Doug Roberts is the CEO and founder of the Institute for Education Innovation and creator of the Supes’ Choice Awards for edtech companies.
For many edtech entrepreneurs, snagging an exhibit booth at a tradeshow convention seems like a no-brainer to build buzz.
Over just two or three days, you get your products in front of an endless parade of potential buyers, talk one-on-one with high-level decision makers and generate profitable leads. The thousands of marketing dollars you drop on a booth are nothing compared to the millions you could potentially bring in.
That’s the hope, at least. Instead, I think more common is that your booth is lost in the black hole of the exhibit hall, and attendees are often more interested in your promotional items than your pitch; you’re surviving on cold coffee and dry hotel pastries to get through the long hours ahead.
As someone who has attended countless edtech conventions and leads events for a national superintendent think tank, my expert advice for startups considering an expensive trade show booth is simple. Find alternatives.
Think beyond the booth and outside the box.
When your budget is tight, and your sales team is small, you need to maximize every dollar spent on marketing during your company’s growth phase. And regardless of what some edtech trade show promoters tell you, exhibit booths don’t always deliver the return on investment you expect, even with a solid game plan behind it.
From my experience, there are three essential tactics your startup should direct your resources toward instead.
1. Focus less on promotion and more on collaboration.
For many industries, such as manufacturing, trade show booths are ideal for a new product launch. That new piece of machinery introduced in the exhibit hall may come with different options to meet various price points, but essentially, companies, both big and small, benefit from the same technology.
The edtech industry is unique in the fact that entrepreneurs have to tailor learning solutions to the specific needs of school districts that vary in terms of size, demographics and budget. Standard digital platforms were fine to curb learning loss during the pandemic, but today’s education leaders are searching for more robust, bespoke solutions.
Decision makers don’t want to be pitched to—they want a voice in the development stage of your product to ensure their students are equipped with the best tools for their success. If you’re waiting until your launch to speak with superintendents, you’re too late.
Rather than spend thousands of dollars on an extravagant booth display, I encourage you to embrace emerging trends that deliver a higher return on investment through collaboration outside of the convention hall.
For instance, I’ve found that small group sessions—in which educators, entrepreneurs and thought leaders articulate their challenges and land on solutions together—can transform digital products into powerful learning platforms that can disrupt the status quo and dominate the edtech market.
In addition, shift your efforts from a single national trade show to multiple regional industry events or summits that offer educational panels and interactive discussions, which are more intimate and encourage audience engagement.
2. Instead of building a booth, construct authentic human connections.
In interviews with several event organizations regarding the state of the industry, Corporate Event News reported that since the pandemic, networking has edged out exhibits as the top reason to attend a trade show, especially among millennials and Gen-Z. It’s easy to understand why; booths are a literal barrier between a vendor and a customer, allowing for little more than a superficial five-minute conversation.
At superintendent leadership summits and workshops, networking can expand beyond traditional happy hours to include a variety of casual outings and wellness activities that appeal to attendees’ interests. In addition, some of these educational leadership summits and workshops can provide an opportunity for edtech solution providers and administrators to connect at an offsite dinner.
These shared experiences allow startups to ignite deeper, more meaningful conversations around a customer’s needs and foster long-term professional relationships. Students benefit as well because both parties are focused on a common social mission: to create opportunities that boost learning and classroom engagement.
3. Stand out from the in-crowd.
I believe trade show booths do have their place, particularly for established companies that want to boost their brand and show their appreciation for their customers. They have the capital to invest in all the bells and whistles that capture attendees’ attention.
However, the pressure to have a presence in the exhibit hall can drive startups to make decisions based on emotions rather than strategy. Unfortunately, if a startup does allocate a large portion of its budget to trade show marketing, it can get lost in the crowd. In fact, 27% of marketers say their booths are often overshadowed by bigger players at major conventions.
Even when metrics don’t align with the investment, many startups continue to insist on traditional trade show marketing for the same reason: “If I don’t have a booth, my company will be conspicuous by its absence.”
I’m here to tell you that for companies in growth mode, that’s not the case. Edtech decision makers rarely shop for vendors from a lineup of exhibit booths. In fact, across different industries, only 6% of trade show exhibits are confident in their ability to convert leads into sales.
A prospect will likely not recall if you had a booth or not, but they will remember the person who dedicated the time to ask them thoughtful questions about their district and students, understand their obstacles and integrate their feedback into edtech solutions that lead to student success.
As with every other aspect of the education industry, business owners are rethinking how to address today’s evolving challenges. We can finally admit to ourselves that the traditional trade show model doesn’t always work for edtech startups, especially when compared to the opportunities when professional organizations create communities and introduce new spaces that spark innovation and collaboration that improves education.
By thinking smaller and smarter, entrepreneurs can lead new opportunities that are beneficial for their companies, district leaders and today’s students.
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