I don't know about you but I've always had mixed feelings about trade shows. They are tremendously expensive in general and the results usually are never clear cut on a sales boost basis. Between glad handing and swapping cards you're in a constant quest to keep feeling in your numb feet.
One truly invaluable feature about tradeshows for marketers is the fact you have a wide swath of your market, if not your customers, right there at your finger tips. I've always seen this as a great opportunity to conduct one minute verbal surveys. The idea is to keep a question list running in a file throughout the year. As it comes up to a major tradeshow pull out the top five questions you'd love to get answered by your current customers and separately the top five questions you'd love to get answered by people you'd love to have as your customers.
The idea here is to keep the verbal survey brief. You truly do want to keep it to one minute. I've found just about anyone at a tradeshow will give you one minute of their time but you have to stress you are a marketer and not sales. Of course if someone wants to be chatty that's fine. You should always have a notes section at the end of your survey. You may ask how valid is a survey? Well if you were to pull a yellow pages out for your local town and select 40 people at random to survey (and it has to be truely random) statisically you'd have a valid sample set for your survey. That means to a high degree of probability your sample would represent that whole phone book. Let's take that answer at face value without getting into how many sigma's of relevance we'd be at, etc.
Of course, at a trade show your sample won't be truely random so I've always endeavored to get 200 - 400 responses at a minimum. That's one reason why you need to keep the question to one minute and why it needs to be verbal responses. You also need to make sure your questions are open ended and not biased. "Would you say our product is the best?" is a biased question. You are implying that your product is the best by how you phrased the question. Instead you should ask, "Who has the best product?". You simply write down the answer and move on to the next question.
I've used this process successfully for product naming, product color choices and company perception assessment. It's quick, it's inexpensive and it can help keep you focused on what your customers and your market thinks is important, as opposed to what your company thinks is important.
-Have the top 5 or 6 questions you'd like to ask and get them printed on an individual sheet of paper.
-Everyone conducting the survey should read the questions verbatium.
-You will mark down the answers to questions one sheet per person surveyed.
-Make sure to have a notes section at the bottom to include observations or interesting comments.
-Ask the sales people and others who are demonstrating products, etc. to direct people over to you at the end of their encounter with someone. They need to STRESS that it is a one minute survey. Also, I never require names or phone numbers as it increases participation tremendously.
-You should qualify the person prior to conducting the survey to validate they are a current customer or fit your customer profile.
-Thank them at the end and hand them a business card in case they have questions later (it makes the process more professional but they'll never call you).
-Compile your results and apply what you've learned.
-Repeat at every tradeshow.