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Trade Show Booth Design 101

CES 2015 is around the corner. And it’s just one of the many trade shows that can help you launch your hardware company.

Having been part of hundreds of hardware events these last years, both as exhibitor and attendee. I’ve seen a lot of good and bad practices and wanted to share a few ideas and recommendations with you. If your hardware project is in a very early-stage, it should not stop you from exhibiting at trade shows.

You need to design your booth

Many young companies going to trade shows make the mistake of not really paying attention to booth design.

A table and a chair have been provided by the event. They just put their product on the table, maybe with a few business card or a piece of paper vaguely presenting their idea. And that’s it.

You might think it makes sense to focus only on your product and not loose time embellishing a temporary booth. That your product will talk for himself, and people attending the event are here because they want to discover exposed products so being shiny doesn’t add anything.

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As you can guess, it’s just not true. A booth with a clear brand and message makes a huge difference. Not only you will have more people stopping by, but they will also remember you in the long run, and will even recommend you more to other attendees.

DODOcase mobile event booth. Image: MakingSociety CC BY-SA

DODOcase mobile event booth. Image: MakingSociety CC BY-SA

Also, think about it. What’s the point of spending all this time, money and energy to participate to an event and then not even give a chance to your product to be seen in good conditions? From the application process to driving to the event to taking on your time to be there, having a dead-looking booth is not making yourself any favor.

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You don’t need to create an insanely decorate booth to be noticed (it sometimes even counter-productive to do too much), but you do need some kind of scenery. A clean branding and a clear message are what matters. It’s not about decoration, it’s about your vision.

4 Key Elements of Booth Design

Effective event booths usually contain 4 basic elements:

  • your products: the heart of your booth! You should have at least 3 demo samples on the table. And a few packaged versions as well.
  • your company name: it should take less than 5 seconds to find the name of your company when looking at the booth.
  • what your company does: same, the problem you’re trying to solve should be stated very clearly
  • your contact information

Every thing else is extra. Goodies are not necessary.

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A part of Ultimaker booth at Maker Faire Rome 2014. Image: MakingSociety CC BY-SA

You’d be surprised by how few companies actually properly show these 4 key elements. Most of the time, you’ll find the company’s name only if you look at the table, have no idea what company actually does without asking questions. Products are not really available for touching.

If your product makes things: show demo of the results. Show 3D prints made by your 3D printer, a robot made with your micro controller, a toy made with your building blocks…

What’s a good booth?

A good event booth is a booth that makes people stop by, understand what you do just by looking at it and makes them want to interact (touch, talk and ask questions).

A booth is a social place. It’s like having an open bar but what you serve is demo, info and thoughts. People should feel invited to come over and stay for a fun and informative chat.

A good booth is also a pragmatic one. You’re not in a museum but in a public event. Things on the table will be touched, moved, broken. Sometimes stolen. There might be crowded times where people behind won’t be able to come all the way to the table, and empty times where the booth next door will get all the attention. There will be this one visitor who stays too long and makes people wait and leave without answers.

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Modibot parts in multiple boxes on their booth at Hardware Innovation Workshop 2013. Image: MakingSociety CC BY-SA

A solid event booth is one that adapts to these multiple situations, using a few simple good practices:

  • avoid small things. They get messy, they get stolen. If you need to show small things, gather them in a box to make it easy to take them out and back.
  • have plenty of products samples available. Not just one sample, but 3 or 5. Visitors will play with them while waiting to get answers. More people will also have a chance to understand what you do.
  • print a big poster clearly showing your company name and website and describing in a few words what you do. Don’t go crazy on small characters or advanced story-telling, you still want people to stop by and talk to you, not stay on the side reading a fiction novel.
  • show off visually exciting examples. Good event booths are a lot about visuals. Showing a huge product, a strange-looking illustration or a moving robot will definitively make people stop by.

Automate your booth design

A good practice that will make your life easier is to design your event booth beforehand, independently of events you’re planning to attend.

Automating your booth design will simplify your life as you will have an efficient and great-looking booth ready to be set up in a few minutes. Having a company booth ready will also make it easier for you to say yes at to last-minute opportunities.

Not all events are the same of course, so best is to think of your booth as a group of elements that can be moved and adjusted on-demand. Because events get often messy, it’s also good to create elements that can be build easily.

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In addition of bringing yourself and your products, here is the basic checklist:

  • banner
  • stands
  • stickers
  • business cards
  • pens and paper

A bit more detail about each:

  • a big banner, wall staples and a wall stapler or a kakemono

Put in the back with your company name and description, including logo, name in full letters if the logo is not very easy to read and website. Format may vary depending on the event.

Stanley TR45K stapler gun is a good choice (Kit available on Amazon for $9.50 including 1000 staples and storage case).

If you only want to print one, pick the kakemono format. It’s a roller banner that you can easily transport and set up everywhere. Printed on fabric or plastic, it’s a robust and convenient banner.

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Woelab booth at FAB10, using a bright red kakemono. Image: MakingSociety CC BY-SA

  • product stands

Put your products on them to make them visible. Cardboard boxes with branded stickers make great low-cost stands, easy to build, transport and replace.

  • large stickers

They come in handy for all kind of situations. Put them on your cardboard boxes, on the table.

  • business cards

If you don’t have business cards yet, try out moo.com for original custom designs, or get it printed locally (usually cheaper).

