Using Trade Shows for Competitive Intelligence

Graphic © Digital Juice

Graphic © Digital Juice

Trade shows are not just about exhibiting and getting the word out about your company. They’re also a great way to learn about your competitors.

So why would you want to conduct some type of competitive intelligence gathering at shows? First of all, you can often gain information that wouldn’t otherwise be accessible to you. There’s also the opportunity to see your competitors in action with their clients and prospects, and to discover some of their marketing strategies. You can learn about their upcoming products, services or technologies, as well as any changes in pricing or distribution. And of course you can see how effective their booth is at marketing to the target audience.

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But just how do you go about gaining this information without your competitors being aware of what you’re learning? Sometimes it’s as simple as listening. You can often pick up great gems from casual conversations, either on the show floor, or at related events (even in restaurants away from the convention center). Be tuned into the “buzz” from attendees and other exhibitors.

Another strategy is to sit in on any educational sessions presented by your competition. Often they will use this as a platform to drop hints about upcoming plans.

You may also want to have a “mystery shopper” (either contracted or from your own company, but non-booth staff) check out their booth and ask some leading questions, such as “What makes your product unique?” or “Who is your typical customer?” Evaluate not only their answer, but also their behavior and how they answer the question. (Be careful not to mention your own company, but see if they bash any of their own competitors.) Check out the elements of their booth — display, messaging, staff, etc. — what kind of image are they presenting, and do they measure up to their marketing? What giveaways or incentives are they using? How busy is the booth?

A few words of caution: 

  • Always be ethical in your information gathering. Don’t pretend to be someone you’re not. If they ask you direct questions, don’t lie. (This is why it’s often a good idea to send in a contracted “mystery shopper,” so that there are no personal ties to your company.)
  • And just as you’re conducting competitive intelligence, know that your competitors are likely checking you out too. Be on guard against sharing too much information, either on the show floor or off. Know how to answer questions that prospects ask without giving away protected information.

Want more tips on how to strategically gather competitive intelligence at shows? We’ll be focusing on this topic in May’s Advanced Strategy of the Month in the Exhibit Marketers Café.

© 2007-2015 Marlys K. Arnold (from the April 2015 TradeShowTips Online. To receive tips like this in your inbox every month, please take a moment to fill out this request.)

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With experiences as both an exhibitor and a show organizer, Marlys Arnold has a unique perspective on trade show exhibiting. As an exhibit marketing strategist, she travels the country consulting and training on how to create experiential exhibits that produce significantly higher numbers of qualified leads. She’s led workshops for events ranging from local consumer expos to some of the largest trade shows in the U.S. She hosts the Trade Show Insights blog/podcast, and is the author of Build a Better Trade Show Image, the Exhibitor Education Manifesto, and the ExhibitorEd Success System. Exhibit Design That Works (the first book in the YES: Your Exhibit Success series) debuted in July 2017. She’s also the founder of the Exhibit Marketers Café, an online education community.

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