by Susan Warren, Chief Business Development Officer

Like all exhibitors, you want to capture leads at your trade show booth: badge scans, a jar for business cards, hastily scrawled contact information on the nearest piece of paper. All have the potential to deliver a quality lead, and you have every intention of following up. But then, you know, something always comes up. And that means a wasted opportunity to grow your business.

Over the course of a dayslong trade show, you’re likely to end up with an overwhelming number of leads, and the last thing you want is for a promising one to fall through the cracks. That’s why it’s important to have a plan of action in place before the show even starts!

By taking a little time in advance, you and your sales team can develop a plan that ensures leads receive the attention they deserve … and you can take them from product or solution awareness to the buying stage.

To ensure your efforts are both timely and worthwhile, follow these five steps to create and execute a formal plan for qualifying, organizing, and nurturing the leads you gather at a trade show.

  1. Define How You Will Grade and Sort Sales Leads

At every big trade show, most booth staffers feel pressure to bring home more sales leads than they did the year before. After all, some companies measure the value of the show by the number of leads they get. But not all leads are created equal. With potentially hundreds of leads in your pocket after the show, how do you separate the “tire-kickers” from the true prospects? It’s this dilemma that makes defining and sorting leads so important.

While many of the leads you gather at the show will be little more than a name and email address, others might be more detailed. You might know the contact’s specific interests, the person with whom he or she spoke, and the level of interest he or she expressed. (In one way or another, the prospect also should have indicated a willingness for further communication.)

Hot leads — those booth visitors who specifically requested post-show follow-up — deserve a category of their own. Route them into a high-priority queue for immediate and personalized contact. Sort the remainder into categories — sometimes defined by customer personas — for automated email communications, educational downloads, and other material that might spark their interest or simply foster continued engagement.

During the qualification process, you should scrub your prospects’ contact data to eliminate duplicate scans, identify any contacts already in the sales team’s database, and highlight any missing details that might hamper follow-up efforts.

  1. Create Your Follow-up Message Template

After the show, your first step always should be to thank prospects for visiting your booth, ideally with some details that remind them who you are and why they stopped by. That’s something you can plan for — at least in part — before the show. Draft a message template now, then add the finishing touches and personal details when you get back. Identify the show by name in the subject line and in the first paragraph of your email. A photo of the booth itself, busy with enthusiastic visitors, might be a good visual to help you connect with a prospect. Even better is a photo of that person at your booth! (Side note: Taking photos at the booth is something you should work into your show plan).

  1. Decide on Options for Engagement

When you do get in touch, you’ll want to make a specific call to action, so think now about how you will engage prospects after the show. Rather than write “To learn more …” or “For more information …” give prospects specific, tangible options for engaging with your company. Encourage them to download a free white paper, request a customized demo, or point them toward a brief video overview of a product, solution, or use case. Be sure to vary both the content and the type of media you use to engage with your prospects. Any response, such as a white paper download or a demo request, likely signals a prospect who would welcome further interaction — and should be moved up the priority list accordingly.

  1. Track Your Relationships

Track your interactions with prospects and record those activities in your CRM software. If a prospect downloads an infographic or reads a white paper, take note! If prospects click through to a video or landing page, update their entries to reflect these actions. As you continue to engage them with compelling content related to your industry, business, and products, you’ll find that the thought and care you put into your campaign will pay off in building relationships, and ultimately, business deals.

  1. Take Advantage of Marketing Automation

If you really want to move the needle and get consistent results, then it’s much easier and more efficient to implement a long-term lead-nurturing program using marketing and sales automation tools, such as Infusionsoft, Marketo, or HubSpot CRM. If you want to take care of all of the above steps in one place, automatically follow up on your leads, take advantage of lead scoring, track stats, and see trends, then marketing automation tools can be your best friend. You can set it up in advance of the show.

Here’s how a postshow campaign might work: Create the initial reply and include a download. Then you can arrange a tiered follow-up campaign. Tier 1 – for those who downloaded the information and requested follow up. Tier 2 – for those who downloaded but did not request follow up. And Tier 3 – for those who didn’t download. The beauty of this approach is that everyone gets an appropriate response, while you save time over the manual process.

For reference, download a handy one-page summary of this blog here.