What’s New In Food? Virtual Tradeshows

By Kevin Wilson

Rethinking customer and prospect engagement in a COVID-19 world

For years, food, beverage and equipment manufacturers have relied on tradeshows, conferences and events as key opportunities to connect with customers and prospects. But with the ongoing challenges created by COVID-19, those opportunities are either lost or have completely changed. 

Many industry events have been canceled, leaving marketers and sales teams with the daunting task of coming up with new, engaging ways to connect with their target audiences.

Virtual tradeshows may be an option, but these events are largely uncharted territory for most brands. ROI is unclear at best and participation requires a pivot in show strategy and marketing tactics.

The shows that have committed to moving forward with a live event may have done so with new rules in place, such as eliminating sampling. For those companies that rely on sampling, these shows leave brand teams with more questions than answers, as well as a reluctance to participate.

So how should your brand navigate all of the uncertainty? What opportunities should you invest in? And what are the right strategies and executions you should consider? Let’s examine three possible scenarios and ways to maximize your time and investment.

Your event was canceled. Now what?

1. Host virtual demos

Invite customers and prospects to a live virtual demonstration of your products’ key features and benefits. Show how your products address the needs of today’s foodservice operators in terms of versatility, convenience and safety. Make it fun and engaging. Offer incentives or discounts to gain attendance. Consider private events for a personalized experience or social media events for broad awareness.

Insider tips on virtual demos

  • Choose an engaging host and interesting/relatable environment
  • Write a script and be prepared to answer tough questions
  • Practice, practice, practice
2. Streamline product sampling

Develop a sampling program that makes it easy to explore your products in your customers’ and prospects’ own kitchens. Go beyond just delivering the products and create an experience that drives brand loyalty. Create custom shipping boxes, develop an unboxing video from your corporate chef, add tips sheets and recipes, and offer discounts on a future purchase.

Insider tips on product sampling

  • This is a tangible touchpoint for your brand – make it shine!
  • Follow up with recipients to ensure a positive experience
  • Have an actionable next step for your audience
3. Nurture leads with an engaging online experience

At a time when in-person selling is limited or not possible, your online experience has to work that much harder for your brand. Be sure your website is easy to navigate and offers a clear point of difference. Include product specific landing pages with lead generation forms. Nurture leads with actionable content that proves your thought-leadership and amplifies your brand story. Implement marketing automation tools to feed your audience’s appetite for solutions that address their biggest business challenges.

Insider tips on online experiences

  • Every page should have an action that keeps audiences engaged
  • Never underestimate the power of original content
  • Maximize the effectiveness of your marketing automation tools by partnering with an expert

Your event has gone virtual. Now what?

1. Showcase products with high-quality videos

If there’s one area of your virtual tradeshow marketing budget you should not skimp on, it’s video. Video is a window into the quality of your brand, products and customer service. Typically video has one of the highest completion rates of all marketing tactics, which means video can be the most engaging content you have in your virtual exhibit. Videos don’t have to be expensive to be great, but the quality of your video should capture the integrity of your brand and products.

Insider tips on video

  • Get to the point in 60 seconds or less
  • Make it personal to your target audience
  • Be informative, but avoid boring
2. Train your sales team for live chats

The live chat function offered through many tradeshow hosts in a key engagement tool for sales teams. Chats offer a great opportunity to interact with customers and potential customers is real time. But, unlike face-to-face meetings where body language and visual cues steer a conversation, live chats rely on interpreting intent in a one dimensional way. It takes training to understand the subtle nuances of the written conversation. Plus, the ability to type and react quickly to questions, before a visitor skips off the page, is critically important.

Insider tips on live chats

  • Engage quickly and be responsive
  • Keep it conversational, but get to the point
  • Have pre-written scripts and anticipate questions
3. High-quality downloadable materials

Just like a live tradeshow event, virtual shows offer an opportunity for attendees to collect information on products and brands. Your downloadable materials will make a lasting impression well after the show, so it should be rich in valuable content to ensure attendees revisit it. These materials should highlight why your product or service fits an operator’s needs at this particular point in time. Make the materials as dynamic and interactive as possible. And leverage your industry data to make your materials a resource for operators to refer to again and again, keeping your brand top of mind.

Insider tips on downloadable materials

  • Product spec sheets won’t cut it – be creative and informative
  • Highlight trends impacting the industry
  • Show how your products create solutions or opportunities

Your event is live, but sampling is prohibited. Now what?

1. Offer individually wrapped samples for post-show trial

If your products are shelf stable, or if you can find a co-packer to create short-run individually wrapped sample packs, this option can be fruitful for extending sampling beyond the showroom floor in the short term. But for other manufacturers that primarily make frozen foods, a post-show sampling program makes sense.

Insider tips for sample packs

  • Package every sample with cooking or serving instructions
  • Highlight features and benefits
  • Include a URL to a landing page to learn more
2. Follow up on leads promptly and consistently

Without the advantage of at-show sampling, post-show follow up is key to nurturing potential leads. Immediately following the show, contact leads to schedule a demo or sampling opportunity. Include incentives or limited time offers to encourage trial. Develop a nurturing drip campaign, highlighting benefits of your products and services.

Insider tips for post-show follow up

  • Follow up promptly
  • Be consistent with messaging
  • Make every interaction actionable
3. Leverage the power of influencers

If you’re restricted from offering product samples at the show, then find some current customers who are willing to vouch for the taste and quality of your product on your brand’s behalf. Peer-to-peer endorsements hold a lot of credibility in the eyes of today’s buyers. Whether you invite an influencer to the show or promote their image in your graphics, an influencer will help drive traffic to your booth and increase a positive perception of your brand.

Insider tips for leveraging influencers

  • Influencers should have a significant following in their respective foodservice segment
  • Cross-promote on the influencer’s social channels as well as your brand’s
  • Drive interest and traffic with live talks during the show

Not sure which opportunities are right for your business? Talk to Kevin Wilson, CEO of Esrock Partners at kwilson@esrock.com

Kevin Wilson

About the author
Kevin Wilson is CEO of Esrock Partners, a foodservice marketing agency located near Chicago, Illinois.


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