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Are Trade Shows Good Marketing Tools for Law Firms?

As I write this, annual conference season is in full swing. Lawyers, hastily arranging their speaking notes, are wondering how they got involved in the first place. Marketing departments are finding out at the last minute that the conference hosts need the firm’s logo, the lawyer needs a PowerPoint presentation, and the booth at the accompanying trade show needs staffing. Wait, what booth? Trade show? Nobody told us…. 

Yes, that’s how it usually goes down. It shouldn’t be any surprise, therefore, that both lawyers and marketers feel cynical about the value of trade shows in the marketing mix. Like everything else in the helter-skelter world of law firm marketing, it doesn’t have to be this way. Proactive choice trumps reactive scurrying every time. If there’s a must-attend conference/trade show in your major client industry, make your participation part of your annual marketing plan and use every opportunity it offers to connect with clients, prospects and referral sources.

Should some practice areas NEVER take part in trade shows? Well, let’s think. Litigation? There’s always a forensic conference/show attended by professionals who are in an ideal position to refer work to litigators. Personal injury? There are plenty of conferences put on by patient groups and health care professionals who advise patients. Insurance defence? The insurance industry loves conferences and trade shows. No matter what the practice area, there’s a relevant conference. The important thing is to choose the right one.

Choice of Conference/Show

Organizers of annual conferences can be very persuasive: “Our conference is at Florida’s best golf resort in February!” But reacting to a sales pitch is the worst way to choose any marketing initiative. Instead, know who gives you work and go where those people are. Make a careful, proactive choice among options that will put you with the most relevant people for your practice area.

If you have a marketing department, tell them what you want to achieve and let them research options. Also, let them negotiate the trade show package: as I said in my column about sponsorships, you wouldn’t dream of letting your marketing folks draft a factum, so you shouldn’t try to negotiate trade show space.

In an ideal world (far from the world of most law firm marketing!) a law firm, practice group or sole practitioner should have an annual marketing plan that includes speaking, writing, and attending conferences, all aimed at developing reputation and referrals. At the apex of this ideal, all of those options get rolled into one: you obtain a speaking opportunity at an annual conference where the organizers will publish your presentation after the event and where you get exhibit space at the accompanying trade show, attended by industry participants. Oh yes, and you’re the only law firm in attendance. (OK, that’s not likely, so gauge the competition: will you be conspicuous by your absence or lost in the shuffle?)

Go Big or Go Home

Once you’re committed to a particular conference/show, negotiate hard but don’t skimp on resources. Send as many lawyers as can spare the time away from the office; don’t just send the speaker. Have them staff the booth, work the room at functions, and tour the exhibit hall to meet other exhibitors.

Did I say staff the booth? With lawyers?? Yes, indeed. Here’s a comment from Micah Buchdahl, a US attorney-turned-marketing-consultant, about a show he recently attended: “I would never embarrass by name the firms that sent the children to represent them (probably first or second year associates) or the ones that sent office administration instead of attorneys, or the group of lawyers sitting toward the back of the booth chatting with each other.”

That rings so true. I once sent two leading lawyers with a delegation from our local business development council to an international conference attended by the crème de la crème of their target market. I had negotiated hard to get the best bang for our marketing buck, created a dynamite marketing piece for the lawyers to hand out, and had briefed them extensively.

On their return, they were both lukewarm, even though they said they would go again (both took their spouses and tacked on a vacation afterwards). I contacted the delegation’s leader at the business development council, who was red-hot: major contacts made, invitations to present to potential clients, existing relationships deepened. Feeling sceptical, I mentioned my lawyers’ lukewarm response. There was a long pause, followed by the tactfully phrased suggestion that next time I should send lawyers who are good at engaging people in conversation, rather than chatting with each other at the back of the booth. I should have sent a seasoned veteran rainmaker, teamed with a hungry up-and-comer eager to make contacts.

Having chosen the show, maximise your contact with attendees before the show. Send them your booth location and invite them to drop by. Contact other exhibitors in fields complementary to yours and see if you can do something reciprocal, like joint presentations at each other’s booths. Think ahead about follow-up: draft a template follow-up response before the event and customise it as needed afterwards.

Booths and Handouts

The booth has to make it clear that you’re a law firm: if your visitors’ first question is “ABC LLP? What’s that?”, your booth has failed the test. The best booths are simple to set up and tear down, have your firm name and practice area(s) as their major graphics, and give you plenty of room to meet people. Booths are costly; keep yours as flexible as possible so you can use it at firm events and student recruitment fairs, to make it earn its keep.

Lawyers will often spend more time discussing what to hand out at a booth than what to discuss with booth visitors. Let’s face it, the big guys ’n’ gals have enough mugs, pens, and T shirts to open their own store. So how do you engage them? If you’re an employment lawyer at an HR conference, hand out a well-branded checklist of things to remember when terminating employees. If you’re at the Canadian Franchise Association conference, hand out your list of 10 things to remember about trade-marks. Buy (or get the publishers to donate) a bunch of magazines that the attendees are interested in (nothing to do with law, just slap a ‘Compliments of…’ sticker on them), stand in the aisle facing oncoming traffic, and hand them out. Or offer your well-branded, generously-sized, reusable bag for all the crap they’ve collected from everyone else and have them walk around the exhibit hall advertising your firm! Get into conversation with the recipients of your largesse (read their nametags first).

Return on Investment 

If you’ve chosen the conference and resourced your attendees properly, ROI is now up to you. We’ve all heard the argument “Oh, we went to that a few years ago, spent a bundle and didn’t get a single file from it.” They forget the guy in the neighbouring booth who introduced them to his client, who introduced them to their supplier, who had a problem, which resulted in a piece of work two years later, which paid for the booth twice over. Oh yes, and Booth Neighbour has since become one of the firm’s best referral sources.

These same naysayers are the ones who dump the business cards they collected in a corner of their office, only to throw them out at the end of the year without looking at them!

If you return from a conference/trade show with only a list of 1,000 attendee names and no contact information (and no permission to contact: remember anti-spam legislation), that’s nothing. The business cards (with notes) of people you spoke to, now that’s something—IF they go into the firm database, and IF someone follows up with those people.

Does all this sound like a lot of work? It is. I’ve never been as tired as at the end of a good trade show. But I’ve never been as galvanized either: if you’ve chosen the right show, it’s like attending the equivalent of a dozen well-attended cocktail parties in one day—without the hangover.

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