A good place for a gathering

Editor's note: Allison Rak is principal of Vatoca Partners, a San Carlos, Calif., research firm.

We’ve all been there. A need arises to conduct in-person, qualitative research with a segment that is so niche, or so time-strapped, that you simply can’t imagine being able to recruit quality participants through any sort of traditional manner. So what do you do?

The answer may be to find a trade show or convention and conduct your research there! Over the years we’ve done many projects this way – primarily B2B and health care – and they’ve been some of our most successful. But conducting research at trade shows and conventions can be tricky, filled with potential pitfalls. And with sometimes only one chance to get it right, the stakes can be high.

But do not fear. With some creativity, patience and grit, you too can successfully leverage existing events like trade shows, conferences and conventions to conduct high-quality research. In this article we will share the potential benefits of this methodology, along with specific guidance for success. Read on and by the end, you may find yourself booking a flight to Orlando or Vegas or Chicago or . . . ? All in the name of high-quality research.

What projects are the best candidates for trade show research? Any B2B or health care project that requires in-person, qualitative research is likely a good candidate for a trade show or conference approach. It often comes down to how niche and time-strapped the participants tend to be.

What are the benefits of conducting research at a trade show or conference? There are many, but four stand out: the people, the vibe, the efficiency and the learning that can take place via the convention’s content.

Benefit #1: The people

Probably the most obvious reason to go to a trade show or convention for research is the type of person you will find there. First, you can have a high degree of confidence that your participant is qualified and legitimate. They are at their industry conference (and someone is likely paying top dollar for them to be there) so you can feel good that they are who they say they are.

In addition, you can often attract a much higher-level individual than you would for traditional research. Most market research recruiters will have a tough time convincing a CEO to pick up the phone, let alone participate in a focus group or research interview, but at a convention, it’s very doable.
Case in point: We once had a client who wanted to do research with decision makers at large home health care agencies. We went to a conference on aging and were able to fill two groups with C-level executives from the largest home health agencies in the country for our client. The executives were interested in the study as an opportunity to network, to hear what their peers had to say and to learn about what might be in the innovation pipeline for their industry. The project was a huge success and could not have been conducted in a traditional manner.

Benefit #2: The vibe

When people go to a conference or trade show, they are in a different mind space than they are at home. They tend to be more relaxed and open-minded. They are there to learn and to network. With their schedules clear they are less distracted. This all benefits the research process.

Case in point: Each time we have conducted research at trade shows or conventions, our show rates have been at or near 100 percent. The one exception was a study we did at an industry convention that was particularly male-dominated. We were careful to ensure our study didn’t conflict with any conference events but neglected to realize that one of our sessions was scheduled at the same time as a Monday Night Football game. Our participants were at the conference for education but also for fun and many opted for the game over our study. Lesson learned!

Benefit #3: The efficiency

While the setup process for trade show research can be complex and time-consuming, the magic happens when you and your research team spend a mere two or three days conducting the study and come home with some rich insights.

Your participants are traveling in from throughout the country (or world) so there’s no issue of the research team having to travel to multiple markets. You can conduct focus groups, IDIs, use-tests and everything in between at a single convention.

Case in point: With the entire research team in town for a trade show, we’ve been known to conduct multiple studies, sometimes even pulling from the local market. For example, go to a surgical conference to get surgeons from around the country and then recruit nurses from local hospitals for a different perspective. Or if you have two project teams interested in conducting research with surgeons, do one set of focus groups on one topic and conduct a use test on the second topic. You can squeeze a lot of research into a few days when you do it at a convention.

Benefit #4: The convention itself is rich with insights

While your primary reasons for attending a conference or trade show may be to conduct a qualitative study, don’t miss out on the learning opportunity available at the conference itself.

By attending keynotes and breakout sessions relevant to your study topic, you can enhance what you are learning from your primary research. You will hear from presenters who are subject-matter experts and then will be enlightened by the Q&A and candid discussions that follow each session. Make the most of your registration fee by thinking of the entire conference as an opportunity to gain insights. It can be like doing an ethnography project that is on steroids.

