Attending events with prospects and customers should be a rewarding and fruitful experience for everyone. The hardest part might be the commitment to participate.

Aren’t we too busy? Doesn’t it take effort to plan and attend ‘real’ events? And, no offense, can’t we all just connect virtually?

Yes, yes, and, no offense, we don’t think so.

Meeting customers and prospects face to face is an opportunity to make a lasting impression that can’t be done virtually. In person, you can read someone’s social cues, react to body language, and find common interests that help people bond. Forbes contributor Nick Morgan sums this up brilliantly in his 5 Fatal Flaws with Virtual Meetings.

Consider private customer appreciation events, a company open house, sales meetings, and trade shows. They differ in objective and scope, but they all have this in common: an opportunity to develop your business relationship with customers or prospects.

Whether you’re hosting or exhibiting at an event, finding ways to engage attendees must be at the top of your planning list. This will maximize your investment and improve your measurable ROI.

The Cooley Group knows a lot about audience engagement from our own experience as well as from clients we’ve helped. These are our 7 best ideas for connecting with your audience at a trade show:

1. Use an integrated marketing campaign throughout. Combine print, email, social, and digital channels to reach your audience. Use a personalized (VDP) invitation pre-event to attract attendees. Add a PURL to make it easy to RSVP online. Reinforce these invitations with emails. Create an event FB page and/or a Twitter hashtag.

2. Attract traffic to your booth. Be creative. What would make an audience flock to your display? Promotional items should relate to your business, be something the audience would want, and be branded with your corporate ID. Make giveaways personal. Consider notepads or note cards with registrants’ names (made possible by online registration). And we love this idea of commemorative photos.

3. Add a live presentation or stage a contest. If your budget allows, hire an entertainer to attract an audience – maybe a magician, handwriting analyst, fortune teller, or caricaturist. Rent a game, like pinball or a little putting green. Hold a contest and have several drawings throughout the event to keep people coming back. Cooley has great success with our ‘Golden Ticket’ campaign.

4. Be your most social self. Attendees can be intimidated in exhibitor halls. No one likes being sold to. Come out from behind your display and greet visitors like you would new friends. Show interest in people. Get to know them and why they chose to attend. It will put people at ease.