Don’t plan your next trade show without these nonprofit ROI boosters

Most nonprofits don’t have a product to sell or a service to market—so why bother setting up shop at an industry trade show?

There’s a strong misconception in the industry that trade shows aren’t “worth it” for nonprofits.

However, conventions can be an incredible way to boost your brand reputation, grow your audience, and connect with supporters.

Start planning yesterday.

Appearance planning should start up to a year in advance. Choose your conventions based on what makes sense for your organization.

If you’re a nonprofit supporting budding game designers, for example, it makes sense to set up a booth at one of the major games conventions, like PAX West or Gen Con. However, you might not get the same benefits at a niche show like Toy Fair.

Depending on the size and location of the show, planning should start up to a year in advance. (Photo Credit: Horizon Downing)

Grow your audience.

The best ROI for audience growth is to collect contact information. However, many convention attendees’ cluttered inboxes make them hesitate to sign up for anything without getting something in return.

The standard growth tactics work well here: collectibles, swag, and other freebies. You can take this one step further with a creativity boost.

In one of my convention appearances, my team raffled off a high-value gift box full of products related to our organization’s mission. To enter the raffle, convention attendees signed up for our mailing list, left a phone number, or followed us on social media.

By the end of the weekend, one lucky winner went home with the full box, and we went home with more than four hundred new names on our mailing list!

Amplify your message.

One of the best ways to spread your message is through appearances in panels, workshops, and seminars. Most conventions and trade shows accept panel applications three months or more in advance of the actual event, so start planning for your appearances when you first apply for your booth or table.

If your panel or workshop gets accepted, plan your discussion topics, invite participants from other companies, and blast the date and time to all of your contacts as soon as the schedule is released.

Sponsorships are another way to put your company in front of hundreds of eyes at once, although they can often be costly. If you choose to sponsor an event at a trade show—such as a networking dinner, a catered lunch, or an attendee grab bag—make sure your contact information is included.

Build your network.

Mingling with other professionals at after-hours events is an excellent way to get your organization’s name out there. More importantly, however, these events help your nonprofit team get a better sense of major players within the industry.

Many trade shows send out a press list of confirmed media contacts in the weeks leading up to an event. Schedule interviews for your company reps with journalists or outlets that are sympathetic to your cause.

Most media contacts won’t turn into confirmed hits for weeks or months after the event, but they help journalists put faces to names and get a more personal sense of your organization’s mission.

Make your mark with brand awareness boosters.

During a trade show, one of the biggest difficulties any company faces—for-profit and nonprofit alike—is how to stand out in a crowd. I’m a huge fan of wild ideas that get people talking: things like flash mobs, scavenger hunts, and influencer partnerships.

A PR company I worked with planned a “Passport Program” for a trade show appearance. Attendees could collect stamps and stickers in a paper booklet by visiting all nine of our clients’ booths, then turn in completed “passports” for a chance to win a major prize. While we didn’t require contact information as a barrier to entry, the Passport Program convinced many attendees to visit all of our clients’ booths, when they had maybe only intended to visit one or two.

This led to connections on both ends: two of our smaller clients ended up with placements in major news sources, while our larger clients benefited from group tours that visited all of the booths at once.

Plus, a few attendees loved our Passport Program so much that they applied to volunteer with us at the next convention!

When the show ends, the work doesn’t stop.

It’s easy to fall prey to exhaustion (and “convention crud”) after a trade show. However, just because the exhibition hall is closed doesn’t mean you’ve lost your chance to build on ROI.

After the convention, follow up with everyone who stopped by the booth and left their contact information. Send “thank you” notes to your email distribution list, plan follow-up phone calls with media contacts, and connect with people who followed you on social media.

The most important thing is to keep the conversation open.

As your brand awareness grows and your convention appearances become a familiar tradition, your nonprofit will benefit from convention connections.

Management consultant and brand strategist for small teams. Fan of dark tea, thick books, peace, and unity.

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