  • pens and paper for visitors who want to get your updates

Optional:

  • flyers with information about your company and contact information
  • goodies: badges, small stickers or something else. A good place for making custom branded goodies is Zazzle.com

Don’t place your product behind glass or acrylic boxes. Glass gets dirty very fast and doesn’t render well in pictures. It also makes people unable to really have a feel for your product. Wood and cardboard are usually a better choice.

Your Booth Attitude

Help people feel comfortable

You might think you’re the one in the spotlights, but put yourself in visitors’ shoes. Most people are not that comfortable coming over and talking with a stranger. Your role at the booth is to make the experience as smooth and enjoyable as possible for your visitor.

Good attitude is to stand, smile and be yourself. There is nothing more boring than a robot-like salesman pitching you a product in the face. Each visitor should be treated like a human. You’re meeting someone new, it’s special.

Bare Conductive. Photo: MakingSociety.com - CC BY 4.0

Bare Conductive friendly team at Maker Faire. Photo: MakingSociety.com – CC BY 4.0

 

Don’t hesitate to move around and not stay stuck behind your table all day.

Being friendly and respectful will makes your whole trade show experience much more interesting and enjoyable. And it will have an enormous impact on creating actual opportunities and long-term relationships between you and attendees.

It’s good idea to wear a sign of recognition to make it easy to people to identify that you work at the company. Again, visitors should only have questions about your product, not about how to find you. Branded tee-shirts are a classic (not a big fan of being a moving ad though…) but you can be more imaginative. A blinky accessory or hat can be a great conversation starter.

Share your Ideas

Yes, trade shows are all about meeting and connecting with people. But pretty quickly, you’ll see that everyone has the exact same questions about your product. It gets easily boring.

Classic ones are usually:

  • what is it?
  • how does it work?
  • where are you based at?
  • how much does it cost?
  • where can i find it?

Visitors’ questions are usually focused on the product they see and its immediate use. These are good information to exchange, but won’t make a potential customer or partner drool of desire and dreams.

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Your job is to show the bigger picture. Put your product in a larger context than just this cold trade show. Your goal is that people leave your booth with stars in their eyes, thinking: “WOW, I just saw the future and I can’t wait!”

It’s not as hard as it sounds. Think about yourself. You’re working hard on this product for a reason: you think it’s a cool/new/useful product. Exhibiting at a trade show is a dream opportunity to share your belief and ideas about your product and the world in general. So, let go of what you think should be your sales pitch, and simply share your ideas and dreams with this special person who came to visit your booth.

It will make people interested, react and connect.

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Obviously, don’t go too crazy neither. You’re not Jesus.

Prepare your content

If you’re not naturally overly social and talkative, it’s a good idea to prepare what you want to say. Before the event, write down:

  • how you describe your product,
  • how your product is a great solution to a problem
  • a story about how you started the project
  • a series of examples on how to use it
  • a series of stories of consumers or potential consumers and how they use it
  • what would be an ideal world where your product would be widely used by your target market

Preparation is the best antidote to blank brain.

Have a goal

It’s also good to have a few clear goals in mind before to show up at the event. Once there, it’s hard to think straight and remember your priorities when you’re surrounded by people asking questions.

Pick 2 goals and make them happen:

  • find direct customers
  • get customers’ feedback
  • get media coverage
  • meet partners
  • connect with your network

A goal is an action towards a specific result. For example, “launching a product” is not a goal, it’s a mean to find customers or get media coverage.

Some events are good for media coverage or partnerships (CES for example), others are good for customers and feedback (typically Maker Faire).

sculpteo-tradeshow-booth-design

Sculpteo in the spotlights at CES 2013. Image: MakingSociety CC BY-SA

Adapt to your visitors

Having a goal doesn’t mean you will only talk with a selective few, but more that you will keep in mind to grab opportunities when they arrive. If you see a journalist walking by your booth and you’re looking for media exposure, make friends. If you see someone working at a company you want to collaborate with, make sure to connect.

Adapt to your audience.

Journalists: they usually don’t have time and are very bored of being overly pitched all day.

They like good appealing stories and a product idea that is easy to explain and share. Don’t be too generic but focus on a specific story.

For example, don’t say that you made “a 3D printer that lets people print anything they want at home”, but rather a real story about how your 3D printer saved a kid in your neighborhood by repairing a stop light.

Also, a journalist at Forbes doesn’t look for the same info than a journalist at Make Magazine. Have a bunch of stories available, like for example one about business and one about consumers.

Don’t give a press kit, but follow up after the event with a quick reminder about who you are.

Business persons: they look for potential partners and will over promise most of the time.

First contact is important but really it’s all about the follow-up. During the event, have a honest direct discussion about what your company does and how you could see a potential partnership could be beneficial. Exchange contact information. Think about it after the event if it still makes sense, go for it.

Potential consumers: they will say they love your product.

For many makers, events are a first market study. They are great opportunities to ask potential customers what they think of the product and what would be the price point. It’s true, but remember that many people don’t like to say negative things on face-to-face. Most of the time, you will mainly hear positive feedback.

A good idea is to have a piece of paper with a pen where people can sign up to your newsletter. It will give you a better idea of how many people are actually interested, and you will be able to send them your questions and get honest anonymous answers.

 

Happy event preparation!

Do you have other recommendations? Share your experience in the comments below.

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