Getting Demonstrative at Trade Shows

The fine, upstanding, big-brained individuals at Pragmatic Marketing posed the question as part of their ginormous BlogFest:

Why demo at trade shows?

So the Cranky Product Manager answers, in her usual, long-winded fashion…

The main reason B2B software companies demo at trade shows is simple: TRADITION. The practice has been around for eons. In fact, the following image depicts the world’s first trade show booth, with a smartly dressed product manager showing off the latest product features to a huge crowd of — wow!– three passersby (pretty typical for a trade show).

Trade Show

Notice that the audience appears to be quite enthralled by the demo of the latest version of the HMS 4.2 (Hieroglyphic Management System). But, alas, only one of the three viewers (meaning the dude with the big hat) has even the slightest ability to influence software purchases. Also, it is not clear why the audience is so very attentive and excited. Perhaps it is the product’s awesome features. Perhaps. But more than likely it is either the demonstrator’s seductive attire or the lusciousness of the nearby Booth Babes handing out swag engraved with AncientSoft’s logo.


Enough of the history lesson. Back to the question: Why demo at trade shows?

The Cranky Product Manager proclaims: The time has come to rethink the ancient, decrepit tradition of demo-ing at trade shows, or even hosting a booth. It is rarely worth the expense in time or dollars.

The CPM knows what she’s talking about. At two former employers, the Cranky Product Manager did analyses of return-on-trade-show investment. And guess what? Trade shows came out as huge drains on company resources with scant benefit.

Want more detail?

First, the leads generated were always crap. Hardly any of these folks ended up spending a dime on software. They were people without budget or influence. People without real problems to solve, who were just trying to "keep up with the industry." People more interested in the crappy swag than the product. People looking for a job. People who worked for competitors. People who wanted to hit on the super-hot Cranky Product Manager or the not-quite-as-hot-and-definitely-not-as-smart Booth Babes. People who were so overwhelmed by the trade show’s hyped-up atmosphere, or so hung over from the previous night’s drunkfest, that they could not even attempt to understand what the company did: Please just drop your literature into my tote bag so I can sort through it back at my office.

Second, the cost of running a booth is ridiculous. The opportunity costs of drawing people away from other tasks for two to four days is huge. Then add the costs of paying $500 to rent each power cord, $800 for a table, $1000 for a carpet, $2000 for a carpet pad, etc… Unreal. But that’s not all! You have to hire union laborers to carry your laptops into the building, at a rate of $100 per laptop. And then hire union electricians to plug them into your $500 power cords at the rate of $200 per power adapter fondled- – because everyone knows the act of even touching an electric cord is fraught with so much risk that a licensed professional must assist.

So again, back to the original question: Why demo at trade shows?

And at last, the Cranky Product Manager’s answer:

Don’t, if you can help it.

In fact, don’t display at the trade show at all. Just attend and do some competitive research. Attend the sessions, which are often worthwhile. But don’t waste your money running a booth in attempt to generate leads.

But the Cranky Product Manager is a realist. She knows that the Trade Show Tradition is tough to mess with. Your company is going to display at BigFatSoftwareConference-X no matter what you say.

So in that case, you, the Product Manager, might as well make the case that 1) a demo is essential, 2) no mere sales engineer has the necessary brainpower to demo your product effectively, and 3) you must personally attend to demo the product yourself.

And why would you argue this?

1) So that you, as a Product Manager, can secure passage to exotic trade show locations like Paris, London, Vegas, or Hawaii.

Booth babes helping demo at an enterprise software conference 2) So that you, as a Product Manager, can have an excuse to hang out with the Booth Babes. Who knows, maybe one of those washed-up-at-age-28 former models will actually speak to you. Maybe your demo of your product’s awesomitude will wow her to pieces. Maybe she’ll say "Wow, Mr. Product Manager. I am so impressed by your software’s advanced monitoring and alerting features. And you say it’s I18N compliant to boot? *SWOON* Do you want to buy me a drink later?"

And for the CPM’s fellow PM sistahs, we can only wait for the day (far off, no doubt) where either there will be male booth babes or where this annoying and kinda offensive industry custom ends. (But that’s a post for another day.)

3) So that you, as a Product Manager, can network with the hiring managers at your competitors and maybe snag yourself a better job. But keep in mind that VPs and Directors of PM are usually speakers or panelists and not slated for demo-duty in the booth. You better secure an All Conference pass to identify and discretely approach them.

Another enterprise software conference, stocked with booth babes. Have fun demo-ing at your trade show. Know that even though you are wasting company resources and your own time, at least you are upholding and respecting the centuries-old traditions of the venerable Product Management People. Not only that, you are helping ensure the gainful employ of Booth Babes the world over. So sleep well, young Demo Dolly / Demo Dude, sleep well.


  1. peter.kerrigan

    You have nailed the whole trade show scene cold. Like you, I wonder why companies sponsor this massive waste of time and money instead of targeting decision makers. As evil as lead exchange sites of the likes of are, I’d rather generate my leads for a pool of decision makers than random doofuses out for a junket.

  2. Bill_The_PM

    Totally agree. I’ve attempted to say “let’s skip the demos” and have a booth for meeting people, meetings, networking, etc. “No! We always have demos, otherwise people won’t understand what we have!”. Demos and trade shows in general are dinosaurs. Unfortunately, every time we threaten to pull a trade show the sales team mutinies. As you say, the leads are crap and no one can ever prove a trade show lead to sale connection. Trade shows, are by orders of magnitude, the highest cost per lead.


  3. Cranky Buyer

    The other side of the coin: I’ve gone to trade shows,
    and found products that I wanted to buy
    immediately with a corporate card.

    Did the “sales” people at the booth take my order?
    No, they didn’t know how to take an order.
    Way too advanced for their skill set.

    Did the company contact me in the week
    after the trade show and offer to take my
    money? No.

    So I called them. Did they have the business
    card I left with their “sales” people at the show?
    No. No record of it.

    Did I want to place an order now?
    Wow, that’s a toughie.

    That is, did I want to buy from a company that has
    wasted my time and pissed me off *before* a sale,
    thus giving me intimations of the living hell I would
    endure getting support *after* the sale?

    Or, instead, did I want to crash the phone
    down, badmouth their products for
    years to come, and buy from a competitor?

    Gosh, which to choose …

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