Don't waste your money sponsoring small business trade shows unless your audience is pre-start-up, wanna-be entrepreneurs. Legitimate entrepreneurs don't go within a mile of these shows. Even though the marketing of such shows talks about "growth strategies" and "managing staff," the only people who actually go are nine-to-fivers looking for an escape hatch.
Does this mean entrepreneurs don't like to network? No, quite the opposite. In the United States, The National Foundation of Independent Business boasts over 600,000 members. Almost every city large enough to appear on a map has a chamber of commerce to help local business owners network. In fact, we worked with one bank whose most successful event of all time was a business card exchange in which they invited entrepreneurs from all over town to attend for the express purpose of exchanging business cards with other business owners. The result was a networking Olympics, an unapologetic schmooze fest for successful business banking clients.
Yes, entrepreneurs love to network, but they look for networking events where they can find people at (or just beyond) their level in terms of the size and scope of their business achievements. They want give-and-take networking relationships. The problem with trade shows is that just anyone can go, and everyone does except for legitimate business owners. With no barriers to entry, small business trade shows quickly deteriorate into a collection of dreamers touring an endless row of so-called franchise opportunities and network marketing schemes.
Real business owners steer clear of small business trade shows because they want to network with people who are in a similar business situation. Tennis provides a good analogy: play with someone who is just learning and it is the most frustrating sport on earth; take on a player like Pete Sampras and you'll be embarrassed. The trick is to find an opponent who will stretch you a bit, but not too much.
The same holds true for entrepreneurs. They choose events that offer the opportunity to meet other business owners who are at approximately the same level as they are.
A great example is the success of Ernst and Young's Entrepreneur of The Year Award Program, responsible for the highest-profile event in entrepreneurship. At the annual awards ceremony held in California every year, the action takes place in the breakout sessions that accompany the awards dinner. In these breakout sessions, nominees and past winners get together in small groups to learn from each other. The energy is contagious.
Ontario's Ministry of Economic Development, Trade, and Tourism's most successful event in its history is the annual "Wisdom Exchange." Instead of hearing from high-profile ministers or corporate leaders, entrepreneurs participate in the action by forming forum groups to learn from one another's experiences.
Small business events can make great aggregators, but look for sponsorship events for which the organizers have erected a barrier to entry for potential small business applicants. Such a barrier could be a minimum number of years in business, specified sales volume, accredited industry membership, or minimum number of employees—and the environment will give your brand a halo effect. Sponsor another generic small business trade show and you end up reaching just a hopeful group of tire kickers.
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