School Marketing Tip: How to Get More from Your Tradeshow Investments

As we approach another season of educator conferences, I'd like to suggest an important strategic marketing commitment. You should promise to stop doing "conferences" (aka trade shows or exhibits) and start doing "Association Marketing"! You may not have a clue what I'm talking about or know why you should care. So read on.

Educator Conferences Are the School Marketing Manifesto. But Is the Party Over?

The “good old days” for trade shows and conferences may be over. Travel bans for educators in many states are forcing everyone to pause. If you don’t think the changes are real, listen to the interview I did recently with Jim Warford, executive director of the Florida Association of School Administrators. 

Regardless of the current situation, historically in our industry, no area of the education marketing budget gets more attention than exhibit marketing. Trade shows are a fact of life for companies in the school market. Year after year, companies set up booths at the same shows and do things pretty much the same old way. It's as if a manifesto claims certain events are sacred cows and that exhibits are exhibits.

Well, just say NO! Remember, most education conferences (trade shows) are sponsored by professional associations on behalf of their members. And, typically, once the big event is over and the carpet's pulled up, you're off to the next show or event. It's sayonara for another year to the conference's constituency and, sadly, to some great sales opportunities. The follow-up plan is rarely as thorough as the plan to set up and staff the booth or orchestrate the free giveaways.

While your company shifts its focus to the next school marketing tactic on your to-do list, the association that sponsored the trade show you just left is still at work, continuing to serve its members -- the same audience you just spent a lot of money to engage with.

Four Reasons You Need a Year-Round Education Marketing Plan Focused on Professional Associations

Savvy managers responsible for marketing to schools develop year-round strategies to tap the full potential of education associations. Conference exhibits should be part of a twelve-month association marketing plan; if exhibits are the whole plan, you miss a major opportunity. Why should you focus more of your attention (and budget) on education associations? Here are four good reasons:

  1. Education association members want information. Educators join professional associations because they're seeking ways to do a better job, to get ahead, stay on the cutting edge, and increase their knowledge. They're hungry to know the benefits of your product or service.
  2. Education association members are buyers. Education associations solicit members by mail and email. That should be a clue that there are still segments of the market that respond to direct-mail offers. Since many of you market products and services through the mail, why not focus your attention on people who prefer to shop that way?
  3. Members of education associations are motivated. Education market research conducted several years ago by Learningmagazine found only half of our teachers are motivated and innovative. Fortunately, it's the motivated half who belong to associations and make the decisions to buy and use technology in schools!
  4. Associations offer the products and services their members want most. Most education associations have product catalogs or online stores and offer special benefits to their members. Why not your product? Less noise, less expense, and less hassle than other catalogs and sales channels! And, these catalogs are packed with great premiums for direct education marketing programs you are doing now.

Six Steps to an Effective Educator Association Marketing Strategy

Ready to commit to this new strategy? Here are six steps to a hard-hitting association-marketing plan, a marketing strategy that I guarantee will produce better results than the typical trade-show exhibit schedule you may be doing now.

  1. Be selective! Target only those education associations whose member profile matche your best customers. Seek smaller, more specialized groups where you can stand out. Don't know where to find those organizations? Check the events listings on and, most important, ask your best customers which associations they belong to.
  2. Invest in association members year-round! A year-round promotional campaign with one association that is a good fit for your company and product offering is much more effective than doing exhibits only at trade shows. Exhibit at a conference only if you can afford a sustained campaign to the members of the association all year long.
  3. Put your customers on the spot! Educators buy products by referral from their peers. Arrange for your customers to speak at conferences and to be part of your exhibit staff. Sure, associations don't want your sales pitch on their agenda, so have your PR person help your customer create the appropriate spin. The audience will eat it up, your customer will bask in the limelight, and you will pull in the POs.
  4. Be visible in association publications and websites. Association publications and web sites hit your target buyer like a laser and at a lower cost than mass-market publications. If the academic journals and newsletters for your targeted associations won't accept ads, have your customers submit research papers instead, or ghost-write articles for your customers to submit.
  5. Make the right offer. Want a sure way to boost response to your campaigns? Educators love premiums! Don't take the easy way out by ignoring premiums in favor of a boring offer like a price discount. Negotiate deals with associations for irresistible bonus merchandise, subscriptions, membership discounts, and other goodies. It's more work, but you'll get your prospect's attention and boost the results from your direct marketing programs. In some cases, the professional association can work with you to arrange special offers that they will help you promote.
  6. Let them hear from you often. If the only time association members see your company name is at a conference exhibit once a year, don't be surprised if they walk past your booth with a dazed expression. Buy the mailing list and send the members special offers year-round. Next time you exhibit, they'll stop at your booth and pay attention to what you offer.

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About the Author

Glen McCandless is president of Focus Marketing Inc., a business development firm that specializes in the educational technology market. Glen has over 25 years of experience helping companies efficiently and effectively sell and market technology products and services to K-12 and higher education buyers. For more information, please contact

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