Picture of an exhibition - how to sell by not selling

Not selling is the new selling for exhibitors and exhibitions

Topic: Insight /

In one of the most iconic scenes in cinema history, Alec Baldwin’s character in Glengarry Glen Ross harangues his salespeople for their ineffectiveness.

“A-B-C. A-Always, B-Be, C-Closing. Always be closing,” he barks, pointing at the mantra written on the chalkboard. In that mindset, the customer is a nemesis to be defeated, fleeced and quickly dealt with.

But those days are over. ‘Always be closing’ has lost its shimmer in a world of hyper-informed, demanding consumers.

The potential customers approaching your stand in 2018 aren’t marks, and the ABC method isn’t effective. Continuing with the hard sell is damaging your numbers. Instead of ABC, it’s time to think about ‘Always be helping’. Reciprocity is the key: brands need to offer value according to the needs of the visitor, not the brand.

What’s wrong with selling?

Turns out Alec Baldwin’s character Blake fundamentally misunderstood human nature. Humans are reciprocal animals and, uniquely among animals, cooperate in large numbers. "We are obligated to give back to others, the form of behavior that they have first given to us," according to the psychologist Robert Cialdini. "Essentially thou shall not take without giving in return."

This is demonstrated in one heartwarming experiment, where the sociologist Phil Kunz randomly sent Christmas cards to 600 addresses. His family received more than 200 reciprocal responses and continued receiving cards for years afterwards.

What’s the lesson here for a team operating at an event? Well, our reciprocal nature doesn’t end the second we set foot on the exhibition floor. Hard selling to event attendees is entirely incompatible with the modern consumer.

Not selling is the new selling

Basically: not selling is the new selling. We’ve all sat through exhibition talks which operate as thinly disguised brand messages or product pitches - we switch off. If exhibitions are to be a successful experience, you need to offer more than just ‘this is why our brand is great’.

Gone are the days when attendees will sit through irrelevant, uninspiring events. Brands need to have a deep understanding of their target audience’s needs, preferences and desired outcomes and apply this insight to experience design.

‘Experience design’ might sound buzzy - but experiences matter. A person attending an exhibition has bought a ticket to the event. They’re there for a good time, to be helped, to learn something. They’re certainly not there to be sold to.

Reciprocity is, once again, the difference maker. What are you offering the people you speak to at the exhibition? Scientific studies have demonstrated that when people receive a favour from someone, they feel obligated to reciprocate in some way.

Social scientists call this the “norm of reciprocity”. And it’s actually pretty powerful: one study found people are more likely to grant a second request even if they had already reciprocated a favour, at least for a short period. The norm of reciprocity, in other words, is quite moreish. And it’s more powerful in a public place (like an exhibition floor, perhaps).

We’ve already witnessed the backlash against the hard sell online - reckless advertising led to one quarter of UK web users enabling ad blockers. But, interestingly, the rise in ad blocking has been arrested through reciprocity, rather than coercion: 74% of online users said they would be less likely to block ads if they were given greater user control or if they were reminded that ads fund content. A lot of media sites have got savvy to this, which is why you’ll encounter these messages regularly online.

The point is, consumers will let sales messages into their lives if they get something for complying.

What engagement is and isn’t

Enhancing people’s experiences requires nuance. What you do has to be relevant to your brand. Don’t just have a VR headset and assume it will lead to more engaged consumers. Just because something is cool doesn’t make it relevant to you.

When you’re amid a sea of other stands and people, all promising results, it’s memorable experiences that slice through the noise. Zig when others zag: Instead of free pens and mugs, offer an unusual memento.

You can also differentiate your brand by showing that you care about something greater than yourself. That might be an idea, an advocacy or an organisation you care about. In a UK-wide survey, 89% of consumers thought businesses should support charities and their local communities. Highlight the work you do, or some way you give back.

Pull people in by telling stories, driving conversations, and addressing their needs and interests. Audi City - the London showroom we worked on for the luxury German car brand -  exemplified this idea. It wasn’t simply just a car showroom, it was an experience: using cutting edge tech to immerse people in the full Audi range.

The goal is to involve customers in a deeper relationship with a given product or brand. “If you only talk to customers about what you sell them, they have the option of tuning out,” as the academic Mohan Sawhney says.

Get what you give

A little insight into human psychology goes a long way. Don’t view selling as a form of combat. Instead, it can be a cooperative, mutually beneficial experience.

Instead of just the hard sell, what can you give the customer? Are you merely selling your message, or are you actually dealing with the problems they face? This isn’t fluffy nonsense: it’s backed by science.

‘The sell’ isn’t necessarily the cornerstone of sales success anymore. To really achieve success at events, it has to be about so much more than ABC.

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