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Probe the competition by attending trade shows

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It’s show time for trade shows.

While these events provide a venue to showcase your company’s products or services, they also allow you to shrewdly gain insight into your competitors, learn from their successes and failures, and pinpoint new opportunities.

Trade shows are ideal for gathering data, according to research from the Dallas-based Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR), which has studied trade and consumer shows for 20 years. Most exhibitors use such venues to announce and launch new products, mergers and acquisitions, CEIR says.

But how do you dig for information that’s not necessarily in the show booth?

Use these techniques for your competitive-intelligence sleuthing:

-Pick the right show. Face it: The trade-show circuit can be a budget-buster for small companies. Look strategically at the conference scene in your industry and map out where you’re likely to see the biggest return.

Rule of thumb: It’s better to have a strong presence at one key show than to make an appearance at several smaller events.

-Listen and observe. Trade shows and industry conferences often are the best way to see all your competitors in one place. When you visit booths, listen and look first, and ask questions later. Observe how they talk to their customers.

Examine the promotional literature, as well as the size, placement, design and graphics of their exhibit.

-Spend the most time with the right exhibitors. While the largest booths may draw the most oohs and aahs, spend time focusing on the smaller fries on the outside edges, too. That’s likely where your next big idea will be.

-Ask the right questions to gauge product/service features and specs, most recent new products, delivery schedules, quality strengths and weaknesses, pricing strategies, and special policies, such as offering credit, discounts, incentives or consignments.

-Try reverse-psychology. Praise a competing firm about its products and exhibit presentation. You might find some contradictions to such praise, with people confiding that the product isn’t moving that well or that a service is planning to switch markets.

Keep in mind: Don’t underestimate the power of trade shows. They’re big business to all business. Spending for trade shows is third to advertising and promotion, CEIR says.

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