (or maybe of the show) with you is one of failure, of something they hoped would work in their favor and didn’t, of time dedicated to you and a risk taken for you that didn’t pay off. They associate those feelings with your company. And that last impression stays with them a long time—likely all the way home and beyond.
Days or weeks later, you send them a follow-up email and are surprised when they don’t respond to it, or unsubscribe from it. It may be because they only let you scan their badge to enter the drawing, and never had any interest in your company. And it may be because you made their last impression of you one of disappointment, alienating them instead of inspiring them.
Yes, it’s true. Not everyone gushes like Tim Cook and Jony Ive in an Apple keynote at the majesty of everything birthed in Cupertino. Not everyone lives in, visits, or even believes in Apple’s Reality Distortion Field.
The reasons are many and varied. Some people had bad experiences with Apple products. Some work in offices or have home setups that are PC- and/or Android-based and won’t accommodate Apple products. And of course, approximately 63% of Americans work for Microsoft. (Did I mention I don’t like doing research?)
You’re touting Apple products because you want to sprinkle some of Apple’s magic pixie dust on your company, and I absolutely understand that. But keep in mind, not everyone—and that includes not every one of your leads—sees Apple that way. And to those people, affiliating yourself with a company that engenders bad feelings for them is a turn-off.
Sometimes even Apple fans can be disappointed by Apple products. An attendee is delighted to win your iPad—until they discover it has 32 gigabytes of memory instead of 128, which won’t accommodate their music collection, so now what? They’re delighted to win an Apple Watch, until they discover it doesn’t have the band they wanted, so now they have to spend money to “fix” something they expected to be free. They’re delighted to win your iPhone, until they discover it’s a 6 and not a 6S Plus with 3D Touch. (How horribly 2014!)
Now they’ve won and they’re disappointed, and their moment of wondrous gratitude shifts suddenly to annoyance. They may even draw the harsh, unfair conclusion that if you’re not willing to spend on the high-end, high-priced version of your Big Giveaway, maybe your whole company operates at the low end in general.
Which is a perfect segue to my last reason, the biggest of them all…
I can’t guarantee that, of course. Maybe the winner will coincidentally be someone who meets the description in reason 2 above, with the need, budget, urgency and influence to become your customer.
But chances are—and I’ve seen this endlessly—your Big Giveaway Winner, picked at random, won’t become your customer, precisely because you picked them at random. Odds are, the winner will be some other attendee who doesn’t meet your Prime Prospect criteria, who you didn’t come to the show to meet, and who doesn’t establish a beneficial, long-term relationship with you.
In fact, by the next week, don’t be surprised if Big Giveaway Winner doesn’t remember your name. When they tell people they won a Big Giveaway, they’ll reference the show, but not your booth. They’ll remember the show with admiration and gratitude, but not about you.
Or how about this twist: the winner may already be your customer. This just happened to my wife at Educause today as I was writing this; she won a Samsung Galaxy Tab from an exhibitor in a Big Giveaway, and her organization already uses that exhibitor’s products. Might she become a bigger, better customer as a result of winning the prize? Maybe. But she also knows her win was the result of random chance, not vendor gratitude.
It gets worse. Many winners win accidentally, and don’t want or keep their prizes. Think about it: these days, most people who want a gadget either have that gadget or can get it themselves. If someone doesn’t have it, there’s a good chance it’s because they don’t want it. But because most attendees are automatically entered into a booth’s Big Giveaway Drawing when their badge is scanned, those attendees end up competing anyway, and sometimes they win. But instead of keeping your Big Giveaway, they give it to a spouse, colleague, child, friend, or some other gadget-less person in their world.
Or—ready for this?—they sell your Big Giveaway on eBay. And what are the odds the person in whose hands it ultimately lands will become your customer? Somewhere between nada and nil. You just blew half your show marketing budget on a ginormous prize for a stranger who doesn’t know it came from you and will never become your customer.
Case in point: the reason I have an Apple TV is because my wife won it at a show a few years ago. Sure enough, I don’t remember the name or year of the show, and I never knew the name of the company who donated this prized possession to our living room. (Whoever it was, thanks! We love it!)
I hope you’ll take my experience with Apple products under advisement. Your trade show booth, on which you’ve spent so much time, money and sweat, is for you to promote YOU. Your company. Your staffers. Your products. Your services. Your vision. Your results.
Every moment you spend promoting something that isn’t you is a moment you’ve distracted your audience from you, and a precious, expensive marketing moment forever squandered.
This is just as true of other high-profile, cool gadgets. Plenty of booths at Educause this week were giving away GoPro cameras or Surface tablets (including Microsoft itself, who will always do it better than you) and Amazon Echoes (including Amazon itself, and my wife won one! Thanks, Amazon!).
So now, the question becomes: if you’re not using an Apple (or Microsoft, or GoPro, etc.) product for your Big Giveaway, what should you use instead? Or should you do a Big Giveaway at all?
My short answer: do a Big Giveaway and use your own stuff as your prize. Put your products and services in your spotlight and make those the things attendees covet. Give away a product, or a year’s subscription, or product installation, or service training, or expert consulting time. Then give everyone who doesn’t win the big prize a runner-up prize—a smaller product or service of yours—so they know you love them too.
You’ll make everyone feel like a winner. You’ll ensure everyone knows what you do. You’ll get everyone thinking about what it would be like to win your products and services, creating a desire that continues after the show.
You’ll also likely get fewer leads. But your leads will be real, valuable, high-quality leads that are worth the effort it takes to follow up with them. Many will become customers. And ain’t that why you came to the show?