Case in point: For one project a client wanted to learn as much as possible from purchasing decision makers at large health care networks, so we attended a relevant conference and approached it like a non-traditional ethnography project. We created a field guide of key questions and our team of three set out to learn as much as we could. We divided up to cover as many sessions as possible, reconvening in our ad hoc war room each afternoon to share what we’d learned.

The conference culminated in a “reverse expo” – a large room where purchasing heads from various health care systems each had a small booth and salespeople (or researchers!) could approach them for brief conversations. We split up and, through scores of three-to-five-minute conversations targeted at our key question areas, were able to learn everything we’d set out to uncover and then some. It was one of the most rewarding research projects we’ve done, even though on the surface it didn’t look much like a research project at all.

Can be tricky

So how do you find a trade show or conference that will be the right fit? That can be tricky but the good news is that for most industries, with a bit of investigating you will be able to locate at least one relevant trade show or convention taking place each quarter.

First, ask your client/company if they will be attending any conferences in the near future. Often the conference that the sales team will be attending is the right one for your study.

If you don’t find one that way, simply search the Web for whatever industry/participant type you need, followed by “trade association” or “conference.” Sometimes you will get lucky and find that the big, annual convention for the niche you need is right around the corner. Other times you can find something smaller that still fits your specifications.

Once you find a potential fit, you’ll want to look carefully to see exactly who and how many will be attending. This is often available on the Web site (look at “sponsorship opportunities” for detailed attendee counts and details) but a call to a conference organizer can also be helpful.

Flexible, creative and accommodating

Once you find the right show, how do you execute the study? Researchers who prefer a straightforward approach (“six focus groups in three markets, using traditional facilities”) may find this next step to be daunting. Trade shows and conferences are not set up with a researcher’s purpose in mind, so we have to be flexible, creative and accommodating in our approach.

While there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to this type of research, here are a few options for setting up a study at a trade show or convention:

• Some conferences will have “focus group” as a sponsorship category. You pay a fee and in return get a range of benefits that could include as much as a room, recruiting, participant food and incentives or as little as a room and an e-mail invitation to potential attendees. Often these opportunities are limited and only available to larger sponsor companies and other times they are more abundant. Whatever the option, think openly and creatively to determine whether you can make it work and remember that when comparing this approach to a traditional approach (including recruiting and facility fees) it is not an apples-to-apples comparison.

• If a trade show doesn’t have a program set up, they may be willing to work with you. Call the organizer and explain what you need. When you do this keep a few things in mind.

     First, if you are calling within a few weeks of the show, be prepared that they will have little time or patience to work with you. This is a stressful period for conference organizers and they are not looking to take on something new. Check existing sponsorship opportunities to see if one can be tweaked to meet your objectives.

      Second, their focus is on their large sponsors and their attendees, not on helping you with your research needs. Position your request as something that benefits them (typically by payment) and that will require very little of their time.

• If a trade organization doesn’t want to work with you, all is not lost. You can conduct your research on your own during the conference. You may or may not be able to get space right off the convention floor but an adjacent hotel will likely have a conference room that you can rent. Time your sessions carefully to not conflict with important conference events, as this will not only impact your show rates but will also irritate conference organizers if they happen to find out what you are doing.

Just about any type of research study can be conducted this way. We’ve done focus groups, IDIs, product use tests and everything in between. As long as you can be somewhat creative and flexible, with a lot of attention to detail, you will likely find that you can succeed with the study design of your choice.

