Stepping over laser beams

Tricks of the Trade Show (3) – Strategy: Protect the Family Jewels

February 19, 2014 |  by

Scouts, Spies, and Lies

While you are seeking competitive information at trade shows, you are also being targeted by your competitors. Effective counterintelligence is necessary to avoid spilling the beans.

Some years back, Microsoft’s annual Mobile and Embedded DevCon (MEDC) – a combination of trade show and technical conference – was probably the most important event for Microsoft’s Entertainment & Devices division, regularly drawing over 8,000. Attendees primarily have been developers writing applications for Microsoft operating system platforms. They are looking for sales leads and opportunities.

A small start-up company offering a new mobile systems testing tool sent five people – primarily software developers – to MEDC. The team’s mission was two-fold: Man the booth to showcase the tool to potential buyers while checking out the competition. As part of its pre-planning effort, management told those in the booth how to “tell their story”, demo the product, and answer questions. The scouts were instructed to collect information on direct and indirect competitors’ new product introductions as well as new trends in the mobile testing space. Attendance at the technical presentations was optional.

Alas, things didn’t work out as planned. The booth people tipped their hand, answering sensitive questions about pricing and purchasing targets. A competitor sent their people with their badges turned over to ask probing questions about the start-up’s business plan. The scouts were clueless about what to ask and how to elicit critical information from the competition. The information they gathered was of little value and the opportunity to incorporate findings into strategic planning was lost. For a small company with limited resources, the time and money invested in MEDC attendance was large, the rewards minimal, and the counterintelligence potentially damaging.

Lessons Learned

  1. Know your talking points. Exhibitors must be thoroughly briefed on what they may and may not say to those who visit the booth and ask questions. In many organizations, few people have the same definition of what information is confidential and what is not. It’s a good idea to note the names of people who visit your exhibit frequently, especially if they try talking to different individuals every time they stop by. Any concerns can be discussed at the daily debrief session.
  2. Always be closing. There are always individuals at trade shows who are trying to gather inside information. It’s best to answer “it depends” or “Let’s set up a call so I can understand your needs.” The idea here is to play things close to the vest while setting up a sales call with a potential buyer.
  3. Pay attention. If anyone from your company is presenting at the event, have their material screened by the larger group after they understand the ways that intelligence can be collected. Similarly, send representatives to seminars, presentations and speeches connected with the trade show. Seize opportunities to listen closely to all participants, those on the dais as well as those asking questions. Identify presenters and questioners. Take notes and report back on findings.
  4. Put the puzzle together. For the scouts, a focused and organized approach to gathering intelligence is key. Technical staff is frequently new to intelligence. They need specific assignments and coaching to understand the method of gathering discrete bits of information that can be combined with other clues. At the end of each day you can gather “pieces of the puzzle” in a secure environment and organize for the next day.


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