by Michael C. Lowe | November 01, 2011

Personalization is the latest trend to hit trade show marketing. Show organizers looking to catch the attention of potential attendees are shifting their efforts to targeted marketing strategies, which requires breaking down a mailing list from one lump group into smaller segments, so they can send more relevant information to specific demographics.

Kimberly Hardcastle-Geddes"The days of mass marketing are numbered," says Kimberly Hardcastle-Geddes, vice president and chief account strategist for Marketing Design Group, a firm that helps trade shows design and implement their marketing strategies. "Customer demand is starting to reflect the personalization perpetuated by the filtering, following and friending options available on e-mail, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn."

In other words, the public is getting used to choosing the content they receive and how they receive it. The concept of a passive consumer who sits back and absorbs mass-marketing messages is a thing of the past; today, there's just too much information coming from too many sources.

"Marketing is no longer about a company blasting a one-way dialogue to the masses," affirms Erik Mintz, director of event marketing at Constant Contact, a provider of online marketing tools. "Technology and social media have made the experience more of a two-way conversation, where businesses are more aware of their customer's wants and needs."

This new marketing model was pioneered by online sellers such as Amazon, which sends recommendations and notices about deals based on previous purchases and product searches.  

"Consumers are beginning to expect this kind of personalized experience everywhere," says Hardcastle-Geddes. "Because people are being bombarded with messages, the more relevant you can make yours, the better."

From a practical standpoint, a personalized marketing campaign makes sense because it gets the right information into the right hands, but on an emotional level, it also makes a prospective customer feel included. "It's a way to let the recipient know we know who they are," says Libby Landen, vice president of marketing for the National Retailers Federation, who helped grow the organization's annual show from 18,500 total attendees in 2009 to 21,719 in 2010. "The more we can cater to specific groups," she adds, "the more invested in them we appear, and that's the connection we're trying to build."

The following is a step-by-step guide for developing your own targeted marketing effort; those who would prefer to hire an agency to outsource the task can read more about third-party marketing services on page 48.

The path to creating a personalized marketing campaign from scratch for the first time is often long and tedious. "It's important to remember that this process happens over time," says Hardcastle-Geddes. "Do what you can with the resources you have, put your plan in writing at the beginning and focus on what will give you the best return on investment."

Here are some basic guidelines for getting started.

1. Set goals. "Think about your objectives and whether personalized marketing makes sense," says Hardcastle-Geddes. "Don't just jump right into a new technology if you're not sure it will help you achieve your goals."

Start by determining what you're trying to accomplish and whom you're targeting. Whether it's an underrepresented group, a specific geographic area or a certain industry segment, it's important to set the target before trying to hit it.

2. Know your market. A personalized marketing campaign begins with detailed profiles of potential delegates. "The attendee database has become much more important," says Hardcastle-Geddes. "It's not just about having the right names anymore, it's about having a collection of highly individualized information about each person so you can really pinpoint your messages."

It's typical for a database entry to include the first and last name, an e-mail address and maybe a job title, but when it comes to a more personalized style of marketing, data can include a broad range of characteristics, including geographic location, type of company, the last time he/she attended a trade show, hobbies, educational sessions the person attended in the past, and booths visited at the last trade show.

Determine whether you already have the necessary information for a marketing campaign that targets your goals by assessing your database's strengths and weaknesses. This assessment will help point you toward the next step. (If you already have all the desired data, you can skip step three, although it never hurts to strengthen your list with even more details. "The more information we gather about a potential attendee, the better," says Landen.)

3. Get the data you need. Once you've found the holes in your database, it's time to fill in the gaps. Data retrieval can take many forms, whether gleaned from business cards, industry associations, Facebook and/or myriad other sources.

One reliable method is to use the survey attached to the conference registration form, says Susan Newman, senior vice president of conferences and marketing for the National Retail Federation. When attendees sign up for NRF's annual convention, known as Retail's Big Show, Newman makes sure ask them about basic demographics, like their title and location, in addition to how much purchasing power the registrant has, specific job responsibilities, total annual spending on purchases, and the type of store or business. As a result, organizers receive a flood of data about each participant that will help with the marketing effort for the following year.

For new show organizers without such data to draw from, the job is considerably trickier. "If you're trying to create a personalized marketing strategy for a new show, figure out who the prospective attendee is and then reverse-engineer it," says Newman. "Who are they? What are their attributes? What other events do they go to? What online communities are they active on? Which associations do they belong to? Do what you can to find out as much about them as possible."

4. Create categories to target. Once the database is set, organizers should begin segmenting their list of names into categories that likely require different approaches in marketing. "This is where a targeted, personalized campaign really takes shape," says Hardcastle-Geddes.

The way you segment your audience largely will depend on the budget of the campaign and the type of show, says Roger Halligan, CEO of H+A International, a marketing agency that specializes in trade shows. An organizer for a cooking-equipment show might break up targeted groups by title -- e.g., restaurant owners, chefs, retailers -- while an organizer for a travel industry show might find it more effective to segment the audience by niches such as airlines, hotels, food and beverage, travel agents, meeting planners, etc.

Any sizable database can be divided into an endless amount of segments, and it might not be necessary to reach out to each one individually, notes Halligan. Depending on the marketing budget, you might want to create personalized campaigns for only the two or three most important groups. "The great thing about creating a personalized marketing campaign is that it forces your organization to step back, think and really look at which groups you want to reach, as well as where your marketing is falling short," Halligan says.

5. Strategize the approach. Once the categories for marketing are set, organizers can begin determining what to offer to which group.

"We decided to target market segments that were underrepresented in our clients' past shows and created a campaign that spoke to them, including information on specific seminars that might be interesting to them or exhibitors they would want to meet," says Hardcastle-Geddes.

Now you're ready for the implementation phase, and today's technology offers more options than ever for running a targeted marketing campaign.