There's a reason that companies see a trade show as a good marketing tool. Instead of trying to maintain relationships at arm's length, you have a chance to actually meet the people you do business with. According to the Center for Exhibition Industry Research, 70 percent of attendees plan to buy products, 76 percent ask for quotes and 26 percent sign purchase orders. Additionally, 88 percent haven't met the company's sales staff in the past year. Shows provide an important opportunity to convert leads into customers.

It pays to prepare well in advance for a trade show.

Here are six things you can do to improve the odds and get solid return on your investment:

  1. Plan your event. First, understand your goals, how you'll reach them and the metrics you'll use to measure them. Are you looking to connect with potential business partners, introduce products, close business or, according to Trade Show Insights, conduct competitive research? You'll want to do some of each, but decide where to focus. To do this, you'll first need to choose the right show. Don't write off smaller regional events; there is less competition and more opportunity to meet with local professionals. Leading trade shows, however, are ideal for announcing new product lines. You'll also have to considering budgeting and training. Companies typically spend three times their space cost on exhibit design, material transportation, carpet rental, phone and Internet access, labor and travel expenses. Create a task checklist and find an employee who knows how to manage event production. Further, communicate expectations to your staff and have schedules so that the booth is always manned, but people can walk the floor and learn. A show is a vital sales and marketing opportunity, and booth staff needs to know how to interact with visitors.
  2. Grab attention. There are many available distractions at a trade show. Brainstorm ways that you can pull people off the floor and into your booth. It might mean a flashy display, giveaways or presentations, but make sure it works by conducting research ahead of time. Attend a trade show and ask attendees what caught their attention most. Also, run promotions, which are more than just giveaways. Start weeks ahead by contacting prospects and customers. Offer show specials, create and distribute booklets of valuable information and make appointments for meetings with top managers. Be sure you're set to offer entry discounts or free passes if available.
  3. Tell a story. People love stories. They are the basis of marketing. Don't go to a trade show armed only with stacks of product sheets; instead, ask the marketing department to develop story scenarios. Stories might be about the company's place in the industry or the development of an important product or service line. Sheffield Company recommends delivering this information through digital screens, printed storybooks and internal staff trained in storytelling. Stories are important, but for many industry players, so are details. Bring along staff who can answer detailed questions. In turn, have them get into nuanced conversations and learn more about customers' interests, and then bring that information to the rest of the company. Staff should keep notebooks so they can track their learnings and the requests they get for eventual follow-up.
  4. Use social media and create content. Social media has brought new possibilities to trade shows. Marketing consultant Rick Whittington recommends creating a video teasing your company's booth and then sharing it on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, along with your booth schedule and location. Post during the event using whatever show-related hashtags seem most relevant. If you decide to create an app for the show, be sure it works offline; Internet connectivity at shows is typically sketchy and expensive. Further, trade shows are a great opportunity to capture valuable content for all aspects of your business. Create a video booth and let customers provide testimonials. Have product marketing staff engage people in open-ended and frank discussions to gather feedback and position yourself against competitors. Develop user stories that, with permission from customers' employers, can provide material for future marketing.
  5. Work the media. Reporters, editors, bloggers and analysts often appear at shows. Make appointments and meet with them when possible. Be sure the press room has sufficient materials so they are aware that you are there. If you have a big name associated with your company, see if that person can be there for press interviews. Keep a look out for attendees with press badges, because many reporters won't bother setting up interviews in advance.
  6. Manage the leads you get. You're going to return with many leads from customers, potential partners, distributors and suppliers. Separate them by type, distribute them to the appropriate departments, and be sure that someone follows up immediately. Otherwise, you're spending a lot of money for connections that disappear. People quickly forget about their experiences.

Has your middle market company ever rented a booth at a trade show? How did you get your business noticed? What did you do when meeting with prospects? Tell us by commenting below.

Erik Sherman is an NCMM contributor and author whose work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, the Financial Times, Chief Executive, Inc. and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch. Sherman has extensive experience in corporate communications consulting and is the author or co-author of 10 books. Follow him on Twitter.