Entrepreneur Nancy Crossley hit a home run when her product was mentioned on ABC's Good Morning America, but it took a while for her to realize it.
"My brand manager called me and said, 'Something's happened, [the website] is just going nuts,'" Ms. Crossley said. "We just couldn't figure it out."
She later received an e-mail from one of her partners explaining the reason for the boost in sales of her makeup sanitizer BeautySoClean. It was featured at the end of an on-camera investigation as a solution to the dangers of contaminants, everything from pink eye to strep throat. After a Google search, she found the segment online.
Ms. Crossley chalked up the success of her Toronto-based company, Professional Artists (Canada) Inc., to filling a gaping hole in the market, but she also cited trade shows as a pivotal strategy. "Our business really became branded and recognized through the trade-show circuit."
It's where she said many professional makeup artists, including those who work on Good Morning America, likely discovered BeautySoClean.
It came as no surprise to Ken Hardy, professor emeritus who continues to teach entrepreneurial marketing at the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario. Earlier in his career, Prof. Hardy conducted a marketing study on Ontario manufacturers. "Trade shows were their No. 1 way of exporting to the U.S.," he said, adding little has changed even though the study dates back to the 1970s. "It's really still the No. 1 tool."
Barry Siskind, president of Toronto-based International Training and Management Co., which specializes in helping businesses navigate trade- and consumer-show circuits, said trade shows "are really face-to-face marketing.
"You can write all the ads in the world you want," he explained. "But when else can you be in a room full of people who are interested in what you have to sell? That goes so much further than anything else."
Ms. Crossley's firsthand experience confirmed this. "They're coming there because they're interested," she said, "versus let's say I'm at an event at a department store, where someone might be coming down from the shoe department and I'm trying to talk to them about BeautySoClean. There's a huge difference."
Mr. Siskind said a lot of entrepreneurs attempt to tap into trade shows as a marketing tool, but many of them aren't doing it well. For starters, entrepreneurs tend not to do enough homework ahead of a show to make sure they're in the right place at the right time. "You have to have a strategic approach or it's a waste of time. It's really about knowing who's going to be attending them."
Ms. Crossley said targeting the right channel is essential. She divides trade shows into three categories: those for the professional community, those for retailers and distributors, and those for consumers. For BeautySoClean, it started with Ms. Crossley's peers at the International Make-Up Artist Trade Show. "We really needed to build our credibility and support system in the professional community," she said. Once she convinced the pros to use her product, she figured, it would only be a matter of time before consumers would want it too.
Getting artists on board wasn't tough, said Ms. Crossley, who knew from her 25 years of experience as a makeup artist how badly professionals needed a product like BeautySoClean, which she described as a "hand sanitizer for makeup." The system of three products is designed to kill germs in cosmetics, such as powder compacts, mascara wands and lipstick. She jumped on the opportunity to teach artists how BeautySoClean worked by leading educational seminars at trade shows. "They visually got it," she said. "And from there it's word of mouth."
Mr. Siskind said trade shows are a place professionals go to learn about what's new in their industry, through educational seminars and exposure to innovations, which is exactly what Ms. Crossley was using them to achieve.
"The industry has changed," he said. "Shows are no longer just a place to sell. They're a place to interact with users and clients. It's all about engagement."
That's one reason why he suggests trade-show participants scale back on pamphlets and focus instead on actually talking to people. "Eighty-five per cent of all literature goes in the garbage," he said.
In the past two years, Ms. Crossley has attended more than 10 trade shows. It's the cumulative effect of regular attendance that got the industry's Oscar- and Emmy-award-winning makeup artists on board. "You can't just show up at one and think that'll be enough," she said. "You have to be a regular presence."
That consistency, she added, is what helped create interest in her product not only at a host of retailers in Canada, including the Bay and Shoppers Drug Mart Murale stores, but from as far afield as Britain, Sweden and Australia.
"Interest in other areas of world didn't start until we did trade shows," she said. "[British drug store chain] Boots heard about us at a trade show in Barcelona. And they called us. When Boots calls you, you know you have something special."
Ms. Crossley joined us for a live discussion. Click here to view the archive.