Several options

For recruiting, if you are conducting your study as an official part of the conference, the organizers will likely help you by either securing your participants for you or inviting them on your behalf. But if you don’t have this luxury you still have several options:

  • You may be able to purchase an attendee list and use it to recruit. Sometimes registering for the conference will give you access to an attendee list.
  • Sometimes the organization will have a LinkedIn group and you can post an invitation to your study there.
  • Sometimes a traditional recruiter will be able to help you out. If it’s a particularly big show you can simply call on your target and ask: “Will you be at the upcoming _____ show in Atlanta?”
  • If all else fails, try intercept recruiting. Yes, it’s risky to set up a study and not know if you will be able to get participants but we’ve done this several times and have always successfully filled the studies. We typically get postcards printed with the key details, including info on who people should contact if they are interested (leave out the study location and have your recruiter give it only to confirmed participants). We’ve hired local temps to pass out the postcards or sign people up on the spot. Remember that you will likely need to purchase a conference badge for anyone you have doing this.
  • Whatever type of recruiting method you adopt, be very aware that while trade shows and conventions have many people who are squarely in your target market, they also attract your fiercest competitors. It’s essential that your recruiting be conducted carefully, that you look at the badge of each attendee and also ask for a business card to make sure that none of your attendees are spies.

If this is a key customer segment for you, keep in mind that trade shows, conferences and conventions are an excellent source of participants for your future research studies as well. As you are going about your project, use the opportunity to collect cards/contact information of as many people as possible. Sometimes this alone can justify the cost of the study.

Many details

You won’t have the comforts of a traditional facility, so there are many details you need to think through before executing your trade show research study.

Room size: Whether you’re at a hotel or a conference facility, be clear about the type of room you need. The biggest risk is that the room will be too large for the vibe you are trying to create, so get specifics ahead of time and work with the facilities people on-site to get the setup you need. Be sure to allocate time in your schedule to ideally access, but at the very least view, the room the day before so that you can address any issues that arise. We typically invite clients into the room to view but if that isn’t your preference, you can set it up to live-stream into an adjacent room where clients can view.

Food: When you work with a hotel or conference, they will suggest elaborate and expensive food that takes away from the limited time you have available with your participants. Be clear with the catering department about what you need. We usually look for a menu that is simple, that has no odor that could be distracting and that can be consumed easily. We ask for water pitchers to be left on the table (versus a waiter coming around refilling) and request that wait staff not interrupt to ask people if they need anything. Avoid multiple courses and if you opt for a buffet, make sure it’s set up well ahead of time and that you instruct your participants to arrive early to get food. Be prepared for heavily inflated food prices and as you might expect, snacks and breakfast are less expensive than lunch and dinner is most expensive, so consider this when scheduling your groups. You will save money by ordering things like drinks “based on consumption” and can likely get away with ordering less food than what is recommended. Don’t cut too many corners on food, however, because conference attendees will appreciate being fed and good food will set a positive tone for your study.

Equipment and supplies: Don’t assume your hotel or conference room will have what you need. And be prepared to be charged extra for everything. Some hotels will charge as much as $80 for a flip chart so consider shipping one to yourself from Amazon instead. Wi-Fi, projection and any sort of recording is typically available for a fee so consider what you need and prepare ahead of time. An A/V person will usually be available but if you need an extra person to do things like check people in, distribute incentives, take notes or be available for last-minute needs, then plan to bring someone along or hire a local temp.

Signage: Hotel staff are not used to research studies and their unique needs, so you’ll need to educate them. You will need to tell them (and tell again and then confirm) exactly what you want your event to be called and where you want it listed. Otherwise, you risk having a prominent announcement of your study name, client name and study location on the marquees around the convention.

Incentives: You will want to offer your participants some sort of incentive but it can be far less than what you’d offer for a traditional study. We have found that a $100 American Express gift card plus food is appropriate for just about any type of professional, from CEOs to nurses. Call it an honorarium or thank-you gift and know that it is not the primary reason that anyone is coming to your study but will demonstrate that you value your participants’ time and will help with your show rates.

Hard work and creativity

If you have not yet looked to trade shows and conventions for your B2B and health care projects, you may be missing a huge opportunity. They can be some of the best places to conduct research with niche professionals. The benefits are tremendous and while this approach requires hard work and creativity, that’s where we, as researchers, excel. Give it a shot! You won’t be disappointed.