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Frequently Asked Questions:
How do I gather intelligence at trade shows & conferences?

Trade shows are one of the best sources for information on competitors. At trade shows there are the obvious opportunities to collect competitor brochures, as well as free pens and enough candy to keep your dentist busy for another year. However if that is all you collect then you’ve missed a major opportunity to learn more about your competitors. Rather, you should view trade shows as an easy way to update your knowledge about the overall competitive landscape – for example:

  • Who is doing what and when, where, how and why?
  • What new technologies are being offered?
  • How are competitors marketing themselves?
  • Who is going up and who is failing?
  • Who is allying with whom?

And so on.

Before the show

You cannot answer the above questions by just turning up on the day and briskly walking around the show, picking up the freebies. Instead, you need to plan your visit – several weeks in advance. Find out which companies are planning to exhibit. Have these companies exhibited before, or is it their first time?

Trade shows are important as a way of identifying new competitors, so spend some time researching first-timers. Why are they exhibiting? Are they new entrants into the industry, small companies that have grown and wish to grow further, or what? Also look at the repeat exhibitors. Get a copy of the show floor plan. Where are the companies of interest situated – in a prime position, or at the back or sides where visitors spend less time? Has this changed from the previous exhibition? As well as looking at who is attending, consider who is absent? What does this say about their current market position, or marketing emphasis?

In addition to looking at the companies attending the show, look out for associated seminars, product demonstrations or workshops. Many of these will be free to pre-booked visitors – so pre-book those of interest, as soon as possible, so as to guarantee a place.

Think also about your intelligence collection objectives. What do you aim to achieve by visiting the show? What questions can you ask and what should you be looking out for? Find out who else within your organisation plans to attend and co-ordinate with them so that you avoid duplication and maximise your opportunities. Additionally, find out who can’t attend and ask them what they would like to learn at the show. Incorporate all these into your plan for attendance.

During the show

Don’t go alone if possible. Go with other information collectors so you can confer, but visit stands separately. Get together after visiting a stand – and give and get feedback. If you’ve missed something, or if additional questions were raised, one of your colleagues may be able to revisit the stand and ask further questions, supplementing those you asked and so providing more intelligence.

Generally, you will not have access to the exhibition hall until the show actually starts, unless your company is also exhibiting. However you may overhear competitor employees talking about their plans in the delegate hotel prior to the event – so look out for this opportunity. Of course, the same can be done to you, so make sure that your people are briefed on the importance of keeping their eyes open and mouths shut and that they protect your company data.

Aim to arrive when the show starts so that you can get a feel for the layout and atmosphere. Have a look at the competitors and other companies you identified. Who is manning their stands? What does the stand look like? You should also watch for how visitors to the stand are treated and how many visitors they get. What is the morale of the sales agents on the stand – and how senior are they? Watch out for when senior and board level managers visit? How do their staff react? Senior management will often visit on the first day of a multi-day show, especially if they plan to make a press-release or product announcement in parallel with the show – so take advantage and make sure that you are present to observe the company dynamics. Conversely, on the final day of the show you are more likely to get junior staff out to impress. They are less likely to recognise you and your company, so you can visit the stand and ask awkward questions that may get answered. Also visit the competitor while they are showing potential clients their wares. What approach do they use and what do they offer?

Trade show collection ethics

As with all competitive intelligence collection, it is essential to stay ethical. This includes not misrepresenting or lying about who you are. It is not ethical to use a false business card, for example, or pose as a customer. Pretending to be a customer causes other problems too. By posing as a potential customer, you will encourage the sales people on your competitors’ stands to sell to you. The problem is that as a customer you would not be expected to know the intricacies of the competitor’s operation. So, the moment you start asking questions that go outside those typically asked by potential customers an alert sales-person will become suspicious. You have now lost the initiative and are less likely to get the answers you might have gathered had you been more open. It could get worse – if they work out your real identity then you will be giving your company a reputation for underhand practices. This is not unrealistic in the closed world of many industries, as people get information via the grapevine – one of your company’s ex-employees could be working for the competitor and recognise your name, for example.

Even if one of your objectives is to find out competitor sales tactics, the false business card strategy is poor. Trade shows are artificial environments and sales people are likely to behave differently from normal. Furthermore, they will often want to follow-up after the show. How will they do this, if your details are false? An alternative approach is to observe how the competitor sales people respond to genuine prospects. Listen in – and join any product demonstrations, where feasible. This way, you can learn pretty much the same information, without misrepresenting yourself.

In fact, being open and honest can sometimes even lead to more information, rather than less. Sales people love boasting about how much better they are than the competitor – so knowing that you are linked to the competitor just encourages this boasting. It then becomes easy to get the sales agent to talk too much, divulging all sorts of details that would never be given to a regular customer.

After the show

Just because the show is over does not mean that your job is. You need to write a report on what was learned, passing on the relevant intelligence to those who need it. Confer with the other attendees. Are your experiences paralleled by theirs, or are they different? If so, why? Combine the knowledge gained and ensure that it is used to build up your overall competitive knowledge, so that all who need the intelligence have access to it.

Final comments

The above is necessarily brief – trade show intelligence is an essential part of the CI process and there is a lot more that can and should be done. In summary, however, remember the following:

  1. In the same way that you are collecting intelligence on your competitors, your competitors will be looking for information on you. So protect it!
  2. Attending a show without pre-planning virtually guarantees that you will fail to find out all that was available.
  3. Consider your key intelligence needs prior to attending. Then think of how and what could be obtained at the trade show that would contribute answers to these needs. Make collecting this information a priority.
  4. Following the show, make sure that intelligence gathered is communicated and used to aid your company strategies.

Note: This FAQ is based on articles originally published in the Strategic & Competitive Intelligence Professional‘s membership magazine (Competitive Intelligence Magazine – Jan-Feb 2004 and Competitive Intelligence Magazine – Mar-Apr 2004)