Commercial Currents: Expanding your customer base

Stephenie MacLagan
Posted 2017-04-06

Find success at the right trade shows

Are you doing a trade show, or have you ever thought about going to one to help build your business? Trade shows can be a great way to expose yourself to a high number of potential customers in one shot, but a lot of time and cost is involved. According to Forbes, being picky about which trade shows you do will help ensure that the benefits outweigh the effort.

That’s sound advice, according to the three Maine coastal business owners who shared almost 50 years’ worth of knowledge about trade shows with us:

  • “Make sure ahead of time the focus of the show is really what you want to do.” – John Jordan, lobsterman and president of Calendar Islands Maine Lobster
  • “Look at who attended the previous year; make sure your work matches the kind of products shown.” – Stephanie Crossman, fiber artist of Gram J’s Net
  • “If you’re just starting out, maybe the thousand-dollar show is too risky. Try beginning with something smaller and local, which also saves on travel and lodging costs.” – Kathleen Buchanan, artist and printmaker of Grey Seal Press

Setting goals for what you expect from exhibiting at a trade show can help you identify your target audience, and that will help determine which trade shows make sense to attend. Buchanan and Crossman frequent the Coastal Fine Arts Alliance of Maine shows.

For Crossman, it’s also about connecting with potential and repeated customers to grow her market reach: “On the island there’s a very limited audience; your market gets saturated real fast. You have to be creative and find other venues.”

Crossman’s tips for engaging with potential customers

  • Be accessible: Sales are a big reason for doing shows, but the exposure is also part of it. While you’re at your booth, be sure to make eye contact, and speak with people. Don’t read a book or stare at your phone.
  • Engage visitors: Ask guests in your booth to pick their favorite piece. This is a great way to grab their attention in the first 10 seconds. It gets them to really look at your stuff and start a conversation with you.
  • Learn about your customers: Find out who they are, where they’re from. You’re gathering market information while showing an interest in them.

In addition to selling lobster, John Jordan looks forward to meeting others in Boston every year at the Seafood Expo North America. “While you’re meeting all of your buyers in one place (saving on travel and meeting costs), you also get to meet with the service sector. There are trucking companies, finance people, and support services all there.”

Using traditional knotted netting, Crossman creates wearables and sculptures like this one.

Crossman agrees that business-to-business networking is a benefit of doing shows. “You’ll get to network with other artists from around the country and pick up on advice about what shows they attend and what their perspective is on market trends. You’ll also start to see the same business owners at several shows or year after year, so be kind and develop relationships.”

Jordan’s advice for effective business-to-business networking

  • Plan ahead: Identify the core customers and others you’re hoping to meet at the show.
  • Schedule time with key accounts: Reach out to your regular buyers and determine who you want to connect with. Schedule time to meet with them while you’re there.
  • Identify other targets you hope to meet: Do outreach ahead of time, such as advertising through your website and PR, to help make those connections.

Whether reaching customers directly or indirectly, Buchanan finds going a little further afield for a trade show is a great way to expand your customer base. While attending the Paradise City Arts Festivals in Massachusetts, she noticed gallery and store owners in the crowd who look for pieces to add to their own collections or exhibits.

The importance of helping people connect with your work

“My work is about generating a handmade type of print called a collagraph, which is hung on the wall, says Buchanan. Sometimes people haven’t heard the word collagraph before, so often the conversation starts there. I bring along a few printing plates, so people can get connected to the process a little bit. They see how the plates are related to the final print. Even for those who have more common artwork, be prepared to help people connect with the process of making the piece.”

Kathleen Buchanan

Think about your display ahead of time and invest in good tents for outdoor shows. -Buchanan

Other strategies for successful trade shows

Other strategies for successful trade shows include tailoring your products to the location of the show, having an internet presence before you go, and spending time sorting through leads after the event.

Tailor your products to the location
“For the American Craft Show in Baltimore, I made Baltimore orioles, which caught the eye of passersby,” says Crossman. “Think about tweaking your packaging, to make it familiar, recognizable.”

Have an internet presence
Potential customers will scope out many companies with similar products before choosing one. “Have an internet presence set up before you go! People will look you up,” suggests Crossman.

Buchanan agrees, “I don’t think you can underestimate social media for promoting that you’ll be at show. Having a website is imperative; people at a show will use my website as a tool to check out other work, see different sizes, and availability.”

Contact us today about hosting a Website Design or Social Media for Business workshop in your community!

Spend time sorting through leads
“The work of the show doesn’t stop at the end of the show,” says Jordan. “A lot of time is spent sorting through different leads. A lead is an opportunity, but it doesn’t mean all leads are good opportunities. Having a diverse set of leads and opportunities, helps you identify the type of company you want to be, what you’re willing to do and what you’re not willing to do.”

Following up after the event

“Artists are not usually extroverted people, so this is extremely draining, so I rest but then I follow up on the leads I got from the show. Respond to any requests you get promptly.” –Crossman

“If someone who was a big sale, or someone who thought about it for a few years and finally made a purchase, I’ll send a quick email to thank them. If there was anyone who wrote in a guest book, inquiring about anything, follow up on those.” –Buchanan

Finally, determine if the trade show was worth it! In addition to direct sales, look to your confirmed leads and traffic at your booth for measuring your return-on-investment.

“Look out for mail orders, and ask customers where they came across your product, if it was the show, count that toward the impact of the show. This will give you a true sense of the success of the show,” says Crossman.

Buchanan tracks the sales of shows year-to-year, to see which ones are worth attending again or not. “Some shows attract only repeat attendees, so sometimes you have to give some shows a rest for a few years. This gives you time to come back with all new work as well.”

Meet Kathleen Buchanan and Stephanie Crossman and hear their stories on Friday, April 7th at this year’s Archipelago Artists & Makers Conference in Belfast!

Resources for expanding your market

Attend trade shows or other events:

Learn about marketing your products & services:

What We Do

The Island Institute’s Economic Development program works with island and remote coastal communities to address their priorities related to strengthening diverse economies. For professional development, marketing and branding seminars, or technology trainings, feel free to contact Stephenie.

Commercial Currents is for Maine’s island and coastal small businesses. To find archived editions, go to Know someone who’d enjoy these emails? Subscribe here